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Sunday Patriots Notes: New England’s biggest questions heading into NFL Draft week

Related: #PostPulpit Mailbag: Who are some late-round cornerbacks to watch for the Patriots?

Cleveland Browns v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

After what seems like years, we have finally made it to draft week. The New England Patriots will look to repeat a successful draft last year, and bring in a strong 2022 rookie class this upcoming week. The Patriots will have the 21st pick in Thursday’s first round and own seven additional selections in the subsequent two days. Needless to say they will be quite busy.

A little peak behind the curtain, before we get started here: Keagan Stiefel and I will be releasing our Top 50 Patriots Big Board soon. We hit on three future Patriots last year, so definitely keep an eye out for that.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into this week’s Sunday Notes.

1. The Patriots’ biggest questions heading into draft week. Ladies and gentlemen, we have made it. After months of preparation, arguments over prospects, thousands of mock drafts, it is finally time to do the real thing. The Patriots are entering the draft with some big questions they will need to answer, and Thursday should already give us a clue of their thought process.

What’s the plan at cornerback? The Patriots have revamped their defense with speedy and athletic defenders this offseason. They typically in the past have liked long, press-man corners on the outside, but with the lack of free agent signings at that position so far, we could be seeing a change of how the Patriots plan to slow down opposing offenses. Andrew Booth Jr., Kaiir Elam and Kyler Gordon are corners that certainly fit their style, but would the Patriots invest pick No. 21 at this position already? Or do they trust their current personnel enough to forgo the position on Thursday?

Offensive line is a big need, but is a first-round pick worth the investment? After the departures of both Ted Karras and Shaq Mason this offseason, the Patriots have a big need at both interior offensive line spots for 2022. Zion Johnson from Boston College is an intriguing option for the Patriots in the first round, but with the Patriots’ recent history of hitting on this position in the middle rounds, could they wait until Day 2 or 3 to address this position? Dylan Parham (Memphis), Cole Strange (Chattanooga), and Chris Paul (Tulsa) are potential mid-round fits.

How committed are they to the new linebacker type? Director of player personnel Matt Groh recently mentioned the development the linebacker position has been going through recently. Will his team also invest in a modern-type player at the position? First-round targets Nakobe Dean (Georgia) or Devin Lloyd (Utah) are candidates to be available at No. 21, but both are smaller than New England’s usual prototype.

Will New England even make a pick at No. 21? Last year, the Patriots waited patiently until Mac Jones fell into their lap to score a steal of a first-round pick at No. 15. With their franchise quarterback in place, there are a lot of direction the Patriots could go at pick No. 21. With just three selections in the top-100 and a lot of depth in the middle rounds of this draft, do the Patriots trade out of their first round pick and accumulate a lot of capital inside the top 100? Typically, the Patriots have X amount of first-round grades on prospects; if none of them fell to them, they would probably prefer trading out of Day 1 to address several needs on Day 2.

2. Looking for the best first-round fits for New England. Who are my favorite fits if New England makes a pick at No. 21? I’d love if Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams fell to them offensively. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson), linebackers Nakobe Dean (Georgia) and Devin Lloyd (Utah), and safety Dax Hill (Michigan) certainly make a ton of sense for with the way they have built their defense for 2022 so far. Also defensive lineman Jordan Davis (Georgia), if he falls into New England’s lap.

3. There is no question the Patriots value the talent at the Senior Bowl. Legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia joined The Athletic Football Show this past week to discuss what prepping for the NFL Draft in New England is like. One of many interesting points raised by him is the Patriots’ approach to finding suitable players.

“The easiest way to do it is look at the all-star games at the end of the year and the number one game is the Senior Bowl,” Scarnecchia said. “You could look at them at really good competition. Usually what you’re looking for there is the one-on-one pass blocking tapes, one-on-one run blocking tapes, and, obviously, the game tapes. From there, I would have a pretty good idea what those players look like.”

The Patriots have been one of the teams that have drafted the most Senior Bowl participants recently; they have selected a total of 49 such players since 2008 and have drafted at least three of them each year since 2013. New England adding another player from the Senior Bowl this draft seems like a safe bet.

