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2020 NFL draft: Evaluating the Patriots’ needs and how they can be addressed

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Related: NFL Draft Primer: Patriots three-round big board

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the New England Patriots, the 2020 offseason so far was a period of major turnover: led by quarterback Tom Brady, the team’s list of free agency departures includes fellow 2019 cornerstone players such as linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins as well as center Ted Karras and special teamer Nate Ebner. Meanwhile, safety Duron Harmon was traded while kicker Stephen Gostkowski was released.

Given New England’s limited financial flexibility, the team was unable to replace all of its big-name departures by bringing in veteran players from the outside — either through free agency or trade. Instead, the Patriots will likely look to the draft to bolster the overall depth of their roster and fill remaining holes in all three phases of the game. With that said, let’s go back to an article from last month about the team’s position-to-position needs to find where the current shortcomings lie and how they can be addressed this week.

(Needs are assessed on a five-step scale from very high to very low, while draft targets exclude those that are out of the team’s range such as quarterback Joe Burrow)

Quarterback

Players under contract (2): Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer

Need: Moderate

Even though the Patriots lost the greatest quarterback of all time in free agency, they appear to be comparatively well-equipped to move on without him. Second-year man Jarrett Stidham showed promise during his first season with the team and currently is first in line to take over for Tom Brady in 2020, with veteran Brian Hoyer offering depth behind him. That said, New England could look to the draft for another option to challenge Stidham or at least serve as developmental depth.

Draft targets: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama (1st); Justin Herbert, Oregon (1st); Jordan Love, Utah State (1st-2nd); Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma (2nd-3rd); Jake Fromm, Georgia (3rd); Jacob Eason, Washington (3rd); Anthony Gordon, Washington State (4th-5th); James Morgan, Florida International (5th-6th); Jake Luton, Hawaii (6th-7th)

This year’s draft class draft class may lack players capable of making an immediate impact — only Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa should be seen as potential Day One starters — but it does have some solid depth. Justin Herbert, Jordan Love and Jalen Hurts all offer intriguing skills as potential early-round targets, while Jake Fromm has a high floor as a possible backup behind Stidham. The other players listed are all raw but do have developmental upside.

Offensive backfield

Players under contract (8): Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Brandon Bolden, Damien Harris, Danny Vitale, Jakob Johnson

Need: Very low

The Patriots’ offensive backfield is one of the strongest position groups on the roster, and could play a pivotal role in 2020 and with a new passer under center. The running back spot remained unchanged in free agency, while the team added fullback Danny Vitale to the equation. Vitale could serve as insurance in case veteran James Develin is unable to return from a neck injury that forced him to end the 2019 campaign on the sidelines. All in all, New England’s offensive backfield does have a good level of depth.

Draft targets: Eno Benjamin, Arizona State (3rd-4th); Zack Moss, Utah (3rd-4th); Lamical Perine, Florida (4th-5th); A.J. Dillon, Boston College (5th-6th); Sewo Olonilua, TCU (7th-UDFA)

The expectation is that no selection over the first two rounds will be invested if New England opts to address its running back position in the draft. After all, the team has considerable depth at the position after already picking Sony Michel in the first round in 2018 and Damien Harris in the third last year.

Wide receiver

Players under contract (10): Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, Matthew Slater, Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, Marqise Lee, Gunner Olszewski, Quincy Adeboyejo, Devin Ross

Need: High

Even though their wide receiver group struggled in 2019, the Patriots did not make any big-name additions in free agency: the only moves were signing Damiere Byrd and Marqise Lee. New England will therefore likely turn to a deep draft class at the position to bolster its current wideout depth chart behind roster locks Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry — despite already investing a first-round pick in Harry just one year ago.

