Coming off a 7-9 season and unprecedented free agency spending spree, the New England Patriots appeared to be in the perfect situation to make some major moves in the 2021 NFL draft. Bill Belichick’s team, after all, had question marks in all three phases but was still in a position to aggressively pursue talent over the three-day college player selection meeting
The biggest need among them, obviously, was the quarterback position. Given the moves made in free agency, and the fact that the Patriots were scheduled to pick higher than they have in the last decade, the timing seemed perfect time to try to fill the biggest hole on the roster and add a new franchise QB to be developed into the eventual starter further down the line.
New England indeed ended up picking a quarterback, and later made some additional moves to shore up other weak spots on the roster. In order to properly evaluate this process of filling needs, however, let’s go back to a position-by-position run-down from earlier this week and compare the players added to the Patriots’ pre-draft roster.
(Needs are assessed on a five-step scale from very high to very low)
Players under contract (3): Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham,
Need: Very high
Pre-draft analysis: As noted above, by far the Patriots’ biggest need is the most important position on the field. While incumbent starter Cam Newton was re-signed to a one-year contract before the start of free agency, his deal shows that New England sees him as a year-to-year player and not necessarily a long-term solution. Jarrett Stidham might turn out to be that after all, but so far he has not looked like an NFL starting quarterback whenever pressed into action over his first two years in the league.
Draft picks: Mac Jones (1-15)
Post-draft analysis: It did not take long for the Patriots to tackle their most glaring need. While they were rumored to be candidates for a move up the board in Round 1, they were able to stay put and still see Jones fall into their lap at No. 15. While it remains to be seen whether or not the Alabama product will take over the starting role from Cam Newton in 2021, the expectation is that he will turn into New England’s QB1 and eventual face of the franchise sooner rather than later.
Players under contract (7): Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White, Brandon Bolden, Jakob Johnson, Danny Vitale, J.J. Taylor
Pre-draft analysis: Bringing back James White via a one-year deal helped address the biggest need in the Patriots’ backfield, but the team might still have to look at the draft to bolster the position for the future. Sony Michel will likely be entering the final year of his rookie deal, while White himself is no guarantee to return after the 2021 campaign.
Draft picks: Rhamondre Stevenson (4-120)
Post draft analysis: While fourth-round addition Rhamondre Stevenson does not project as an impact player in the passing game, he gives New England an option to groom at the early-down running back position and eventually take over for Michel in 2021. With Damien Harris also part of the mix for the foreseeable future, the Patriots are lot more flexible with their decision making at the position now.
Players under contract (9): Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry, Matthew Slater, Gunner Olszewski, Isaiah Zuber, Kristian Wilkerson, Devin Smith
Pre-draft analysis: With Julian Edelman no longer part of the equation following his retirement, the Patriots’ longest-tenured pure wide receiver — i.e. not counting special teams ace Matthew Slater — is former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry. With Harry not having lived up to his draft status over the last two years, however, New England is in need for more talent at the position to groom alongside projected 1-2 punch Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
Draft picks: WR Tre Nixon (7-242)
Post draft analysis: New England ended up drafting a wide receiver, but it is not one that should necessarily be expected to make the roster this year. While Tre Nixon has an intriguing athletic profile and posted some solid production numbers at Central Florida, he will have to prove himself as a Z/slot option against players such as Meyers and Olszewski. The two have the advantage due to their experience, but Nixon will still be given a chance to develop — and even if it is on the practice squad.
Players under contract (5): Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi, Matt LaCosse, Dalton Keene
Need: Very Low
Pre-draft analysis: After getting virtually no production out of their tight end position ever since Rob Gronkowski’s departure during the 2019 offseason, the Patriots made not one but two splashes in free agency: Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — the two best tight ends on the market — were both added to rebuild the position group. They will lead a group that also features former third-round draft picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene as well as veteran Matt LaCosse.
Draft picks: --
Post draft analysis: The Patriots foregoing to select a tight end in this year’s draft was no surprise. The aforementioned additions going all the way back to last year’s draft pretty much sealed the deal on that before the board even began to fall.
Players under contract (5): Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Justin Herron, Korey Cunningham, Yodny Cajuste
Pre-draft analysis: Looking at the 2021 position group the Patriots appear to be well set at offensive tackle: Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown project to be a potent starting duo, with Justin Herron a solid swing option. However, there are some questions. Not only is the depth behind the top-three questionable, both Wynn and Brown are currently scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next year. Offensive tackle is therefore a low-key priority heading into the draft.
Draft picks: OT William Sherman (6-197)
Post draft analysis: Either New England is feeling confident in its offensive tackle group or the board simply fell unfavorable (or both). Either way, they did wait until the sixth round to add to the position. Obviously, the team is set at the starting level with Wynn and Brown, meaning that Sherman will compete for a third or fourth spot on the depth chart — and possibly the chance to succeed one of the current starters should they leave in free agency next year.
Interior offensive line
Players under contract (6): David Andrews, Michael Onwenu, Shaq Mason, Ted Karras, Marcus Martin, Najee Toran
Pre-draft analysis: Even with Joe Thuney now in Kansas City the Patriots are in good shape along their interior O-line. Re-signing David Andrews secured the starting center position, while Ted Karras is an experienced and position-flexible backup behind him and projected starting guards Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason. New England might decide to add some developmental depth, though.
