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2020 NFL draft rumors: Breaking down who the Patriots expressed interest in during the pre-draft process

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Related: Patriots pre-draft tracker: Keeping tabs on New England’s interviews, workouts and meetings

NCAA Football: Georgia Pro Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Later today, the first round of the 2020 NFL draft will take place in Las Vegas the virtual setting provided by the NFL, and the New England Patriots will be 23rd on the clock after seeing last season end on wild card playoff weekend. Who they will ultimately end up picking is up in the air given their current needs, draft capital, and the fact that the club had some form of reported pre-draft contact with dozens of players throughout all positions.

Let’s take a closer look at those positions to find out which were the most active ones for the Patriots and who they have spoken to according to our meticulous pre-draft tracker — and what this might mean in the grand scheme of things. (EW = East-West Shrine Game; SB = Senior Bowl; C = Scouting Combine; P = Pro Day; V = Private visit; VC = Video call; OM = Other meeting)

Wide receiver: 14

Malcolm Perry, Navy (EW); Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty (SB); Van Jefferson, Florida (SB); K.J. Hill, Ohio State (C); Tee Higgins, Clemson (C); K.J. Hamler, Penn State (C); Denzel Mims, Baylor (C); Henry Ruggs III, Alabama (C); Jame Proche, SMU (C); Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan (C); Michael Pittman Jr, USC (C); Jalen Reagor, TCU (C); Tyrie Cleveland, Florida (C); Aaron Parker, Rhode Island (EW+VC)

The Patriots already invested considerable resources in their wide receiver position last offseason, but as their pre-draft activity shows they are still looking actively for potential upgrades. All in all, the team had reported contact with 14 players over the last few weeks — including potential early-round targets such Henry Ruggs III, Jalen Raegor, Tee Higgins and Denzel Mims. Beyond those four, Van Jefferson and James Proche are names to watch: the former is arguably the best route runner in the draft, the latter a versatile option fitting what New England is looking for.

Offensive tackle: 8

Lucas Niang, TCU (C); Terence Steele, Texas Tech (C); Matthew Peart, Connecticut (C); Austin Jackson, USC (C); Alex Taylor, South Carolina State (C); Ezra Cleveland, Boise State (VC); Josh Jones, Houston (VC); Robert Hunt, Louisiana (VC)

New England appears to be well set at the offensive tackle position heading into 2020, but the current top three — Isaiah Wynn, Marcus Cannon, Yodny Cajuste — have all missed time in the past due to injury. Seeing the team add another developmental option to the table, especially with Cannon turning 32 next month, would therefore not be all that surprising. What stands out is that the Patriots met with plenty of potential early-round options: Lucas Niang, Matthew Peart, Austin Jackson, Ezra Cleveland, Robert Hunt and Josh Jones are all expected to come off the board within the first two days.

Defensive edge: 7

Bardlee Anae, Utah (C); Josh Uche, Michigan (C); Trevis Gipson, Tulsa (C); Kenny Willekes, Michigan State (VC); Alex Highsmith, Charlotte (VC); Ron’Dell Carter, James Madison (VC); Tyshun Render, Middle Tennessee State (OM)

After losing versatile edge linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins earlier during the offseason, the Patriots have shown some level of interest in this year’s edge defender group. Potential early-round prospects such as K’Lavon Chaisson, A.J. Epenesa or Yetur Gross-Matos had no reported contact with the world champions, however, which could mean that the club would rather invest in the developmental mid-round options in actually worked out.

Defensive tackle: 6

Raekwon Davis, Alabama (C); Ross Blacklock, TCU (C); Raequan Williams, Michigan State (VC); Larrell Murchison, N.C. State (VC); Robert Windsor, Penn State (VC); Darrion Daniels (VC)

Despite the free agency departure of Danny Shelton, the Patriots have solid depth at their defensive tackle position. That said, players such as Ross Blacklock or Raekwon Davis would still be good additions in one of the first two rounds. As is the case at the defensive edge, however, the bulk of pre-draft meetings were conducted with more developmental players.

Tight end: 6

Jared Pinkney, Vanderbilt (SB); Adam Trautman, Dayton (C); Hunter Bryant, Washington (C); Stephen Sullivan, LSU (C); Jacob Breeland, Oregon (C); Josiah Deguara, Cincinnati (VC)

The Patriots need to add talent to their tight end group after failing to properly replace Rob Gronkowski throughout the 2019 season. Their list of pre-draft contact reflects this only somewhat, however. While one of the consensus top-two prospects is on the list in Adam Trautman, the other — Cole Kmet — is not. The same goes for potential mid-round targets: while New England has met with Hunter Bryant and Josiah Deguara, other players such as Brycen Hopkins, Devin Asiasi and Harrison Bryant have had no reported contact with the team.

Quarterback: 6

Jake Fromm, Georgia (C); Jordan Love, Utah State (C); Jake Luton, Oregon State (C); Justin Herbert, Oregon (C); James Morgan, Florida International (EW+VC); Ben DiNucci, James Madison (VC)

The Patriots appear to be very much in the market for a quarterback after losing Tom Brady in free agency, and backup Jarrett Stidham having only four pass attempts on his career résumé. New England may have not had reported meetings with the top two passers in this year’s class — Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa — but the team did have contact with some of the other high-round options: Justin Herbert and Jordan Love are expected to come off the board as early as Day One, with Jake Fromm a possible second day target.

