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Sunday Patriots Notes: The case for New England trading back in the first round of the NFL Draft

Related: Ryan Spagnoli’s 7-round mock draft 2.0: Patriots find their J.C. Jackson replacement

Jacksonville Jaguars v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

With free agency slowly winding down, the focus within the NFL is starting to shift. First to the league meeting in Palm Springs this coming week, and then to the draft in late April.

And as opposed to free agency, the latter projects to see more action from the New England Patriots. With that said, let’s dive straight into our Sunday Notes.

1. Trading back in the first round the Patriots’ best play in the NFL draft. The Patriots likely have a handful of players they feel worth taking with the 21st overall selection in April’s draft. With several holes on the roster and limited cap space to address those needs in free agency, however, trading out of Round 1 seems like a realistic option for them next month.

The Patriots currently hold seven picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. With pro-ready talent available all over the board on Day 2 of the draft, trading out and accumulating as many picks as possible inside the top 130 may be the best way for the Patriots to bolster the talent at many key spots on their roster — including wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker and the offensive line.

2. Plenty of veteran wide receivers are still available in free agency. The Patriots have been in on a handful of veteran wide receivers this offseason but haven’t been able to enter any bidding wars with other teams due to being a bit handcuffed financially. With the first wave of free agency coming to a close, this is the point in time where the Patriots can act and go out and sign a receiver at a price they feel acceptable.

With Nelson Agholor on the books for a hefty $14.9 million dollar cap hit this season, it is possible the Patriots ride it out with him as their X receiver while also opting to draft a chain-moving, YAC-type through the draft. Even as someone vouching for the Patriots to get younger at the position, however, t wouldn’t shock me if the Patriots make a pre-draft investment to try and upgrade this spot and give Mac Jones a little bit more help, especially on the outside.

Available veterans such as Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Emmanuel Sanders still available would likely all not opposed to one-year, prove-it deals and in turn raise the floor at New England’s wide receiver position.

3. Patience is key at the cornerback position. What was once viewed as the deepest position on New England’s roster, and one of the best in the entire league, has quickly become the group that needs the most help. After the departures of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson all in the last six months, the Patriots have yet to make a big splash at the position this offseason despite signing free agents Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler.

With the rest of the AFC loading up offensively, the Patriots have no obvious way they will counter their competition. Sure, they can take the same route a lot of these teams are and load up at wide receiver to fully maximize Mac Jones on his rookie contract. Alternatively, they could draft a majority of defensive players and load up their second level with youth and speed for years to come.

What we do know is that the Patriots don’t have a true CB1 for the first time since the pre-Aqib Talib days. This lack of star-power and press-man ability on the outside could signal a shift towards more zone coverage in 2022, but the fact remains: patience will be key at cornerback, and thus the New England secondary as a whole.

4. Jonathan Jones is rehabbing well. With plenty of turnover at the cornerback position for the Patriots in 2022, getting Jonathan Jones back in the slot for 2022 will be imperative. That is particularly true after the Miami Dolphins swung a blockbuster trade for one of the league’s best and fastest wideouts in Tyreek Hill this week.

All eyes are therefore on Jones returning to his elite play in the slot. Jones, who missed the majority of 2021 after undergoing shoulder surgery, is rehabbing well and should be ready for all offseason activities.

Jones has been one of the game’s top slot cornerbacks for several years now before his shoulder injury. With the AFC teams continuing to load up at the wide receiver position, the 28-year-old is viewed as the team’s top corner versus speedy wide receivers that will line up primarily out of the slot.

Sunday Patriots Mailbag

The Patriots electing to not re-sign free agent fullback Jakob Johnson was a bit surprising at the time. However, after Johnson’s comments to German media about the Patriots basically not needing his position anymore, it made fans wonder about whether a potential change to the team’s offensive scheme could be on the horizon.

The Patriots have had a fullback on their roster every year since 2009 and have primarily used one in most running situations. With Johnson now in Las Vegas, however, they may try to open the offense up a bit more for Mac Jones and get a more creative than in past years.

The best fit to replace Johnson would be tight end Jonnu Smith due to his versatility and athleticism. The Patriots have to get Smith onto the field in more packages and more consistently; lining him up occasionally in the backfield allows them to be more creative on offense in 2022.

It’s certainly a serious possibility that the Patriots draft a tackle early on in April’s draft. Trent Brown returned to New England on a two-year deal that is heavily dependent on him being on the field while Isaiah Wynn is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Both tackles have proven they can be above average and competent tackles at the NFL level, but staying on the field has been a challenge for both.

Resetting the clock at either tackle spot and developing a player to be ready for 2023 is certainly an option within the top 100 next month — as is adding a guard in lieu of the Shaq Mason trade and Ted Karras’ free agency departure.

This is a good question and depending on whatever way you look at it, there is really no right or wrong answer. As the rest of the AFC continues to load up offensively, the Patriots have stood pat up for the most part to this point at their skill positions. As for cornerback, once viewed as the deepest positional group on the roster has quickly became the most bleak.

However, Mac Jones’ development remains priority No. 1 and getting more explosive at the wide receiver position is imperative this offseason. I would therefore say that wide receiver is a bit more important — especially with the way the rest of the AFC is shaping out. That being said, if the Patriots plan to counter all of these offenses with a scheme of their own, then cornerback may be the play for them.

It all depends on how New England wants to attack the rest of the AFC from a game-plan perspective on both sides of the ball.

It’s not so much the question of whether or not a receiver can come in and be better than the current ones on the Patriots’ roster. That expectation is a lot to put on a rookie’s plate while trying to learn the offense and figure out how to be a pro.

The Patriots do need to upgrade and get younger at the X spot — something they have been trying to do since they took N’Keal Harry in the first round back in 2019. Christian Watson, Alec Pierce and George Pickens all fit the team’s size requirement and are especially intriguing from a speed perspective; all three guys were running sub-4.45 at the Scouting Combine in Indinanapolis.