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Quarterback remains the Patriots’ biggest need in the 2021 NFL draft after the first wave of free agency

Related: Patriots set themselves up to aggressively pursue a quarterback in the draft

Syndication: The Providence Journal The Providence Journal / Kris Craig via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Much to the delight of their fans, the New England Patriots struck fast, hard, and often in this year’s free agency period. They issued out lucrative deals to Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, and Matt Judon while adding some key depth in players such as Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Jalen Mills; they also returned long-time cornerstones David Andrews, James White and Lawrence Guy.

The team doesn’t have a glaring hole at any position other than quarterback at the moment, where we are all wondering if Cam Newton has any juice left in his arm. On paper and after their major free agent additions, the team seems poised to be able to make at least a wild card run in the AFC in 2021, if not take back the AFC East division title after last year’s 7-9 record.

Without any glaring holes on the roster for this year, the Patriots don’t have to overpay for a single position in the draft. There are certain spots where adding young talent adds more depth and ability to put players in positions to succeed, though. The team does have some depth issues at certain positions, which Bill Belichick will be trying to fill a year in advance.

Let’s get to the positions I believe are of utmost importance to fortify through the draft.

#1: Franchise Quarterback

Current Roster: Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Jake Dolegala

2022 Free Agents: Cam Newton, Jake Dolegala

The Patriots are entering the draft with the same two quarterbacks atop the depth chart they finished the 2020 season with.

Newton struggled at times with an inexperienced receiving corps that featured a broken-down Julian Edelman (at least for six games), Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, and a revolving door at tight end that did little for the team. The expectation is that Newton will be given the first chance to succeed or fail as the starting quarterback before the team turns to another option. The best chance in 2021 is that Newton is able to at least improve to an adequate starting-level QB because the rest of the roster is good enough to make the playoffs.

Stidham has flashed good and bad tape in the limited sample size he has played over the last two years, so it is difficult to make an assessment on if he is more than a career backup with a decent arm. If Newton is unable to improve despite the upgrade in receiving talent on the roster and the benefit of a full offseason, the team may turn to Stidham although it will have to experience the growing pains that will inevitably follow.

Draft Options: Trey Lance (1st), Mac Jones (1st), Kyle Trask (2nd), Jamie Newman (4th)

The Patriots aren’t in a great position with their first-round pick, and would likely have to give up too much value to move up from the 15th overall selection. I expect Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Justin Fields to all go in the top-10. Trey Lance is a total project at QB with minimal experience as a starter at one of the top FCS programs in the country. He does come with very enticing physical tools, so taking him would be an upside play for the future.

Jones and Trask both present high-floor options with limited ceilings, but at the minimum should be in the competition for a backup job this year. Their experience competing in a very competitive SEC in 2020 should help prepare them for the NFL. Jones had the most success of this year’s class last season, showing an ability to at least be able to break down defenses and get the ball out on time to some degree. I don’t think he’s ready to take over as the starter this year, but could be an option for 2022 and beyond.

If quarterback isn’t a realistic option in the first round, then there’s no point in taking a player until Day Three. Jamie Newman of Wake Forest makes a lot of sense as a developmental QB they can take in the fourth round of the draft with decent physical traits. If the team skips out on a passer in the draft completely, that’s likely means they don’t consider any option in this year’s class as legitimate competition for even a backup job this season.

#2 Outside Cornerback

Current Players: Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson (2nd-Rd RFA tender), Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams, Michael Jackson, D’Angelo Ross, Dee Virgin

2022 Free Agents: Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson (assuming he plays out the tender), Michael Jackson, D’Angelo Ross, Dee Virgin

The Patriots could be in a situation where they lose both their starting outside corners next year. Gilmore is in the last year of a five-year deal he signed ahead of the 2017 season and J.C. Jackson will be eligible for unrestricted free agency should a long-term contract not be reached. It’s also quite possible that the team loses Jackson ahead of the draft, which they will get a second-round pick for.

With a need for someone to play on the outside as early as next year, the team could take a cornerback with a top pick and prepare him for a big role next year.

The Patriots should be fine for covering the slot between Jones, Bryant, and Jalen Mills. All three players can play multiple positions in the secondary, which will allow the team to utilize different matchups. Mills is a longer CB with modest foot speed whereas Jones and Bryant are smaller, but speedier defensive backs that can cover out of the slot against shorter and faster receivers with safety help.

The team drafted Joejuan Williams 45th overall in the 2019 Draft, but he has yet to carve out a role in the secondary due to his poor straight-line speed and tendency to grab. He’s running out of time to justify his roster spot since Jones and Bryant have more overall value to the team and deserve to play over him. The team could be looking towards another option with one of their picks in the top three rounds to address this position. If New England takes a cornerrback early in the draft, it’s likely to fill this upcoming hole.

Draft Options: Patrick Surtain II (1st), Jaycee Horn (1st), Asante Samuel Jr. (2nd), Greg Newsome II (2nd), Paulson Adebo (3rd), Trill Williams (3rd)

This is a good draft for cornerbacks and could be a potential double-dip situation if a quarterback is not in the cards for the team.

Surtain would be a solid Plan B with the 15th overall pick if the team is unable to navigate for its franchise QB. His ability to play both outside and in the slot would be appealing as someone who can get rotated in for Year One before taking over for Gilmore on the outside in his second season.

Samuel is a similar prospect that may present a bit more value as a second-round selection and similar versatility and production numbers as Surtain.

