The 2020 NFL Draft is around the corner, with the New England Patriots carrying four selections on the first two days: their own first-round pick and three more in the third. With a 64-pick gap between their highest and second highest selection followed by five picks within a 15-pick span, we could be in for some wheeling and dealing from Bill Belichick to move up or down the board, or trade into next year. Regardless of how the trades may shake out, the Patriots will be making plenty of selections this week.
Down below are the 10 players who I think are the best long-term fits with the Patriots in some role. The quotes are taken from the various scouting report articles that Bernd, Brian, and I have published on the website over the last six weeks. Each report is linked in the player’s name if you want to want to briefly skim over it a second time before the draft begins.
1. Zack Baun, EDGE/LB, Wisconsin
“Adding a player like Baun to the equation after the free agency departures of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins would not just give the Patriots another layer of depth along their defensive edge — one that seems to be tailor-made for the team’s hybrid scheme — but also improve the position’s long-term outlook: he has the upside and athletic profile to develop into a defensive cornerstone alongside fellow edge defender Chase Winovich for years to come.”
2. A.J. Epenesa, EDGE/DL, Iowa
“Epenesa gives the Patriots a plug and play defensive lineman to add to their front and potentially up to five years of quality cost-controlled play as a movable chess piece on the defensive line. Early on he’ll be limited to playing exclusively at defensive end but as he grows more comfortable in the system could see him taking on more roles such as a sub rusher and a 3-down defensive end.”
3. Joshua Jones, OT, Houston
“What is the best way to ensure that Jarrett Stidham has a smooth landing in the NFL? Elite offensive line play! Jones might not make the OL significantly better as a unit in 2020, but the long term upside is worth a redshirt season since first round picks come with up to five years of team control. The Patriots don’t have a lot of certainty with three players who have missed time to recent injuries or playing through severe pain. Jones can impact the team as an extra blocker at the goal line or against lighter defenses while learning the ropes as a rookie before taking over at the left tackle position in Years 2 or 3.”
4. Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
“Even though Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks are solid depth options behind Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, the two starters’ advanced age creates a need at the position. Adding McKinney would certainly address it, and give the Patriots flexibility at both positions: the Alabama product could fill in as both a deep and box safety, depending on where the team projects his ceiling to be the highest and its need to be the biggest. Long-term projections aside, he could also help the Patriots fill Duron Harmon’s old spot as early as 2020.”
5. Malik Harrison, LB, Ohio State
“New England has an obvious need at linebacker following the aforementioned free agency departures. While Harrison’s skillset entering the NFL does not make him a fit to fill the hybrid roles previously held by Van Noy and Collins just yet, he would give the Patriots a solid developmental option as an off-the-ball defender. His size and athleticism in combination with his abilities as a downhill disruptor certainly would fit in well with how the team uses its players at the position.”
6. Kenny Willekes, EDGE/DL, Michigan State
“The Patriots are comparatively light at the defensive edge with Kyle Van Noy leaving town. While players such as Derek Rivers or Shilique Calhoun could turn into regular contributors, adding more bodies to the equation sounds like a good plan from the team’s perspective. Willekes may not be the flashiest player, or possess the highest upside, but he comes with a solid foundational skillset and would likely be able to help the team in a rotational role as early as his rookie season. Not every mid-round pick can provide that.”
7. Brycen Hopkins, TE, Purdue
“The Patriots’ tight end position struggled mightily in 2019, and Hopkins would give the team a strong athlete who might be the most natural pass catcher at the position in this year’s draft — something the team desperately needs. Add his already strong route running and good ball skills, and you get a player who could have a positive impact on New England’s passing offense from Day One. Again, this is something that the team lacked in 2019 and certainly needs.”
8. Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State
“The Patriots are likely looking for young pass catchers to develop with James White and Julian Edelman both in the final years of their respective contracts. Aiyuk gives the Patriots someone who can impact the game as a return man and a ball carrier as he learns the route tree. The potential four-down impact from the receiver position has to be enticing for the Patriots, especially if they can get at least one pick into the second round.”
