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#PostPulpit Mailbag: Which NFL Draft prospects will be available at pick No. 15?

Related: #PostPulpit Mailbag: Who should be the Patriots’ next quarterback?

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Instead of sitting down to watch the Patriots open their season in the AFC Championship this weekend, fans across New England are left completing mock draft after mock draft, projecting free agent fits, and, of course, watching Tom Brady play in the NFC Championship.

It’s a strange, new way to spend our time in January. But, if the Patriots themselves find the right free agent fits and put together a strong draft, our future winter weekend schedules might be busier sooner-rather-than-later. So before the offseason completely gets underway in a few short weeks, let’s preview everything that needs to be monitored:

@ISB_Jay Should the first priority for the Pats this free agency, to resign Joe Thuney?

Thuney will most likely not be New England’s first priority, but making a decision on the guard will be the Patriots’ first major obstacle on their checklist this offseason. Thuney, 28, played the 2020 season on the franchise tag — a move that was somewhat surprising last offseason. Throughout his five years in New England, he has established himself as one of the best offensive guards in football. He is now in store for a massive pay day and should become the highest-paid guard this offseason.

The question is will the pay day come from New England or someone else (the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers being two teams to watch)?

The Patriots certainly have the money to extend Thuney but also seem to have a more than suitable replacement already on the roster in Michael Onwenu. With a roster full of holes, the $15 million that would be allocated to Thuney could be best used in other places. If the All-Pro guard would like to stick around in Foxboro, he likely would have to take a small discount to make it happen.

@FatherOfCoins Do we even want any of the players who opted out this season to come back? Time to rip the band aid off and move forward with the youth movement.

For those who forgot, the Patriots’ eight opt-outs were: Dont’a Hightower (LB), Patrick Chung (S), Marcus Cannon (OT), Brandon Bolden (RB), Matt LaCosse (TE), Danny Vitale (FB), Marquise Lee (WR), and Najee Toran (OL). The Patriots asked all eight players to take end-of-the-year physicals last week. We’ve heard that Lee and Bolden are planning to return next season, while a similar decision from Chung, LaCosse, Vitale, and Toran would be no surprise. Things get more interesting with Dont’a Hightower and Marcus Cannon, whose returns both appear to be less of a certainty.

Assuming every one of them does return, the defensive players should be welcomed back with open arms. The Patriots certainly missed Hightower’s presence in the front seven last year while Chung’s versatility would be a strong addition. However, those two veterans might be the only roster locks of the eight. Releasing the 32-year-old Cannon would save the Patriots north of $7 million, while Bolden, LaCosse, Vitale, Lee, and Toran would all need to earn roster spots in what should be a new-look offense.

@thesharksterbos I don’t know much about projected picks, so who is likely to be available at 15?

Draft talk! Before we explore potential prospects, remember that the draft board never goes as planned on draft night. With that being said, we’ll assume pick No. 15 likely lands the Patriots outside of the consensus top four quarterback options (Trevor Lawerence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance). If New England is dead set on taking a quarterback in the first round without a trade up, it will most likely be Alabama’s Mac Jones.

Besides the quarterback position, it would not surprise me to see one of the two Alabama receivers (Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith) available at No. 15. LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase should be the first wide receiver off the board and with another deeply talented wide receiver draft class, Waddle or Smith dropping into the middle of the first round should not come as a surprise. Staying with offensive skill players, Florida’s tight end Kyle Pitts is one of the most dominant players in this draft class and certainly an option.

Moving on to the “less-sexy” options, offensive tackles Rashawn Slater or Christian Darrisaw would fill needs on the offensive line. There are also a bevy of talented front-seven defenders who could be available at pick No. 15, such as Kwity Paye, Gregory Rousseau, Micah Parsons, and Jeremiah Owusu-Kormoah. Cornerbacks Patrick Surtain II and Caleb Farley could also be first-round options. The Patriots’ current roster has so many holes to fill that no position should be ruled out.

@Pats_since_85 After drafting two TE’s last year and the best TE in the draft this year slotted at 15, do they go again? Also, QB, QB, QB, QB!!! Who?

Referring to Kyle Pitts, the Florida tight end should certainly be an option in the first round. Even after taking Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round of last year’s draft, Pitts is one of the most talented tight ends to enter the league in years. He’s a dominant option in the passing game that can line up all over the field, often being referred to as a big receiver.

Pitts is one of the best prospects in this draft and his addition would certainly improve the Patriots’ passing offense. And don't worry about Asiasi and Keene. New England could break out their old two-tight end sets with Pitts and Asiasi, while using Keene in more of a versatile fullback role — like he was used in college at Virginia Tech.

@thechris104 It’s a pipedream but what would the Pats have to give up to land Deshaun Watson?

Watching the Deshaun Watson saga unfold will be the storyline of the NFL offseason (if it hasn't been already). It’s not often that 25-year-old franchise quarterbacks are available to acquire and Houston should be able to get a king’s ransom for him. However, a no-trade clause in his contract could muddy the return, as Watson has power to ultimately choose what team he will land on. But if he does not plan to hold out, Houston can always just hang on to their franchise QB.