Draft targets: Justin Jefferson, LSU (1st); Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State (2nd); Denzel Mims, Baylor (2nd); Jalen Raegor, TCU (2nd); Laviska Shenault Jr, Colorado (2nd); Michael Pittman Jr, USC (2nd); Tee Higgins, Clemson (2nd); K.J. Hamler, Penn State (2nd-3rd); Chase Claypool, Notre Dame (3rd); K.J. Hill, Ohio State (3rd); Van Jefferson, Florida (3rd-4th); Lynn Bowden Jr, Kentucky (4th); James Proche, Southern Methodist (4th-5th); Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan (5th); Malcolm Perry, Navy (7th-UDFA)

This year’s wide receiver class is as deep as any in recent memory. While the Patriots will likely not be able to get one of the top three players — CeeDeeLamb, Jerry Judy, Henry Ruggs III — the depth behind them is impressive, especially on the second day. Don’t be surprised if New England finds a way to get a Round Two selection in order and subsequently target one of the players listed above.

Tight end

Players under contract (2): Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo

Need: Very high

No position on the current roster is as devoid of quality depth than the tight end spot — one the Patriots did not address in free agency. It therefore seems likely that the team will invest in at least on tight end during the draft. Whatever New England will do, the team will likely not head into 2020 with Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo as the only tight ends under contract and risk bringing itself in a similar situation as last year’s.

Draft targets: Cole Kmet, Notre Dame (2nd); Adam Trautman, Dayton (2nd); Brycen Hopkins, Purdue (2nd-3rd); Hunter Bryant, Washington (3rd-4th); Harrison Bryant, Florida Atlantic (3rd-4th); Devin Asiasi, UCLA (3rd-4th); Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri (4th); Thaddeus Moss, LSU (5th-6th); Colby Parkinson, Stanford (5th-6th); Josiah Deguara, Cincinnati (6th-7th)

While this year’s tight end class does lack the high-end talent of last year’s, for example, it does offer some depth in the middle rounds: Cole Kmet and Adam Trautman are the consensus top-two at the position, with the other players listed above all either strong receivers or good blockers but not as well-versed as Kmet and Trautman. Ideally, the patriots would target one of them, but they may have to do some trading to get into a position to pick them.

Offensive tackle

Players under contract (4): Isaiah Wynn, Marcus Cannon, Yodny Cajuste, Korey Cunningham

Need: Low

The team’s offensive tackle depth chart is in solid shape. Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon are locked in as the starters at left and right tackle, respectively, with 2019 third-round draft pick Yodny Cajuste the front-runner to take over the swing/backup role after a year-long stint on the physically unable to perform-list. New England could opt to add more developmental depth with the long-term outlook in mind, though, but the positional need is still comparatively low.

Draft targets: Austin Jackson, USC (1st-2nd); Josh Jones, Houston (2nd); Isaiah Wilson, Georgia (2nd-3rd); Lucas Niang, TCU (3rd); Ezra Cleveland, Boise State (3rd-4th); Prince Tega Wanogho, Auburn (3rd-4th); Matt Peart, Connecticut (3rd-4th); Ben Bartch, Saint John’s (4th); Hakeem Adeniji, Kansas (4th); Saahdiq Charles, LSU (4th-5th); Terence Steele, Texas Tech (7th-UDFA)

As is the case with wide receiver, the Patriots will not be in a position to draft the top options available. That said, the middle round offers some potential developmental upside — with TCU’s Lucas Niang and Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland arguably being the most intriguing options. If New England feels it should invest a mid-round pick on a tackle, those two would be solid targets.

Offensive interior

Players under contract (6): Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Hjalte Froholdt, Jermaine Eluemunor, Najee Toran

Need: Moderate

New England’s interior offensive line remains somewhat in flux, even though the team used the franchise tag on starting left guard Joe Thuney. The 27-year-old’s long-term outlook and starting center David Andrews’ rehabilitation after missing all of 2019 due to blood clots in his lungs, however, will impact how big of a need the interior spots are heading into the draft. For now, the need remains moderate: Thuney is under contract in 2020, and Andrews’ outlook appears to be positive. If one of the two change, however, the Patriots might be willing to add additional pieces to the equation.