Draft picks: --
Post draft analysis: New England did not add any additional talent to its interior offensive line during the draft, unless the team projects sixth-round pick William Sherman to move to the inside. At the end of the day, even that move would not tip the scales too much: the Patriots have as good a starting three as any team in the league, and an experienced and versatile backup in Ted Karras.
Interior defensive line
Players under contract (10): Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise Jr, Henry Anderson, Byron Cowart, Montravius Adams, Carl Davis, Akeem Spence, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray
Pre-draft analysis: After making plenty of moves along the interior defensive line in free agency — including re-signing Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. — the Patriots have no glaring need at the position group. That said, as New England found out first-hand last season, a team can never have enough able bodies up front.
Draft picks: Christian Barmore (2-38)
Post draft analysis: The Patriots were able to grab arguably the best defensive tackle in the draft by jumping up eight spots in the second round. Barmore has the upside to develop into a long-term piece up front for the team, and in 2021 will be part of a deep rotation. He is just the latest piece of the puzzle, and will thus help New England turn its fortunes around along the interior D-line after what was a disappointing last year.
Players under contract (6): Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Tashawn Bower, Rashod Berry
Pre-draft analysis: The Patriots made some big moves to rebuild their defensive edge recently. After picking Chase Winovich and Josh Uche on Day 2 of the draft in 2019 and 2020, respectively, they also signed Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in free agency this year. The group projects as a solid top-four, but some depth — either of the starting-caliber type or in the high-upside developmental mold — could be added still.
Draft picks: Ronnie Perkins (3-96)
Post draft analysis: New England did not need to add another edge defender early in the draft, but Ronnie Perkins was too good to pass up. A well-built pass rusher that has drawn comparisons to former Patriot Trey Flowers, he will join a healthy rotation alongside the aforementioned fellow offseason additions Judon and Van Noy. There also is a chance that adding him to the equation allows both of the veterans to see more time in an off-the-ball role.
Players under contract (7): Dont’a Hightower, Anfernee Jennings, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Terez Hall, Brandon King, LaRoy Reynolds
Pre-draft analysis: Dont’a Hightower returning form his Coronavirus opt-out is good news for the Patriots’ off-the-ball/move linebacker group, but the long-term outlook remains a question. Hightower is on the wrong side of 30, after all, while the other players listed above have not yet shown that they can properly fill his shoes or serve as starting-caliber players even with him around. New England going after a linebacker early in the draft would not be a surprise.
Draft picks: Cameron McGrone (5-177)
Post draft analysis: The Patriots were not in a position to grab some of the top-tier linebacker talent early in the draft — picking Jones and trading up for Barmore sealed the deal — but they still found a solid developmental piece. Cameron McGrone projects as more of an early-down linebacker in the mold of ex-Patriot Elandon Roberts, but also has the range to be groomed to fill a bigger role further down the line.
Players under contract (10): Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, Justin Bethel, D’Angelo Ross, Michael Jackson Sr, Dee Virgin
Pre-draft analysis: The Patriots have one of the deepest cornerback groups in the NFL, but it could face some major turnover soon. Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson are both in the final year of their respective contracts, and there is no guarantee either of them will be on the roster beyond 2021 — and even that might not be a lock given the trade speculation surrounding Gilmore. New England adding a cornerback in the draft should be expected, and might even happen on the first day.
Draft picks: --
Post draft analysis: Even with Gilmore and Jackson not under contract beyond 2021, New England did not pick a cornerback in the draft. That might have been more the result of the board falling unfavorably than anything else, though. Still, the group’s long-term future remains in question even though it is obviously in good shape for the upcoming season.
Players under contract (4): Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Cody Davis
Pre-draft analysis: One year after drafting Kyle Dugger in the second round the Patriots might again look to add to the position. The retirement of Patrick Chung in combination with Devin McCourty’s comparatively advanced age creates an uncertain outlook: Dugger and Phillips are good players, and McCourty is back in 2021 as well, but adding more talent will be necessary sooner rather than later.
Draft picks: Joshuah Bledsoe (6-188)
Post draft analysis: Sixth-round draft picks can usually not be counted on to make the roster, but Joshuah Bledsoe does offer some intriguing skills to work with: the Missouri product could help out on special teams and as a box safety/linebacker hybrid immediately, thus possibly taking some workload off Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. At the very least, Bledsoe raises the floor at the position.
Players under contract (4): Nick Folk, Roberto Aguayo, Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona
Pre-draft analysis: Bringing back place kicker Nick Folk via a one-year free agency deal was a good move by the Patriots, but they need a long-term option at place kicker to one day take over for the 36-year-old. The punter and long snapper positions, meanwhile, are in terrific shape: Jake Bailey and Joe Cardona are among the very best in the league at what they do.
Draft picks: --
Post draft analysis: After spending fifth-round draft picks on specialists in both 2019 and 2020, New England opted not to do that this year. Instead, the club ended the draft without a specialist added. There is always rookie free agency to do that, though, even though the team was rather quiet early on in the process.
How would you grade the Patriots’ 2021 draft performance?
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