So for the fun of hypotheticals, let’s say Nick Caserio does his old friends in Foxboro a favor and agrees to trade Watson to the Patriots. Any package will automatically start with three first-round picks in addition to a player and/or another Day Two draft selection. In New England’s case, a trade package for Watson could look like this: No. 15 and 47 overall in 2021, ‘22 first, ‘23 first, and J.C. Jackson. A player of Watson’s caliber is certainly worth the package for some teams, but it’s a lot to surrender for a rebuilding Patriots team.

@ryanmullzy Of any AFC East team (or AFC if you want to be more broad), is set up for a better offseason than Pats? How to measure “better”? Up to you. Follow up, Pats finished better than 6 AFC teams. Who can they catch next year with a strong off season?

The AFC East could be on the verge of becoming the best division in football. While the Buffalo Bills have proven their capabilities this season, the Patriots, New York Jets, and Miami Dolphins are all set up for strong off-seasons. According to Over the Cap, the Jets and Patriots are projected to have the second- and fourth-most cap space in the NFL entering the offseason, while Miami will have the eighth-most funds available to them. As for the draft, New York and Miami will pick second- and third-overall, while New England sits at pick No. 15. That’s not all for the former either, as Miami has their own first-round pick at No. 18 and the Jets have No. 23 overall as well from the Jamal Adams trade. With loads of cap space and valuable draft capital, a few strong offseason performances could create a four-headed monster in the AFC East.

Exploring the rest of the AFC’s playoff teams, the Bills and Kansas City Chiefs do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. In the AFC North, the Cleveland Browns had an impressive year under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, as the Baltimore Ravens continue to build around Lamar Jackson. The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers were awfully similar to the 2019 Patriots and with decisions looming around Ben Roethlisberger’s future, it appears they are set up for regression in 2021.

As for the AFC South, the Tennessee Titans have found the perfect fit in Ryan Tannehill to pair with Derrick Henry, while the Indianapolis Colts are their own Tannehill away from being a serious Super Bowl contender. The AFC certainly looks like a gauntlet moving forward but remember, this is the NFL. Remember when the Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to be the next great dynasty? Good times.

Rapid fire time:

@skippcoon Is Alex Anzalone a patriot linebacker??? Who are likely targets? Are you excited about Cam being in a taysom hill role?

Luckily for the Patriots, there are several linebackers set to enter free agency that would immediately upgrade their depth chart (if they are willing to pay the bill). Players like Lavonte David, Matt Milano, and Jayon Brown are all molds of the modern day linebacker with strong coverage skills — a skillset no current Patriot player has. They would all be immediate upgrades but could cost nearly $10 million annually or more. Anzalone could be a cheaper option who has been a solid player throughout his four-year career in New Orleans. He is not as good in coverage as the other three, but could be a quality option due to his athleticism.

As to Newton in a Taysom Hill role: No.

@BenMumford1990 What would the Pats have to give up for a Matt Ryan post June 1st trade? Falcons cap issues plus number 4 pick might mean they move on. If you want to make it extra spicy, what if we add Julio too?

A post-June 1 trade would leave Atlanta with dead cap hits of $17.9 million in 2021 and $26.5 million in 2022, but save them $23 million and $15.1 million in cap space in their respective years. New England would acquire the remaining three years, $74.75 million on Ryan’s contract with just $5.5 million guaranteed in 2021. However, any trade for Ryan — and especially Jones — will start with a first-round pick. It could make sense if the Patriots were a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender but they are not. The draft capital is not worth surrendering for the 35-year-old.

@lukeollila What’s a realistic return in a trade for Steph Gilmore? Don’t want to see him leave but BB does what BB does. Jags got 2 firsts and a 4th for Ramsey. Any chance we get anything even close to that?

The Stephon Gilmore situation is different than the Jalen Ramsey one. Ramsey was just 25 years old at the time of his trade whereas Gilmore will enter this offseason as a 30-year-old in need of a raise. Gilmore is set to make just $7.5 million next season as the Patriots accelerated his bonuses each of the last three seasons. A two-year, $31.5 million extension would raise his contract to a three-year, $39 million deal ($13 million annually). If Gilmore wants a longer or most lucrative commitment, that’s when a deal could occur. New England will most likely recoup a second-round pick in any deal, as the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year would most likely have already been dealt last summer or at the deadline if a team was willing to pony up a first-round selection.

@RyanMcD0007 How would you feel about trading pick 15 and Gilmore for pick 10 if Trey Lance was available there?

Another option for Gilmore would certainly be to package him and pick No. 15 to move up in the draft. If New England is to move up, it will most likely be to snag their favorite of the four quarterbacks. If the salary can be figured out, moving back a few spots and acquiring the lockdown corner could be worth it for teams like the Philadelphia Eagles (No. 6), Denver Broncos (No. 9), or Dallas Cowboys (No. 10).

@aimzi7 What should they do about their QB situation?

My answer to this question still changes roughly seven times per day but the belief is that a first-round quarterback is the best way to go. While we wait for the answer, you can check out every single potential quarterback option here.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered in the next mailbag, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!