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Sunday Patriots Notes: Will New England go against the grain in the NFL Draft?

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the rest of the NFL.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Draft week is upon us, which means that the NFL offseason is picking up steam in the coming days leading into the marquee event. In order to clean out the notebook from last week as it relates to the New England Patriots in particular, please enjoy this week’s edition of our Sunday column.

Today, our Sunday Patriots Notes will take a look at the upcoming draft, the recent coaches media availability, and more.

Will the Patriots go against the grain in the draft? Like every draft class this one also has its strengths in some areas, and weaknesses in others. Overall, however, the feeling around the league appears to be that there is a lack of blue-chip talent and players worthy of first-round grades.

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane even went as far as to give a rather blunt assessment: “It’s not great.”

The Patriots might therefore be looking to move down from their 14th overall spot. The idea would be simply: drop a few spots, get a similarly-talented player you would have gotten at 14, and add a few more selections on Days 2 and 3.

However, Bill Belichick and company have been anything but predictable. And while conventional wisdom would suggest this as a sensible approach to the first round this year, fact is that New England has never shied away from zagging when others expect them to zig.

Going against the grain would therefore not be a surprise either. That is especially true given the team’s top needs at cornerback, offensive tackle and wide receiver. There does not appear to be much of a difference between the top few tackles, while the wide receiver group has plenty of players in that late first/early second window; the top wideout — Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba — is likely also a mid first-rounder.

Cornerback, meanwhile, is a bit different with two players clearly standing out among the rest and likely to go before the Patriots are on the clock: Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon. Both might indeed be going in the top-10, at least according to NFL Network lead draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah.

“It’s pretty much a coin flip to see who goes first between [Gonzalez] and Witherspoon from Illinois,” he said during a recent conference call with the media. “With Witherspoon you get a little bit more playmaking, a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more urgent, whereas with Gonzalez you obviously get the size and the speed that’s pretty elite, and he is a real fluid, smooth athlete. I think there’s a high likelihood that both those corners come off the board in the top-10 picks.”

Might the Patriots move up to get one of them, given that both project as tremendous fits for what they do on defense? Nothing can be ruled out, but with teams potentially trying to move down they might go the surprising route and opt for the other way.

Jerod Mayo sees room for growth in Josh Uche: The 2022 season was a breakout year for former second-round draft pick Josh Uche. After two injury-riddled seasons and only four combined sacks, he managed 11.5 quarterback takedowns in his third year as a pro — all over the final 10 games of the season.

Uche again will play a prominent role in New England’s pass rush in 2023. As assistant coach Jerod Mayo pointed out, however, he still has plenty of potential for improvement.

“He definitely has room to grow,” Mayo told reporters at Gillette Stadium last week. “I would say this: Josh is a very, very good pass rusher, a very good one-on-one pass rusher who can do a lot of different things. But I think that he recognizes that he can still get a lot better. He can get a lot better at various aspects of this game. He is a great pass rusher, and hopefully he can build off of what happened at the end of last year.”

Considering that he is entering the final year of his rookie contract, Uche doing so would be good news for his bank account — and for the Patriots defense, at the very least in the short term.

Dont’a Hightower would make a ‘very good coach,’ says Jerod Mayo: Mayo spoke about a variety of issues on Tuesday, from his decision to stay put despite interest from other teams to the future role of linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. He also spoke about a former teammate of his who recently retired: Dont’a Hightower, who officially stepped away in late March after already spending 2022 without a team.

According to Mayo, coaching might be a second career worth pursuing for the 33-year-old.

“I think Dont’a Hightower would be a very good coach,” Mayo said. “When I get a chance to run my own ship, I’ll try to recruit him.”

Hightower himself shared a quasi-reaction a short time later, replying to a video posted by Pats Pulpit’s own Taylor Kyles:

Adrian Klemm is ‘excited’ to work with Cole Strange: Also among the coaches made available to talk to the media last week was supposed offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Klemm not only talked about his decision to return to the Patriots — he already played for them in the early 2000s — but also one of the team’s starters, left guard Cole Strange.

“He’s a guy that gives tremendous effort, super athletic,” he said in his brief assessment of Strange. “It’s important to him. I’m excited to work with him.”Strange was selected in the first round of the draft by the Patriots last spring and went on to start all 17 games. While he did have his rookie growing pains, the arrow appears to be pointing in the right direction for the Chattanooga product.

Bill O’Brien discusses his prior relationship with Mac Jones: New offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien was a popular man last week. While he did not offer a whole lot of insight except from preaching a “clean slate” for his players, he also quickly spoke about his prior relationship with New England quarterback Mac Jones.

“The time I got hired at Alabama [in 2021], he was there getting ready for the draft,” O’Brien said. “I basically met him, he talked to me about the generalities of the offense, and that was about it. I think this time period here ... is when you get to know all the players.”

Jones was leaving the University of Alabama in 2021 and eventually drafted by the Patriots with the 15th overall pick that year. O’Brien arrived in Tuscaloosa that offseason to work as the school’s new offensive coordinator.

Now, the two are joining forces in New England.

The Patriots will again be a premium destination for undrafted rookies... The Patriots have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL when it comes to finding undrafted rookie contributors. Just last year, they turned UDFAs Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell into key embers of their special teams operation.

Success stories such as these make New England a desirable destination for rookie free agents. They are not the only reason why, though: the team also is handing out some nice checks as a recent graphic shared by the NFLPA illustrates (via NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero):

NFLPA/Pats Pulpit

As can be seen, no team handed out a higher average signing bonus in 2022 than New England ($20,000). A one-year snapshot is the smallest possible sample size, but paired with their history of finding free agent gems it paints a pretty clear picture: the Patriots are definitely a premium landing spot after the final round of the draft.

...but they are not projected to add a lot of them: All that said, New England adding plenty of UDFAs this year is not expected. As a recent projection by Over The Cap’s Nick Korte shows, the Patriots are estimated to add only five undrafted rookies this year. They do, after all, have 74 players signed and 11 draft picks in hand.

As pointed out, there are advantages to smaller free agent classes:

[B]y signing fewer UDFAs, these teams may have a positive tradeoff by being able to offer those fewer UDFAs more signing bonus money. This could give them an advantage in outbidding other teams for high priority UDFAs

Either way, New England’s moves will be worth keeping a close eye on throughout the upcoming weekend.

Bonus note: Please consider helping Patriots beat writer Doug Kyed’s family. To end this one on a personal note. Doug Kyed, who has been a member of the New England beat for several years now, recently announced that his 2-year-old daughter, Hallie, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. In order to help the family cover the costs of her treatment, a friend set up a Go Fund Me page.

If you can, please consider contributing right here. Thank you.