With the NFL draft less than 48 hours away there is plenty of intrigue surrounding the New England Patriots and what they will do especially with their first-round pick. Every option still seems to be on the table at No. 15 overall — from moving in every direction, to staying put, to picking a quarterback, to addressing other positions — which has led to plenty of speculation about what the team will or will not do.
However, that speculation is oftentimes closely tied to preconceived notions about how the Patriots do or do not operate in the draft and which players they may or may not target. So, with that in mind, let’s go through six misconception about New England and the 2021 draft and try to clear them up.
1. “New England does not draft for need”
Draft philosophy is oftentimes presented as two different schools of thought: there is drafting for need and then there is going after the best players available. While those appear to be polar opposites in principle, that is obviously not necessarily the case given that you can address your roster needs while still adhering to the BPA ideals.
The Patriots are generally seen as the prototypical example for a team going after the best player on the board regardless of situation, but, as always, there is much more nuance involved.
For one, the team’s board is not built like those big boards you see published on various outlets leading up to the draft. New England builds it both vertically and horizontally, meaning that players are graded individually on a 1-to-10 scale and then compared to their position groups and every other player in the draft. The real difficulty is comparing a guard rated at 6.8 to a cornerback rated at 6.8; who do you pick if those are the clear best players on the board?
This is where need and positional value can indeed be important factors even for a team such as New England. Time and time again in the draft, after all, the Patriots have addressed future needs: Nate Solder, Isaiah Wynn, James White and Kyle Dugger are all examples of the club not just sticking to its board, but also filling roster holes that will open up at one point in the future.
2. “Bill Belichick won’t give up a future first-rounder in a draft trade”
The Patriots are seen as a popular candidate to make a massive trade on Day 1 and move up the board to grab their quarterback of the future. he team might have to part ways with a future first-round pick as part of such a trade, however, and there is just no way head coach/general manager Bill Belichick would do that. Right? RIGHT?!
No. Well, at least that is not how Belichick operates.
Let’s wind the clock back a bit. In 2017 and coming off their second Super Bowl win in three years, the Patriots had a pretty deep roster across the board. One area of concern, however, was the wide receiver corps’ ability to threaten the deep parts of the field and open things up in the underneath area. So, Belichick and company did something few thought possible: they traded a first-round draft pick for a wide receiver (Brandin Cooks).
Fast forward one year, and the Patriots again did something not projected. Despite the ever-continuing devaluation of the running back position, they invested a first-round draft pick in Sony Michel. Again, nobody really saw such a decision coming.
What this means for 2021 is this: the Patriots do not care about past precedent or conventional wisdom, but rather about getting the best value out of their available capital. If No. 15 and a future first-rounder is seen as a reasonable price to move up the board for a player, Belichick will not hesitate to pay that price.
3. “New England needs to fill its gap on Day 2”
We already spoke about this one the other day, so we will keep things short here. The Patriots have a 49-pick hole between their second- and third-round selections, and the popular belief is that they will prioritize making moves to fill it as best as possible.
Here’s the thing, though: they probably don’t care. Unless a player falls into that range that would present good value in a trade situation, New England will wait for the gap to pass before making its next move.
The team has plenty of flexibility to begin with, and sacrificing some of it in the off-chance that a target player might be available in that area is not necessarily sound business. Waiting for the chips to fall and then make a move or not is the way Belichick and company will approach the second day of the draft — even if that means not making a selection between No. 46 and No. 96 after all.
4. “Mac Jones is the most pro-ready quarterback the Patriots could get”
Let’s get a bit more specific here and talk about the number one target position for New England in terms of perceived need: quarterback. While this year’s board is hard to predict after Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence will go first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the belief is that one or two out of three quarterbacks might slip into New England’s potential trade-up range.
Those passers are Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, and Alabama’s Mac Jones. Out of those three, Jones is often mentioned as the most pro-ready passer and thus the ideal target for New England if it wants to move Cam Newton to second string this year.
Jones has plenty of the tools needed to become a successful quarterback at the next level, and his experience in a pro-style system under Nick Saban cannot be denied. However, an argument can be made that both Fields and Lance are equally ready for NFL-caliber competition: they both have the physical tools even more so than Jones, and are no less experienced when it comes to operating within structure.
