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NFL draft rumors: Breaking down which positions the Patriots targeted with their pre-draft meetings

Related: Trading up is not the only rumored move the Patriots are exploring

NCAA Football: Georgia Pro Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL Draft will take place in Cleveland later today, and the New England Patriots will be on the clock 15th overall after a disappointing season that saw them finish with a 7-9 record and out of the playoffs. Who will ultimately end up selected to help reverse the Patriots’ fortunes in 2021 and beyond is anybody’s guess, but the team did show at least some level of interest in dozens of prospects over the last few weeks and months.

Let’s take a closer look at those positions to find out which were the most active ones for the Patriots and who they have spoken to according to our meticulous pre-draft tracker — and what this might mean in the grand scheme of things. (SB = Senior Bowl; PD = Pro Day; VC = Video call; W = Workout; O = Other meeting).

Wide receiver: 16

Amari Rodgers, Clemson (SB+PD+VC); Racey McMath, LSU (SB); Rondale Moore, Purdue (VC); Anthony Schwartz, Auburn (VC); Dax Milne, BYU (PD+VC); Connor Wedington, Stanford (PD+VC); Jacob Harris, Central Florida (VC); Kadarius Toney, Florida (PD); Simi Fehoko, Stanford (PD); Cornell Powell, Clemson (PD); Smi Smith, South Carolina (PD); Trevon Grimes, Florida (PD); Sage Surratt, Wake Forest (PD); Brennan Eagles, Texas (PD); Micah Simon, BYU (PD); Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M (PD)

Even with Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne added in free agency, and with former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry only entering his third year in the system, New England still has potential to add wide receiver help via the draft. The team is lacking some high-upside developmental prospects, after all, and could therefore decide to invest a selection in a pass catcher as early as Day 1. But even beyond the first round there are plenty of intriguing mid-round options — some of which previously contacted by the team in one way or another.

Linebacker: 16

K.J. Britt, Auburn (SB); Grant Stuard, Houston (SB); Zaven Collins, Tulsa (VC); Isaiah McDuffie, Boston College (VC); Brandon Browning, Ohio State (PD); Pete Werner, Ohio State (PD); Buddy Johnson, Texas A&M (PD); Ernest Jones, South Carolina (PD); Anthony Hines II, Texas A&M (PD); Ryshard Ashby, Virginia Tech (PD); Isaiah Kaufusi, BYU (PD); Tuf Borland, Ohio State (PD); Justin Hilliard, Ohio State (PD); Joshua McMillon, Alabama (PD); Joseph Ossai, Texas (PD); Curtis Robinson, Stanford (PD)

While Dont’a Hightower is scheduled to return from the Coronavirus opt-out list this year, the Patriots still lack some long-term perspective at the off-the-ball linebacker position. Hightower is already in his 30s, after all, while the depth behind him has looked questionable at times in 2020. Adding a developmental player to possibly one day replace Hightower as the unit’s leader could be one of New England’s goals this draft.

Cornerback: 15

Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse (SB); Benjamin St. Juste, Minnesota (SB); Avery Williams, Boise State (VC); Thomas Graham Jr, Oregon (PD+VC); Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon (VC); Trill Williams, Syracuse (VC); Greg Newsome II, Northwestern (PD+VC); Patrick Surtain II, Alabama (PD); Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech (PD); Paulson Adebo, Stanford (PD); Marco Wilson, Florida (PD); Israel Mukuamu, South Carolina (PD); Chris Wilcox, BYU (PD); Nick Oelrich, Florida (PD); Jaycee Horn (PD+W)

With Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson entering the final year of their respective contracts, the Patriots might look at the cornerback position early in the draft. While the top-tier options such as Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain II, Greg Newsome II and Caleb Farley are intriguing talents with CB1 upside, the class is a deep one beyond those top-tier guys. Don’t be surprised if a cornerback gets added by New England, maybe even in the first round.

Offensive tackle: 14

Teven Jenkins, Oklahoma State (PD+VC); Brenden Jaimes (VC); Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech (PD); Rashawn Slater, Northwestern (PD); Brady Christensen, BYU (PD); Dillon Radunz, North Dakota State (PD); Samuel Cosmi, Texas (PD); Walker Little, Stanford (PD); Stone Forsythe, Florida (PD); Dan Moore Jr, Texas A&M (PD); Jackson Carman, Clemson (PD); Chandon Herring, BYU (PD); Foster Sarrell, Stanford (PD); Carson Green, Texas A&M (PD)

The Patriots appear to be well-set at offensive tackle for the 2021 season, with Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown seemingly locked into the starting positions on the left and right end of the line. However, both of them are headed for unrestricted free agency after this season, which means New England might look to the draft to find some long-term replacements for one or both of them. The names that stand out among the group above are the first-round targets: Rashawn Slater, Christian Darrisaw and Teven Jenkins all could be drafted on Day 1.