9. Rodrigo Blankenship, PK, Georgia
“The opportunity for the Patriots to acquire Blankenship is there, with the team possessing three third-round selections and Chicago’s fourth-rounder. Like with Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri in the past, having a quality kicker makes a huge difference in a close game. Blankenship has the accuracy and leg to be a high-quality place kicker in the NFL for many years. Having a reliable kicker for the next 10 years is a great value for a fourth-round investment and could give the Patriots the edge with games likely to become more tightly contested in 2020.”
10. K.J. Hill, Receiver, Ohio State
“The Patriots receiving corps could use some dependability to have as a safety valve for Stidham and Hill fits that bill. The two things that stick out are football IQ and route-running savviness, which drew the Patriots’ attention at the combine. Hill would immediately compete for the starting slot receiver role as a rookie and eventually hold it down for years after winning the job. His ability to move the chains is something the Patriots could use to sustain drives while the Patriots deploy N’Keal Harry, James White, and Julian Edelman to finish drives in the end zone.”
- Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama | Scouting report
- Ezra Cleveland, OT, Boise State | Scouting report
- Matt Hennessey, IOL, Temple | Scouting report
- Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia | Scouting report
- Cole Kmet, TE, Notre Dame | Scouting report
My biggest criteria for what the team needs isn’t necessarily what holes they could fill in 2020, but rather what potential roster holes could open up next off-season. As opposed to signing or drafting someone outside the system, having that year in a system that has one of the more complex offenses and defenses in pro football would be more beneficial. That’s why you see an offensive tackle, a safety, and three front-seven players in your Top-5.
I would be surprised if the team does not come away with multiple front-seven selections before the 118th pick in the draft. On the defensive line, A.J. Epenesa and Kenny Willekes aren’t speed rushers who can bend the corner but rather guys who will contribute immediately and win with intelligence and technique. That’s the same formula that turned Trey Flowers from a fourth-rounder to the defensive hero of Super Bowl LI and a $90MM contract.
McKinney and Jones, meanwhile, aren’t necessarily needed to contribute in 2020 if the team has good health. Even with good health, both players are good enough that they can contribute if injuries happen at their respective position. Both players would then take over for an aging player in Year Two, with McKinney replacing Patrick Chung and Jones replacing Marcus Cannon. Both the safety and offensive tackle positions aren’t in dire need of young talent, but are expected to become a large need next offseason.
The team will also need to replace Stephen Gostkowski at the place kicker position, although I imagine they have Nick Folk on speed dial if they don’t find one in the draft. Blankenship came to mind immediately since the Patriots have a glut of picks between 87 and 118, which could be a sweet spot to land the Georgia kicker. The Patriots are no stranger to drafting kickers early, taking Gostkowski 118th overall in the 2006 draft.
New England is also still looking to upgrade its tight end position beyond Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo, who were unable to beat out a 39-year-old, one-legged Benjamin Watson for snaps and targets last season. This isn’t a good year for tight ends, with only a couple solid talents in Kmet, Hopkins and Adam Trautman that are projected to come off the board on Day Two. Hopkins is more of a Move/F tight end who benefits more from moving around the formation to generate favorable match-ups, whereas Trautman and Kmet profile more as the in-line/Y tight ends.
After looking at those positions, I added a few guys who can add immediate value and have a ceiling higher than their projected draft round. I intentionally avoided X-receivers with a similar profile to N’Keal Harry and looked more at Z/Slot-type receivers that offered a more complementary skill set to the former top pick. Ironically the best place to look was Harry’s old program: Aiyuk, whose skill set is similar to former Steeler (and one week in New England) receiver Antonio Brown. Aiyuk is a quick and explosive receiver who not only would be the perfect candidate for the Z-receiver role, but can also contribute on punt returns. K.J. Hill, on the other hand, ended up sneaking into my Top-10 because while his upside is very limited, he’s got the perfect skill set for that niche.
The NFL Draft is slated to begin Thursday, April 23rd, at 8:00pm Eastern with the first round. Stay tuned to the Pats Pulpit for coverage of the NFL Draft with analysis of every selection and the undrafted free agent signings.