The other CBs listed are long and rangy athletes with upside, but probably need some time to develop. Horn has all the ideal physical traits for a starting outside CB but is a bit slow at processing route combinations from off-man situations and is an inconsistent tackler. There are a few bad habits to try to break, but his length, athleticism, and speed are worth taking a gamble on if the team opts to move back in the first round.

Adebo and Williams also have ideal length, but are more suited to play in schemes that deploy more zones and off-man coverages than what the Patriots do typically.

#3: Offensive Tackle

Current Players: Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Justin Herron, Korey Cunningham, Yodny Cajuste

2022 Free Agents: Isaiah Wynn (if 5th year option is declined), Trent Brown, Korey Cunningham

The Patriots have once again acquired Trent Brown after he left the team to sign a lucrative deal with the Raiders. Without any clarification on how his and Isaiah Wynn’s situation after this season bares out, I consider this position to be somewhat questionable.

As with the cornerback position, the reason this spot is higher up on the list is because New England could be losing both its starters on the outside in the next offseason. However it is ranked lower than CB due to having some workable in-house options to look forward to.

The team does have a solid developmental option in Justin Herron, who looked decent in a small sample of snaps in 2020. He played both left and right tackle at times, which could make him the team’s best option for a swing tackle role. Korey Cunningham has been the team’s last option and has been a healthy scratch for most of his tenure in New England. Cajuste was a third-round gamble in the 2019 Draft that hasn’t seen the field for a single snap yet, so time is running out for him to try to convince the team to keep him around.

Draft Options: Rashawn Slater (1st), Jalen Mayfield (1st), Dillon Radunz (2nd), Teven Jenkins (2nd), Liam Eichenburg (2nd), Alex Leatherwood (2nd), Spencer Brown (3rd)

The draft is somewhat top-heavy at the position, with what I expect at least seven to eight players at the position to go before the Patriots’ second-round selection at 46th overall. Slater is a very low possibility of dropping all the way to 15th and the team doesn’t need to give up value. Mayfield would be a fine option if the team stays put whereas Radunz and Eichenburg would be late first-/early second-round options if the team wants to move back.

Jenkins and Leatherwood do have some serious guard risk due to stiffer lower bodies, which is why they could fall a bit in Day Two. The team doesn’t need to draft an interior lineman early given it is set with the trio of Michael Onwenu, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason with Ted Karras providing depth at all three spots. Depth is good to have at those positions, but the team can wait until Day Three to address that.

Spencer Brown is an interesting case as a long and mean right tackle with solid athleticism, but comes from an FCS program in Northern Iowa. He projects to stick at right tackle, but probably needs a year to develop before being thrown out there.

#4: Inside Linebacker

Current Players: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Raekwon McMillan, LaRoy Reynolds

2022 Free Agents: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan

This is another position where it is hard to figure out the long-term possibilities considering the team could easily sign some extensions and also likes to play a lot of big nickel snaps. With the team transitioning more towards positionless defenders like Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills, Kyle Dugger, and Josh Uche the last two offseasons, a traditional inside linebacker isn’t a big deal. Heck, I won’t even discount the idea of the Patriots extending or re-signing Hightower after the season either.

In a situation where Hightower and Bentley are both walking after the season, however, the team will be projected to start Terez Hall at one of the linebacker spots. Some potential longer-term solutions could be to considered — as could be moving Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings, and/or Uche inside on early downs before unleashing them at the quarterback in passing situations.

Draft Options: Micah Parsons (1st), Zaven Collins (1st), Jabril Cox (2nd), Pete Werner (3rd), Dylan Moses (3rd)

The draft isn’t particular deep at linebacker, but there are quite a handful of Patriot-type linebackers.

Parsons does have some red flags, but has the impact to be a Jerod Mayo-type player who gobbles up everything against the run and can make some plays in coverage as well. Zaven Collins is a Swiss Army Knife linebacker, similar to Hightower, who is an impact player against the run, as a blitzer, and in coverage. Both players have great athleticism for the position, so they also have value in the kicking game as well.

Cox and Moses are atypical fits at the position as they are more of the smaller and speedier types that aren’t as able to take on blockers. Both have room to add some weight to their frame, so there is some projectability on a team that likes its linebackers to weigh closer to 250. Given their abilities to quickly close on the football and potential four-down fit, though, I could see Belichick go for an atypical linebacker pick.

Werner is more like your traditional linebacker with decent enough athleticism to be serviceable in coverage, but he is more useful when attacking the line of scrimmage. While not going to be as versatile as some of the other players listed here, he should be able to replace Bentley in the defense.

#5: Free Safety

Current Players: Devin McCourty

2022 Free Agent: Devin McCourty

McCourty is in the final year of a two-year contract that he signed prior to the start of the 2020 season and is still playing at a high level. However, at the same time the team doesn’t have an option to fill in should he get hurt or eventually move on to other avenues. I would not be surprised if the team elects to keep McCourty around after the season, but he’ll turn 34 just before the regular season starts. With his combination of smarts, athleticism, and leadership, I believe he still has a few good years left in his career.

Draft Options: Trevon Moehrig (1st), Jevon Holland (2nd), Richie Grant (2nd)

Moehrig is probably the closest player to McCourty in this draft due to his long range and experience in a similar role for TCU. He has strong track record of making plays on the ball and forcing turnovers, but can be out of control at times. There is some versatility for him to play some man coverage against backs or slots with Cover 0 blitzes, but that’s not a role he’s going to succeed in regularly.

Holland and Grant are pretty much cut from a similar cloth, although Holland doesn’t have as much range as the other two safety prospects mentioned and Grant is a bit slower at processing the game from back deep. All three players would represent good ball-hawking options in the deep middle of the defense to intercept errant passes in their direction.