Linebacker: 5

Patrick Queen, LSU (C); Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma (C); Logan Wilson, Wyoming (C); Marcus Bailey, Purdue (VC); Mykal Walker, Fresno State (VC)

As noted above, the Patriots’ linebacker corps had to deal with some major departures this offseason: gone are Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, with only Brandon Copeland being brought on board in free agency. It is therefore little surprising that New England has had an interest in the position group via the pre-draft process. Potential first-round targets Patrick Queen and Kenneth Murray have made the list, as have middle-rounders Logan Wilson and Marcus Bailey. All four project to fit in well with the Patriots’ defensive scheme.

Safety: 4

Xavier McKinney, Alabama (C); Jalen Elliott, Notre Dame (VC); Alohi Gillman, Notre Dame (VC); Dayan Ghanwoloku, Brigham Young (VC)

While Xavier McKinney is one of the top-three safeties in this year’s draft, the rest of the players who have had reported contact with the Patriots are all expected to come off the board in the later rounds if at all. What all four have in common is that they are versatile players who would give New England rotational options alongside Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Terrence Brooks and free agency addition Adrian Phillips.

Guard: 3

Jonah Jackson, Ohio State (SB); Solomon Kindley, Georgia (C); Logan Stenberg, Kentucky (C); Shane Lemieux, Oregon (C); Michael Onwenu, Michigan (V); Damien Lewis, LSU (VC); John Molchon, Boise State (OM)

While the Patriots did place the franchise tag on starting left guard Joe Thuney ahead of free agency, and also invest in depth options Hjalte Froholdt and Jermaine Eluemunor over the course of the last year, the future of the position is not set in stone: Thuney could leave either next offseason or even sooner, while the other two bring little experience to the table. Rookies would not help with the latter issue, but they could upgrade the overall depth of the position.

Center: 3

Jake Hanson, Oregon (C); Cesar Ruiz, Michigan (C); Lloyd Cushenberry III, LSU (C)

With David Andrews having spent all of 2019 on injured reserve due to blood clots in his lungs, and with Ted Karras exiting in free agency, the Patriots might feel the need to bring another center in via the draft. Ruiz and Cushenberry are arguably the two best players at the position this year, and could come off the board as early as Round One — in part because they could also line up at guard.

Running back: 3

Eno Benjamin, Arizona State (SB); Darius Anderson, TCU (SB); Joshua Kelley, UCLA (C);

The Patriots have one of the deepest offensive backfields in all of football, so the need to invest in another running back — after spending a first-round pick on Sony Michel in 2018, and a third-rounder on Damien Harris last year — appears to be a small one. New England did meet with some intriguing targets, nevertheless, including potential Day Two selection Eno Benjamin.

Cornerback: 1

Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State (VC)

New England may field the deepest cornerback group in the NFL right now: Stephon Gilmore was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, while Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson both played at a high level. The Patriots also have second-round draft choice Joejuan Williams and slot corner Jonathan Jones under contract, which means that the position is pretty set for 2020 and — with the exception of impending free agents McCourty and Jackson — beyond. The Patriots taking only one reported look at a cornerback is therefore little surprising.

Kicker: 1

Tyler Bass, Georgia Southern (C)

After releasing Stephen Gostkowski earlier this offseason, the Patriots are expected to add a new kicker this weekend — either via one of the later rounds in the draft, or its subsequent free agency. Bass is certainly one of the better prospects available.

The main question with pre-draft meetings, at least when it comes to projecting what the Patriots will do, is whether or not they mean anything. Let’s take a look back at the last four years to find out how much pre-draft contact actually led to the team investing a draft pick or free agency check in a player.

Last year, the Patriots had reported pre-draft contact with four of its 10 draft selections. First-round wide receiver N’Keal Harry, second-round cornerback Joejuan Williams and fourth-round quarterback Jarrett Stidham came to New England on a top-30 visit — something that was very much eliminated this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic — while fifth-round defensive tackle Byron Cowart spoke with the team at the Senior Bowl.

Of the team’s undrafted rookie class, meanwhile, one player had some form of reported contact with members of its staff: Terez Hall spoke with the Patriots at his pro day and came to New England on a top-30 visit.

In 2018, the Patriots drafted nine players — five of them had pre-draft contact with New England: first-round selection Sony Michel spoke with the club at the combine, while Duke Dawson, Christian Sam and Braxton Berrios all were brought in for top-30 visits. Furthermore, Keion Crossen was worked out privately by the club as well.

While the team was in touch with the majority of its draft picks, it did not have any reported form of contact with a member of its undrafted rookie class.

In 2017, New England drafted a league-low four men and spoke with half of them before the event: the team brought offensive tackle Antonio Garcia in for a top-30 visit and worked out defensive edge Derek Rivers at the Youngstown State pro day. Both Garcia and Rivers were later drafted in the third round.

Besides meeting with the two future draft picks, New England also had contact with three players who would join the team as undrafted rookie free agents: defensive backs Damarius Travis and D.J. Killings both met with the team at their respective pro days, while defensive tackle Josh Augusta was brought in for a visit.

In 2016, the Patriots were more active on draft day and picked a total of nine players. Of those nine, three met with the team before the draft: wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien as well as cornerback Cyrus Jones. Tight end Bryce Williams, later signed as an undrafted free agent, also had pre-draft contact with New England.

As can be seen, a sizable group of players picked by the Patriots over the previous four drafts has never had any reported meetings with the team. While 2018 was a bit of an outlier, when it comes to the club’s pre-draft behavior, only limited conclusions can be drawn from New England’s behavior leading into the event. Of course, every draft is different — and the next three days could serve as another reminder of this.