The Jacksonville Jaguars will draft Trevor Lawrence first overall. The New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers will also go after quarterbacks with the next two picks as well. Multiple teams are already viewed as candidates to move up or down the board via trade, while others have concrete needs that they will likely try to address one way or another.
With one week to go before the 2021 NFL draft there is some level of clarity, or at least rumor surrounding a large number of teams.
Then, there are the New England Patriots.
Everything has been quiet so far at One Patriot Place, at least in terms of reports about the team’s supposed plans. Head coach/general manager Bill Belichick speaking in purposefully vague terms during his pre-draft process and the club having the need to get younger all over the board further complicates the projections with only a handful of days left until the annual college player selection meeting takes place.
Of course, fans and experts alike seem to have a pretty clear plan in mind. After all, one obvious need has not been addressed during what was an aggressive free agency period: New England still has no obvious long-term solution at the quarterback position under contract — something even team owner Robert Kraft acknowledged during a media conference call last month.
Dozens of mock drafts have therefore predicted the team go after one of the top-five quarterbacks either falling into its hands or being a target in a trade up the board. Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and, most prominently, Alabama’s Mac Jones have been the most popular of targets in these scenarios, bug they are all speculative in nature.
Historical precedent tells us the Patriots are not the team to sacrifice considerable future assets to jump other teams that appear to have the need for a quarterback. Unless they are fully convinced in a player’s evaluation and the value he will bring relative to the cost of such a move, they won’t surrender significant draft capital to trade up.
The might move up a few spots, as Belichick himself painted as a theoretical scenario, but a jump to No. 4 or even No. 7? It is not impossible, it just would be somewhat out of character for a team that has shown a different approach to the draft in the last two decades.
This thought was reaffirmed in a recent story by The Athletic quoting Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta. DeCosta, who learned his craft from Ozzie Newsome who himself learned it from Belichick back in Cleveland, spoke about the value of trading down.
“We’ve probably had the most picks over [the past five years],” he said. “I look at the draft and in many ways, I’d have to say, it’s a luck-driven process. If you have more picks, you’re going to hit on more good players. That goes back to a philosophy that I think Ozzie started back in 1996. We started really going after comp picks. We tried to trade back as much as we could in any given round.”
Over the years, the Patriots’ drafts followed a similar pattern. They haven’t traded up in the first round since 2012, when they made two minor jumps to get Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower with the 21st and 25th overall selections. The cost associated with those transactions was minimal compared to the three total first-round picks the 49ers, for example, had to give up to move from No. 12 to No. 3.
As has been said before around here, picking a quarterback is not the Patriots’ ultimate goal in the draft — maximizing value is.
“Whatever rounds we’re officially in, we’ll try to maximize the value and help our team the best that we can,” Belichick said last year.
Value, however, can come in different forms. Maybe mortgaging two drafts is the way to get a difference maker and potential long-term quarterback into the fold. Maybe standing pat and selecting the best player on the board regardless of position is the way to go. Maybe it is driving on a familiar road and moving back a few spots in a trade.
The Patriots could also need help outside of quarterback, despite the position obviously still being the biggest unknown on the roster right now. The cornerback or offensive tackle positions could be targets on Day 1, with starters at both spots headed for unrestricted free agency next offseason. The wide receiver group also could benefit from more high-upside talent, even though Day 2 might be the best time to invest in it.
New England’s recent dry spell in getting high-impact players on board in the early rounds of the draft has put the club in a challenging situation — one that was partially addressed in free agency but that still persists: the young talent on the roster is not where it needs to be, even though some players have shown plenty of promise recently.
As a result of all of this, the Patriots are one of the hardest teams to project this year. The mock drafters or fans may have a concrete plan for them in mind, but New England has never shied away from doing the unconventional.
The fact of the matter is this: With one week to go before the draft nobody has a clue what Bill Belichick and company are thinking right now. Heck, there is a chance even they don’t know yet.
“In terms of just the draft strategy and so forth, things start to pick up here in the next probably — I don’t know — around the weekend or maybe after the weekend in the two or three days leading up to the draft,” said Belichick about his team’s preparation during last year’s pre-draft press conference.
Things can change quickly in the NFL, and New England finalizing its draft strategy will lead to the club exploring some moves or contingency plans in the coming days. As of right now, however, we are still all left in the dark about what those might look like.
Some NFL fan bases might have a clue what their teams will or will not do next week. Patriots fans, as appears to be the norm, are left speculating — and maybe hoping that the team won’t trade up for the seemingly inevitable defensive back in the second round.