First things first, I hope everyone is staying safe. Whether you are safely quarantined, stuck working essential jobs for less-than-grateful civilians, or trying to establish a link between 5G wireless and the ‘Rona, I hope you are healthy and managing to get by as best you can. Luckily for all of us at the Pulpit — writers and readers alike — we have a real sporting event this week! The 2020 NFL draft kicks off virtual style on Thursday, April 23rd at 8 p.m. on a variety of networks, most accessibly ABC and ESPN.
Let’s put our GM hats on and take a stab at how the New England Patriots could (and should) attack the draft.
Below you will find a the strategy that I employed to fill out the big board and mock draft, as well as how I would attack the actual draft. Then you will see my big board for the first three rounds of the draft, and finally a three-round mock draft using the big board I put together that will follow tomorrow. The big board and mock draft were put together using The Draft Network’s excellent Big Board Builder and Mock Draft Simulator tools.
The Patriots are entering the draft (barring any signings or cuts this week) with 68 players signed of a maximum 90 man roster. This does not include Rob Gronkowski, who was just traded to join Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. Following the trade of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have 12 picks in the draft; one first-rounder, three third-rounders, two fourth-rounders, one fifth-rounder, four sixth-rounders, and one seventh-rounder.
I wrote the following in last year’s edition of this article:
While they have technical room on the off-season roster to make all 12 picks and fill out 8 undrafted free agents, that would leave them no wiggle room for trades or signings for the remainder off the off-season... Going through the Patriots depth chart, I count somewhere between 45-47 spots already accounted for. Even if we take the low end and account for some surprise cuts and go with a number like 42-43, they don’t have the roster spots to make 12 draft picks, let alone fill out a robust UDFA class that they love to do... The Patriots very likely do not have the room to make all the picks they currently hold this year, which can actually work in their favor and leads to my strategy: Be aggressive.
This year brings a semi-similar logic. The roster locks look to be in the 40-45 range this year instead of 45-47, and the rosters are expanded by two players (via a practice squad expansion and being able to call up practice squad players each week), but it’s hard to find spots for 12 rookies plus the UDFA rookies that they famously love. As we established last year, the draft is really three to four rounds long and then a bunch of lottery tickets, so we are going to keep our focus to the first two days of the draft, spanning rounds one-to-three. Last year, the Patriots came away with my seventh-ranked Round One option (N’Keal Harry, fwiw A.J. Brown was in my top tier), and got Chase Winovich, a Round Two target on my board, in the third. I was probably too low on Deebo Samuel, while we should be grateful they went with Jarrett Stidham over the suggestions I made for QB.
Now let’s get into the fun stuff.
I’ve compiled a list of 36 players I would be looking to draft were I Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio, tiered out by round. It’s important to note that this list isn’t exhaustive, and specifically in Round Three I focused more on positions than individual players, while listing some players at that position I would find value in. The big board was built among realistic options for them to take at 23 or trade up for (no Joe Burrow, CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Jeff Okudah, etc). Again, the big board is courtesy of The Draft Network. I will give a quick summary of the players I list, but if you would like very in depth reports of any or all of them be sure to check them out on TDN.
We’ll break these 10 Round One targets into three groups. Slam dunks, guys to still be excited about, and the acceptable backup plans.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: All these reports of Tua potentially slipping have me doing my best Jeremy Renner impression. Tua should not make it out of the top-6. Tua should not slip into the teens. Tua should not get into the range of a Patriots trade up to find their long-term QB of the future. But there is enough smoke to that fire that we have no choice but to make the the best possible outcome of the first round. If the team is okay with his medicals, this is a chance to steal a top-5 talent and see the quickest possible turnaround for this franchise. I still think he goes in the 3-5 overall range though.
Zack Baun, EDGE, Wisconsin: Baun is the Kyle Van Noy replacement. He’s such an obvious fit, and is likely still attainable via a trade down that fills in the gap between picks 23 and 87 that the Patriots currently have. Taking him at 23 is still a win, but trading down and still getting him? A slam dunk. Even better, if you do trade down and someone snakes you for him, there are multiple backup plans in that range to still be happy with. This isn’t a situation where you have to take him at 23 because if you miss him you’re screwed. He is the best trade back scenario though.
Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama: I love me some Xavier McKinney. Maybe my favorite player in the class that is also attainable for New England. The Adrian Phillips signing mitigates this need a bit, but I think he’s a Day One upgrade on Patrick Chungs box safety/TE coverage role, and has the skills, smarts, and leadership qualities to be the next face of the defense when Devin and Dont’a phase out. May need to trade up for him, which along with the lower need keeps him below Baun despite being a better overall player to me (though it’s very close).
All three of these picks would elicit A+ grades for me, and a cheap trade up for Tua, trade back for Baun, or being able to sit at 23 and still obtain McKinney would all be A++ worthy.
Guys to Still be Excited About
Mekhi Becton, OT, Louisville: The fourth of the big four offensive tacklers at the top of this class, Becton’s minor off-field issues give him a chance to be in trade up range. I don’t love the value of taking an OT with the first pick given the current roster construction and the retirement of Scar, but if Becton were to fall (or the other three in the Top-Four who are significantly less likely to) and they traded up for him to replace Cannon or kick Wynn inside after a Thuney trade, I would get it and be on board. This would be an A- type move assuming the trade-up cost isn’t absurd and Tua is gone when they do so.
Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor: The highest rising player of the offseason process, Mims is the only consensus second-tier wide receiver (aka. past Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Henry Ruggs) that makes sense in the Patriots room. N’Keal Harry should be a big slot WR who gets manufactured touches and free releases in the slot, so if they are going to invest at the position again they need someone that complements that skillset. Guys like Justin Jefferson and Laviska Shenault Jr. would be extremely redundant on the roster, and even if they move Mohamed Sanu, it would be a tough sell to take the same type of wide receiver two years in a row with your first pick. Mims would be a B+ pick, only because there is a wide receiver we will get to later who I value the same but whose stock has fallen as Mims has risen.
Patrick Queen, LB, LSU: The Round One true off-ball linebacker that I would be on board with. I want to take this time more to say that I am very out on Kenneth Murray. I don’t know what you do with him at the NFL level. He is a freak athlete a la Jamie Collins, so I get the appeal there, but I don’t think he has any of the ball skills Collins has shown. Murray at 23 is my worst-case Round One scenario. Queen would be a B+ grade, both because I think he is a good player and because he is not Kenneth Murray.
A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Iowa: The best option of the Zack Baun backup plans mentioned, Epenesa has steadily slipped from Top-10 guy to mid-first to late-first. A solid pick at 23 or in a trade back, my only issue is I’m not sure of Epenesas fit with the way the Patriots are trending, as bigger ends like Michael Bennett and Deatrich Wise Jr. saw their playing time shrink in favor of the John Simons and Chase Winoviches of the world. Epenesa could be a top talent return to form of that model though, so this would also be a B+.
Acceptable Backup Plans
Grant Delpit, S, LSU: What seemed like a lock to be a Top-5 pick as the next Derwin James, Delpit saw a year filled with injuries and poor tackling and effort. The question is how much the former impacted the latter. I think there is still a good player in there, if not the one we all expected this time last year when he was in every way-too-early mocks top-5. B here.
Cesar Ruiz, IOL, Michigan: This pick looks a lot better if they trade Joe Thuney at some point on draft day, but we’re operating under the assumption that a long-term deal gets figured out, in which case this would be a Round One pick to be an interior offensive line backup year one and replace David Andrews Year Two. A good player and succession plan but not quite the bang for your buck as it would be if they move Thuney and slide him into left guard year one. Also a B.
Javon Kinlaw, IDL, South Carolina: This one deserves a bit of an explanation. Kinlaw is a top-15 talent, but recent reports of knee and hip issues that could be of the deteriorating kind are forecasting a potential fall for the borderline top-10 pick. Every injury situation is different, but drafting a top talent who slips because of injuries at a position of great strain and where you already have depth screams Dominique Easley. The talent is worth the dice roll were he to make 23, but I would be very wary of it, if only for semi-irrational reasons. This would be a B- for me, because I can’t be hurt again.
We’ll split Round Two into two sections, hell yeah and sure. Keep in mind, the Patriots don’t currently have a pick in the second round, so these targets would either need to come as a result of a Joe Thuney trade, a trade up, or a Round One trade-down. The hell yeah’s are guys I’d be willing to do a Thuney trade or trade up for, and the sure’s are guys who would be worth it if you already had the pick via trade down, but not necessarily in a trade up situation.
Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson: See the Mims section above and fill Higgins in as the mystery man. I love Higgins’ game, and I’d still be more than happy with him at 23, but his weird combine of showing up then deciding last minute not to participate and other WR’s such as Mims and Jefferson’s rise has made Higgins a Round Two guy. If he makes it past the first 10 or so picks of the second round, the Pats should be in big-time trade-up mode, assuming they don’t already have a two. This would be an A+.
Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota: Like McKinney, I also love me some mini-Antoine Winfield. Capable of playing in two deep or manning up linebackers, Winfield is more than capable of taking over the Duron Harmon role should Adrian Phillips not pan out or if they want him more on special teams, and can also replace Patrick Chung should the team want to adjust their safety structure to more of a two deep look. He likely goes earlier than people realize, with Round One a possibility, but if he manages to slip this is an A.
Cole Kmet, TE, Notre Dame: Everyone knows the Patriots need youth and talent at the tight end position. Kmet is the best one in a weaker class, with speculation you may need to take him at the back of round 1 or early early in Round Two if you want him. That’s steep for me, but if that proves false and he’s there at the back of the second round, you have a solid starter for the next four-plus years. B+ grade here, only because the numerous Day Two/early Day Three tight end options could save additional assets.
Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU: Another guy who can sneak into Round One, he’s a bit small and stiff to fit the Patriots mold, but the speed and talent is there. Likely doesn’t make it to the range I’d be comfortable trading up for him, so it would likely end in an overpay but inject some much needed speed and spacing into the offense. B+ here as well, and if he managed to fall a bit it looks even better.
Lloyd Cushenberry III, IOL, LSU: The name alone is worth the pick, but if they’re moving Thuney I’d rather them use a more premium pick on someone like Ruiz above, and if they aren’t the talent disparity here isn’t so great that it’s worth trading up for when you can find someone early Day Three. Name is so strong though. B.
Curtis Weaver, EDGE, Boise State: Best of the true EDGE players who should be available in this range, not quite the athlete you would hope for and questions with his motor. A.J. Epenesa backup plan. B.
Joshua Uche, EDGE, Michigan: Undersized to be a full-time EDGE, another guy who can fill the Kyle Van Noy role in the defense. Think the gap between him and Baun is decent, and like the value of some of the late Day Two/early Day Three guys better than a trade up for Uche. If they have a pick late in the second round and he’s still there, a solid value. B.
Michael Pittman Jr., WR, USC: The analytical profile isn’t there for Pittman, but the physical tools are there and his senior season was impressive. An older prospect who is getting some late Round One buzz as we reach peak silly season, would like him a lot better with a third round pick but doesn’t seem like he’s gonna be there. An outside presence and exciting upside keeps him as a B-.
As I mentioned, Round Three is going to focus more on positional groups than specific players.
I think this is the range that makes the most sense for QB’s, given the talent of the second tier guys and the bounty of picks the Patriots have in this round. There is a mistake on the board, as Jacob Eason is my top guy of this group, but the top-3 all intrigue me while Jake Fromm is someone I can easily see them falling in love with. Some are likely to go Round Two, but I like all of them round 3. Eason is the only one I wouldn’t hate late Round Two. A- for anyone other than Fromm at the right price, B for Fromm.
I want to see the Patriots leave this draft with at least three combined wide receivers and tight ends, and wouldn’t hate doubling up at both positions. Round Three is the sweet spot for WR’s given the depth and talent in this class, this is peak value. No excuse not to come away with at least one of the guys in this range. A+ for the right ones, Bryan Edwards being my personal favorite.
Copy/Paste the wide receiver section, Brycen Hopkins would likely cost a trade up, while Devin Asiasi may even be a bit of a reach. Asiasi is my personal preference of the group here, but if they come away with Cole Kmet I would prefer waiting and passing on this group. The talent isn’t as good as the wide receivers, but the need makes up for it. A.
This range makes the most sense to go offensive tackle as well. Groom someone for a year and let them take over for Marcus Cannon next year. Matthew Peart is a monster. Not exciting but forward thinking and smart. A-.
These are more traditional off-ball guys for the most part, who can compete with Ja’Whuan Bentley next to Dont’a Hightower and combine to fill some of Kyle Van Noy’s role. B+.
Hopefully this (very thick) draft primer was enjoyable for you! Come back tomorrow to see a mock draft followed from this board! Feel free to follow and reach out to me on twitter @Ryan_Keiran to see my analysis as the draft unfolds and discuss with me. Also leave a comment with who you would like to see them target in the draft!