Quarterback: 13

Mac Jones, Alabama (SB+PD); Jamie Newman (SB+PD); Kellen Mond (SB+PD+O); Davis Mills, Stanford (PD+VC); Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (PD); Zach Wilson, BYU (PD); Justin Fields, Ohio State (PD); Trey Lance, North Dakota State (PD); Kyle Trask, Florida (PD); Sam Ehlinger, Texas (PD); Ryan Willis, Virginia Tech (PD); Collin Hill, South Carolina (PD); Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern (PD)

Quarterback remains the biggest question mark on the Patriots’ current roster, and they have been in contact with all of the premier passers in this class. New England took a close look at the top-five at the position — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Mac Jones — and also did its homework on the subsequent tiers.

Interior offensive line: 13

David Moore, Grambling State (VC); Samuel Cooper, Merrimack (VC); Alex Leatherwood, Alabama (PD); Deonte Brown, Alabama (PD); Wyatt Davis, Ohio State (PD); Jared Hocker, Texas A&M (PD); Sadarius Hutcherson, South Carolina (PD); Tristen Hoge, BYU (PD); Landon Dickerson, Alabama (PD); Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater (PD); Josh Myers, Ohio State (PD); Drew Dalman, Stanford (PD); Brett Heggie, Florida (PD)

While losing Joe Thuney to the Kansas City Chiefs hurts, the Patriots are in good shape along their interior O-line. That said, with versatile backup Ted Karras on a one-year deal and no other proven depth contributors on the roster, New England might look at one of the players listed above to bring in as developmental depth.

Interior defensive line: 11

Tommy Togiai, Ohio State (PD+VC); Christian Barmore, Alabama (PD); Levi Onwuzurike, Washington (PD); Bobby Brown, Texas A&M (PD); Khyiris Tonga, BYU (PD); Ta’Qhuon Graham (PD); T.J. Slaton, Florida (PD); Jarrod Hewitt, Virginia Tech (PD); Chigozie Nnoruka, Miami (PD); Kyree Campbell (PD); Marlon Dunlap Jr, Florida (PD)

While New England upgraded its interior defensive line during free agency, more depth is always welcome. Players such as Tommy Togiai, Levie Onwuzurike o Khyiris Tonga seem to be natural fits for what the Patriots are doing on defense, and their pre-draft contact with the organization shows that some interest does exist.

Defensive edge: 11

Jonathon Cooper, Ohio State (SB+PD); Cameron Sample, Tulane (SB+PD); Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Notre Dame (SB); Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame (VC); Jaelan Phillips, Miami (PD); Gregory Rousseau, Miami (PD); Carlos Basham Jr, Wake Forest (PD); Quincy Roche, Miami (PD); Patrick Johnson, Tulane (PD); Justus Reed, Virginia Tech (PD); Zac Dawe, BYU (PD)

A deep edge class has seen the Patriots get in touch with multiple of its top-tier members. While players such as Jaelen Phillips, Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. project as early-round picks, others could give New England some developmental upside later during the draft or into rookie free agency.

Safety: 10

Jacoby Stevens, LSU (VC); Devine Deablo, Virginia (PD); Shawn Davis, Florida (PD); Caden Sterns, Texas (PD); Joshua Bledsoe, Missouri (PD); Chris Brown, Texas (PD); Zayne Anderson, BYU (PD); Kavika Fonua, BYU (PD); Brad Stewart Jr, Florida (PD); Donovan Stiner, Florida (PD)

One year after drafting Kyle Dugger in the second round, the Patriots adding another safety cannot be ruled out. While the consensus top safety — Trevon Moehrig out of TCU — is not on the reported contacts list, he is a player to keep an eye on. The same goes for Caden Sterns, who had an impressive start to his college career before being slowed down by injuries over the last two seasons.

