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2021 Patriots draft profile: Pittsburgh defensive end Patrick Jones II is a high-ceiling pass rusher

Related: Patriots draft profiles: Daviyon Nixon is a game wrecker along the defensive line

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest issues with the New England Patriots’ defense over the past four seasons is the inability to protect the edges in the run game. The Patriots have cycled through plenty of edge defenders including Derek Rivers, Chase Winovich, John Simon, and Keionta Davis with no real success. Of that group, Winovich and Simon have developed into quality rotational options at the position but haven’t been able to become consistently reliable every-down starters.

The team will therefore continue to have to bolster the edge, because teams will continue to attack that weakness until fixed.

The draft isn’t particularly deep in edge rusher talent, but given the amount that exists at other positions, the Patriots will likely have some Day Two options to consider at the position. Two of those players come from the University of Pittsburgh program: Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver. Of the two prospects, Jones is the more consistent projection to the NFL due to a more well-rounded game and better health.

Let’s take a closer look at him.

Name: Patrick Jones II

Position: Edge Defender

School: Pittsburgh (RS-Senior)

Week 1 Age: 22 (will turn 23 in September)

2020 Stats: 11 games, 42 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 9.0 sacks, 3 passes deflected

Size: 6’4 1/2”, 264 lbs, 32” arms, 79 5/8” wingspan, 10” hands

Expected Range: Late 1st/Early 2nd

Strengths: Jones is a well-rounded defender who can play up against the run and impact the game as a rusher. He has the athleticism and a diverse set of pass rush moves to get around offensive tackles. In his final two years at Pitt, he compiled 24 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks with similar production numbers in both seasons. With multiple years of that kind of production, there is less concern about him becoming a one-year wonder turning into a potential bust pick.

After two solid years during his junior and senior campaign, Jones took his talents to the Senior Bowl last week, where he was one of the best performing pass rushers in the game. He picked up a pair of sacks sacks and four total pressures against other draft prospects. His performance has likely vaulted him closer to the end of the first round, where a team with Super Bowl aspirations may want to draft and develop an edge rusher.

He’s at his best when lined up outside and allowed to go one-on-one with the tackle or an in-line tight end. His athleticism profiles better in a blindside edge rusher role — attacking the left side for right-handed QB and vice versa — than playing the other side. His arsenal of pass rush moves will be useful, whether he uses an inside counter against an oversetting tackle or uses speed rush against a tackle that’s slow to kick outside. That will keep him on the field while he learns how to be a better run defender at the NFL level.

Weaknesses: With Jones, there isn’t much of a projection on how he would perform in a stand-up role, which is what he would play in the Patriots defense. Jones projects better in an even front with his hand in the dirt whereas in New England he would likely be playing more of a standup/outside linebacker role. He has the athleticism and just enough functional length to make it work there if the Patriots remain patient in his development.

Why the Patriots should draft him: Jones would be a target if the team wants to trade down in the draft and still grab an impact front seven player at the end of the first or early second round. The team does not have much playable depth at the edge rusher position and are badly in need of a talent infusion at the position after struggling to replace players like Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Trey Flowers in the past five offseasons. Jones gives the Patriots a potential foundational player in their front seven, which projects to see some major changes this upcoming offseason.

The easiest position to plug and play a rookie is pass rusher, because they will be able to contribute in passing situations. Jones would be able to immediately contribute from that aspect, while the team works on figuring out the best role to use him on early downs. Given that Jones’ best position is playing the right defensive end role (usually the quarterback’s blindside), whether that’s a hand in the dirt or a standup alignment.

Why the Patriots might not draft him: Jones is a complete projection for how he will perform in the Patriots defense. He will be transitioning from a hand-down to a standup role, which might take a couple years to grasp. New England is in a rebuilding phase on both sides of the ball, so that’s not too daunting a concern, but the value is not there with their first round pick (No. 15) and he’ll likely be gone by the time they pick again at No. 45.

Who he has to beat out: The only edge rushers I can project to be in New England in 2021 are Josh Uche — if the team opts to use him that way — and Chase Winovich, and even his roster spot may not exactly be set in stone either beyond his rookie contract. The Patriots will certainly look towards free agency to fill massive holes at the position and Jones would be competing with those guys for a role on the defense.

Expected 2021 role: Jones will be part of a rotation and will be utilized situationally. On obvious passing downs, expect him to be on the field alongside Josh Uche and possibly Winovich as well. That would give the Patriots three players to send after the quarterback with Uche showing that he can be a factor without the big sack numbers in limited snaps. As Jones gets more comfortable on defense, expect to see his snap count on early downs to increase. His role at the end of the season will be closer to a starter workload.

2022 and beyond: The idea is by the end of the 2022 season that Jones develops into either the top or second best pass rusher in the rotation and playing 70-75% of the snaps on the right defensive edge/as a blindside linebacker. It will take some time for him to learn the defense in a different role if asked to play standing up for the majority of his snaps, though.