Draft targets: Cesar Ruiz, Michigan (1st-2nd); Lloyd Cushenberry III (1st-2nd); Robert Hunt, Louisiana (2nd); Matt Hennessy, Temple (3rd); John Simpson, Clemson (3rd); Damien Lewis, LSU (3rd-4th); Ben Bredeson, Michigan (4th); Shane Lemieux, Oregon (4th-5th); Logan Stenberg, Kentucky (5th); Jon Runyan, Michigan (6th-7th); Danny Pinter, Ball State (6th-7th)

The center position is stronger than the guard spot this year, but the top prospects all offer the necessary versatility to play both positions. Depending on the aforementioned Joe Thuney and David Andrews, the Patriots could opt to target one of them this year — with Ruiz and Hennessy being especially intriguing options due to their noted leadership and high football IQ.

Defensive tackle

Players under contract (6): Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Beau Allen, Deatrich Wise Jr, Byron Cowart, Nick Thurman

Need: Moderate

The Patriots lost Danny Shelton in free agency but invested in Beau Allen as a potential replacement option. The position should therefore be set for 2020, even though its long-term outlook remains somewhat unclear: both Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler are scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next offseason. As a result, New England might opt to add another body to the equation with the future in mind.

Draft targets: Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina (1st); Ross Blacklock, TCU (1st-2nd); Marlon Davidson, Auburn (1st-2nd); Justin Madubuike, Texas A&M (2nd); Neville Gallimore, Oklahoma (2nd); Raekwon Davis, Alabama (2nd-3rd); Jordan Elliott, Missouri (2nd-3rd); Leki Fotu, Utah (3rd); Davon Hamilton, Ohio State (3rd-4th); Larrell Murchison, North Carolina State (4th); Benito Jones, Missouri (5th); Rashard Lawrence, LSU (5th-6th); Darrion Daniels, Nebraska (7th-UDFA)

The Patriots have an affinity for big-bodied tackles that are capable of successfully playing the two-gap role up front. Accordingly, players such as Raekwonn Davis, Davon Hamilton or Leki Fotu could be high up on the team’s draft board — all three bring more than 310 pounds to the equation and could be molded into potential Shelton-type interior defenders.

Outside/edge linebacker

Players under contract (6): John Simon, Chase Winovich, Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Tashawn Bower

Need: High

New England’s number one edge defender from a year ago, Kyle Van Noy, will play in Miami for the foreseeable future. While John Simon and Chase Winovich are quality replacement options, adding another body to the equation — especially considering that the depth behind the two is unproven — seems to be a priority: Van Noy was the Patriots’ best pass rusher in 2019, after all, and a player capable of setting the edge in the running game as well.

Draft targets: K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU (1st); A.J. Epenesa, Iowa (1st-2nd); Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State (1st-2nd); Josh Uche, Michigan (2nd); Terrell Lewis, Alabama (2nd); Curtis Weaver, Boise State (2nd); Julian Okwara, Notre Dame (2nd-3rd); Jabari Zuniga, Florida (3rd); Bradlee Anae, Utah (3rd); Kenny Willekes, Michigan State (3rd-4th); Trevis Gipson, Tulsa (4th); Anfernee Jennings, Albama (4th-5th); Nick Coe, Auburn (6th-7th)

The defensive edge class is a deep one even beyond likely top-three selection Chase Young: K’Lavon Chaisson, A.J. Epenesa and Yetur Gross-Matos would all be quality additions to the Patriots’ defensive front in the first round and give the team some much-needed playmaking ability alongside Winovich and Simon. If the Patriots do opt to tackle the position later on, however, Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes seems to check plenty of boxes the team is looking for.

Inside/move linebacker

Players under contract (5): Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Benley, Brandon Copeland, Brandon King, Terez Hall

Need: Very high

The Patriots lost two members of their off-the-ball linebacker corps during free agency in Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, and will therefore likely address the depth at the position in this week. Signing free agent Brandon Copeland as a Collins-like move option alongside Dont’a Hightower helped, but the team still needs to replace Roberts’ former role and get more athletic overall.