Running back: 9

Jaret Patterson, Buffalo (VC); Jermar Jeffers, Oregon State (VC); Javian Hawkins, Louisville (VC); Demetric Felton, UCLA (PD+VC); Kene Nwangwu, Iowa State (VC); Harry Trotter, Kansas State (VC); Travis Etienne, Clemson (PD); Trey Sermon, Ohio State (PD); Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech (PD)

New England appears to be well set at the running back position right now, but with Sony Michel and James White will both become unrestricted free agents next spring. Adding some young talent to develop behind the scenes in 2021 and potentially take over further down the line seems like smart business. While somebody like Travis Etienne will likely not be in the cards, mid-round backs like Jaret Patterson or Javian Hawkins could have some value to the Patriots.

Tight end: 8

Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss (VC); Brevin Jordan, Miami (PD+VC); Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame (VC); Kyle Pitts, Florida (PD); Matt Bushman, BYU (PD); Luke Farrell, Ohio State (PD); Miller Foristall, Alabama (PD); Carl Tucker, Alabama (PD)

After completely rebuilding their tight end group in free agency — New England signed the top-two guys, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — and one year removed from investing two third-round picks in the position, the Patriots have no real need to add another tight end. If anything, the club might go for a later-round option to compete against Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene and Matt LaCosse.

Kicker: 4

Evan McPherson, Florida (VC); Jose Borregales, Miami (PD); Brian Johnson, Virginia Tech (PD); Jack Crane, Wake Forest (PD)

The Patriots re-signed Nick Folk in free agency, but adding a young player to groom behind him — especially after the failed Justin Rohrwasser experiment last year — might be a good idea. Drafting a kicker for the second year in a row might not be a popular move, but it could be a necessary one with Folk already 36 years old.

Punter: 1

Drue Chrisman, Ohio State (PD)

The Patriots have All-Pro Jake Bailey under contract. If anything, they might decide to bring Drue Chrisman or another punter in as a camp leg.

The main question with pre-draft meetings, at least when it comes to projecting what the Patriots will do, is whether or not they mean anything. Let’s take a look back at the last five years to find out how much pre-draft contact actually led to the team investing a draft pick or free agency check in a player.

The process looked different than normal last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to the Patriots having reported pre-draft contact with only two of their 10 draft selections. Guard Michael Onwenu had a virtual meeting with New England, while outside linebacker Josh Uche spoke with New England at the combine. The team did, however, get a close look at second-round pick Kyle Dugger at the Senior Bowl, despite no reported closer contact between the two sides.

In 2019, meanwhile, the Patriots had reported pre-draft contact with four of its 10 draft selections. First-round wide receiver N’Keal Harry, second-round cornerback Joejuan Williams and fourth-round quarterback Jarrett Stidham came to New England on a top-30 visit — something that was very much eliminated the last two years due to the Coronavirus pandemic — while fifth-round defensive tackle Byron Cowart spoke with the team at the Senior Bowl.

Of the team’s undrafted rookie class, meanwhile, one player had some form of reported contact with members of its staff: Terez Hall spoke with the Patriots at his pro day and came to New England on a top-30 visit.

In 2018, the Patriots drafted nine players — five of them had pre-draft contact with New England: first-round selection Sony Michel spoke with the club at the combine, while Duke Dawson, Christian Sam and Braxton Berrios all were brought in for top-30 visits. Furthermore, Keion Crossen was worked out privately by the club as well.

While the team was in touch with the majority of its draft picks, it did not have any reported form of contact with a member of its undrafted rookie class.

In 2017, New England drafted a league-low four men and spoke with half of them before the event: the team brought offensive tackle Antonio Garcia in for a top-30 visit and worked out defensive edge Derek Rivers at the Youngstown State pro day. Both Garcia and Rivers were later drafted in the third round, even though neither made it through his rookie contract before getting released.

Besides meeting with the two future draft picks, New England also had contact with three players who would join the team as undrafted rookie free agents: defensive backs Damarius Travis and D.J. Killing both met with the team at their respective pro days, while defensive tackle Josh Augusta was brought in for a visit.

In 2016, the Patriots were more active on draft day and picked a total of nine players. Of those nine, three met with the team before the draft: wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien as well as cornerback Cyrus Jones. Tight end Bryce Williams, who later signed as an undrafted free agent, also had pre-draft contact with New England.

As can be seen, a sizable group of players picked by the Patriots over the previous five drafts has never had any reported meetings with the team. While 2018 was a bit of an outlier, when it comes to the club’s pre-draft behavior, only limited conclusions can be drawn from New England’s behavior leading into the event.

Of course, every pre-draft cycle is different especially with the Coronavirus still dominating life in the NFL and the country as a whole. That said, the Patriots have tried their best to take a close look at this year’s rookie pool and some of the players listed above should eventually end up in New England.