So, who are some candidates to look at? Wide receiver Christian Watson (North Dakota State), offensive tackles Trevor Penning (Northern Iowa) and Bernhard Raimann (Central lMichigan), defensive tackles Travis Jones (UConn) and Perrion Winfrey (Oklahoma) and linebacker Chad Muma (Wisconsin) all come to mind.

4. Kevin Faulk makes the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame. Speaking of the Senior Bowl, former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk was honored this week by getting inducted into the all-star game’s own Hall of Fame. A second-round draft pick by the team in 1999, Faulk spent his entire 13-year career with the organization and played a crucial role on its first three Super Bowl-winning teams.

5. DeVante Parker adds a vertical element to the Patriots offense. A lot of buzz this offseason has been about getting more help for quarterback Mac Jones in Year 2, to continue to develop him at a rapid rate. After the Patriots swung a deal with the Miami Dolphins in early April to send Parker to New England, fans could finally breathe and feel more comfortable about the team’s receiving corps heading towards the 2022 draft.

On Thursday morning, Parker met the media for the first time since he was dealt to New England. Among other questions, he was asked what his strengths are and what he can bring to the New England offense.

“High pointing the ball, getting vertical down the field, and doing whatever I can to help the team win,” the 29-year-old said.

As the Patriots look to improve the X-wide receiver position in their offense and allow Mac Jones to take more shots down the field, Parker will be relied on a lot in 2022 to fully maximize Jones’ potential. The wideout also had a positive initial impression of the second-year passer.

“He’s got a good arm on him. He can zip it,” Parker noted after the two spent time earlier this month down in Tampa working with a handful of their teammates. “Mac’s a good quarterback, just the way he throws the ball. It’s not tough — he throws a catchable ball.”

6. Jalen Mills teases the ‘Pat Patriot’ throwbacks for 2022. A few months after the Patriots Hall of Fame announced the team would be bringing back its famous red throwback jerseys, cornerback Jalen Mills gave fans a sneak peak that it could be coming as soon as 2022.

The Patriots haven't worn the famous red jersey, white pant and white helmet combo since 2013 due to the uniform rules implemented by the NFL. But, with the rule changing in 2022 and allowing teams to use multiple helmets, the Patriots plan to bring back the red threads as early as this season.

Bias aside, they are the cleanest jerseys in the NFL.

Sunday Patriots Mailbag

As noted above, there is no telling what the Patriots will do at pick No. 21 but I’ll say this: the best-case scenario would be a lot of quarterbacks going in the top 15. This would allow some premier talent to fall down the board and the Patriots to possibly grab an elite player that may not have been seen as a realistic option to fall to them during the pre-draft process.

To answer your question, though, here are some realistic candidates: Michigan safety Dax Hill, Boston College interior offensive lineman Zion Johnson, Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning and Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. All of them would make a ton of sense for the Patriots given their needs at those particular positions.

Jalyn Armour-Davis out of Alabama is an intriguing prospect for sure. The cornerback position is a top-heavy one this year, but Armour-Davis has a lot of potential to be a steal for a team on Day 2. He’s a long, physical outside corner that oozes with potential but has been hindered by injuries throughout his college career.

As his comparison with Booth Jr., the Clemson product is certainly a much more complete corner and has the résumé to get him the nod over Armour-Davis. However, both prospects would certainly make sense for New England at different spots in the draft.

As always with the Patriots, it all depends on value: is the difference between Booth Jr. and Armour-Davis really as big as Round 1 to, potentially, Round 4? If the team thinks the answer “no,” New England skipping the former to target the latter would not be a surprise.

This is exactly where I stand on their situation at pick No. 21. As mentioned above, if there is a run on quarterbacks, it will likely push a lot of intriguing prospects down the board. However, if people are patient and teams are waiting for QBs to drop, I think the Patriots would not be opposed to moving back and grab more picks on Day 2.

A deal to look at from past years is from 2020, when they traded No. 23 to the Los Angeles Chargers for picks No. 37 and No. 71 which helped them land Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche. A similar trade may be in the plans if New England doesn’t like how the board shakes out and feels moving out and accumulating as many picks as possible inside Rounds 2-4 is the best course of action. That said, it always takes two to tango.