Draft targets: Patrick Queen, LSU (1st-2nd); Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma (1st-2nd); Zack Baun, Wisconsin (1st-2nd); Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State (2nd); Malik Harrison, Ohio State (2nd-3rd); Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech (2nd-3rd); Willie Gay Jr, Mississippi State (2nd-3rd); Logan Wilson, Wyoming (3rd-4th); Tanner Muse, Clemson (5th); Troy Dye, Oregon (5th); Dele Harding, Illinois (5th-6th); Evan Weaver, California (6th)

The off-the-ball/move linebacker position could very well be the Patriots’ target on Day One. Patrick Queen, Kenneth Murray and Zack Baun all project to fit in well with New England’s defensive scheme, and could have an impact from the first day on. If the team wants to wait until the middle rounds to add depth to the group, Malik Harrison or Logan Wilson seem to be intriguing prospects due to their quick processing skills and abilities to attack downhill.

Cornerback

Players under contract (8): Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Justin Bethel, D’Angelo Ross, Lenzy Pipkins

Need: Very low

The best cornerback depth chart in the NFL remains intact for the 2020 season. Led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, the group is as deep and talented as any in the league — both on the perimeter and the slot. While the Patriots could opt to add a low-risk/high-reward player in one of the later rounds or undrafted free agency, the team has no need to do so considering the current depth at the position.

Draft targets: Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State (2nd-3rd); Michael Ojemudia, Iowa (4th); Madre Harper, Southern Illinois (5th-6th); A.J. Green, Oklahoma State (5th-6th); James Pierre, Florida Atlantic (7th-UDFA)

The Patriots have had a video conference with Cameron Dantzler but no reported contact with another member of this year’s cornerback class. New England drafting the potential Day Two selection would be a surprise, though, as the position will likely not targeted before the third day — if at all.

Safety

Players under contract (8): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Terrence Brooks, Adrian Phillips, Cody Davis, Obi Melifonwu, Malik Gant, Adarius Pickett

Need: Low

Even though the Patriots lost Duron Harmon and Nate Ebner, signing Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis should help with the losses. Together with Devin McCourty’s two-year contract extension, New England therefore has only minimal need to address the position in the draft even though he and Patrick Chung are turning 33 in August. Would it be surprising to see the team add another safety? No. Would it address a direct need if doing so? Again, no.

Draft targets: Xavier McKinney, Alabama (1st-2nd); Grant Delpit, LSU (1st-2nd); Antoine Winfield Jr, Minnesota (1st-2nd); Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois (2nd); K’Von Wallace, Clemson (3rd-4th); Alohi Gilman, Notre Dame (5th-6th); Jalen Elliott, Notre Dame (6th-7th)

While Xavier McKinney, Grant Delpit and Antoine Winfield Jr. could all come off the board as early as Day One, the safety group in this year’s draft is more one of long-term considerations than immediate impact. That would fit what the Patriots are looking for, however, and could make mid-round players such as Jeremy Chinn or K’Von Wallace intriguing options — if none of the possible first-rounders are targeted.

Special teams

Players under contract (2): Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona

Need: Very high

The punter and long snapper positions are in the safe hands of Jake Bailey and Joe Cardona, respectively, but the release of Stephen Gostkowski created a void at place kicker. While the Patriots could turn to the open market to fill it — Nick Folk, the third and final replacement for an injured Gostkowski last year, is still available — the draft seems like the best avenue to travel.

Draft targets: Rodrigo Blankenship (5th-6th); Tyler Bass, Georgia Southern (7th-UDFA); Matt Ammendola, Oklahoma State (7th-UDFA), Dominik Eberle, Utah State (7th-UDFA)

New England will likely draft a kicker this year, but only a handful are worth investing a drat pick in. Rodrigo Blankenship is the top option available, and could become an early-Day-Three selection. Behind him, Tyler Bass, Matt Ammendola and Dominik Eberly might be late-round targets or priority free agents.