Just take what former scout and NFL Network’s lead draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said about Trey Lance during a media conference call last week.
“He had responsibility in terms of protections. He had responsibility in terms of checks. So, he had a lot more on his plate than most guys, especially in his first year as a starter they put a lot more on those guys,” Jeremiah said.
“And then just the variety of offense that they ran, being under center a lot for one thing, which you just don’t see much anymore in college football. A lot of play action back to the defense, those things, full progression reads. He’s played in a complex, complicated system where he had a good amount of responsibility on his shoulders.”
At the end of the day, the jump from the college to the pro level is a massive one for every player regardless of football acumen or past experience. From this point of view, and knowing what other players did in college, it is hard to declare Jones as the most pro-ready out of that group of potential Patriots targets. They all have plenty of work ahead of them if they arrive in New England — just like every other player making the transition from the college game.
5. “The 3-cone drill is the most important metric for wide receivers”
Workout numbers are only one piece of the pre-draft evaluation puzzle, some of them are paid closer attention to than others. In the case of the Patriots and the wide receiver position that number is the 3-cone time. The belief is that New England sees the measurement as the most important metric when it comes to evaluating wideout prospects.
That is not fully the case, though, because the team basically differentiates between smaller and bigger targets.
Smaller players such as Julian Edelman, Deion Branch or Braxton Berrios all have indeed run impressive 3-cone times below 6.8 seconds. New England does not disqualify wideouts just because they are both small and running a slower 3-cone drill: Jeremy Gallon was drafted in 2014 despite a 7.07 number, while Matthew Slater — arguably the best special teamer in NFL history — was brought in even though he had an abysmal 7.31.
Then, there are the bigger receivers. While Chad Jackson’s 6.73 was impressive for a player his size and might have played a role in him getting selected in the second round, N’Keal Harry ran only a 7.05 and was still drafted in Round 1.
At the end of the day, the 3-cone drill alone will not decide whether or not a player will be selected by New England. While the team does prefer its smaller targets to be quicker than its bigger ones, there are more factors at play than one workout drill.
6. “The Patriots won’t make all their picks because they don’t have the roster space”
The Patriots currently have 76 players on their roster as well as 10 draft selections in hand. This means that there would be only four spots left for undrafted free agents for a team routinely bringing in 10-plus guys from the open market after the draft. So, something has to give.
One popular idea is that New England will just sacrifice some of its selections to move up the board. While there is some merit to this idea — the Patriots pretty much designed their roster to trade up for a quarterback — the fact that many players are on the team at the moment does not mean any fewer players will be brought in during the draft, either via selections or trade acquisitions.
Just look at it from this perspective: Do you really think players such as Devin Smith, Nick Thurman, Dee Virgin or Roberto Aguayo are worth holding onto over some cheaper developmental players brought in via draft or free agency? The team will not hesitate to cut any of them or any other player to make room for rookies. Just because the roster is comparatively full at the moment does not mean no moves will be made.
If anything expect the Patriots to have some significant turnover between the draft and the start of their draft pick signing period.
7. “Robert Kraft forced Bill Belichick to trade Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017”
Granted, this has little to do with New England and this year’s draft but with Jimmy Garoppolo trade rumors continuing to swirl around this commonly spread misconception still needs to be addressed. So, here it is: Patriots owner Robert Kraft did not force Bill Belichick to trade Garoppolo in 2017 so that Tom Brady would be kept happy.
The Patriots drafted Garoppolo in the second round in 2014 with the hopes of him eventually becoming Brady’s heir. He did show some promise and would have been a realistic candidate to take over, but Brady simply went onto the most dominant stretch of quarterback play the NFL has ever seen up until this point: 2015 to 2017 Tom Brady was the pinnacle of quarterback play.
With him showing no signs of slowing down and in the middle of an eventual MVP season, Belichick decided to pull the plug on the Garoppolo. He was moved while he still had some value — he would have been an unrestricted free agent the following offseason — and that was all she wrote. Kraft, however, did not intervene or force the trade. Brady did, but not due to anything he said but rather his play on the field.
Belichick experienced first-hand how owner meddling can be a major problem for an NFL team during his stints with the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. Both he and Kraft know this, which is why the idea of the latter giving the order to trade Garoppolo makes little sense.