The Patriots came up short in their return trip to the Super Bowl. To make things worse, they have had more losses than gains so far in free agency. They have a number of areas they might look to address in the draft and with the first round likely to be top-heavy with quarterbacks, some good players have the potential to fall to them.
The Patriots have dealt with some major departures over the last year. It started with pass-rushing linebacker Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich did not show up to training camp in Foxboro last summer and a few days later announced his retirement. It has continued this off-season as the team lost both a pair of offensive tackles in Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming as well as cornerback Malcolm Butler.
The Patriots must have known Ninkovich’s retirement was not far off as they used two 2017 draft picks on players who could contribute in a similar way. Youngstown State’s promising edge defender Derek Rivers was injured early in training camp but will be in the mix in 2018. Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise, however, was able to contribute this season as a defensive end this season. Rivers is a bit more versatile and although he is listed as a defensive lineman on their roster, might be able to fill in Ninkovich’s shoes pretty well. Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans could fall to the end of the first round and be available for the Patriots. He is generally projected higher, but linebackers often fall on draft day. Evans could provide depth as a middle backer behind Dont’a Hightower, but also serve in the Ninkovich role as a pass rushing edge. Evans is extremely explosive, and excellent tackler, and has the speed to play sideline to sideline. Deeper in the draft Arkansas State’s Javon Rolland-Jones could be an excellent fit as well. Rolland-Jones is a monster who destroys blockers. He played defensive end, but at 6’2” 244 may be better rushing the edge from the linebacker position.
The Patriots had three offensive tackles entering free agency this off-season and LaAdrian Waddle will be the only one returning. Once again, the Patriots did a good job of anticipating this and drafted Troy’s Antonio Garcia and UCLA’s Conor McDermott in 2017. They also picked up a rookie free agent in Iowa’s Cole Croston who showed great promise in the preseason and managed to hold a roster spot all year. There are some offensive tackles who could be in play for the Patriots in the first round. Massive UCLA product Kolton Miller is the most noteworthy of them, as the Patriots recently drafted his teammate McDermott. It seems unlikely however that the Patriots will invest a high pick in a tackle with the youth they have on the roster at the position.
Addressing the cornerback position would make the most sense. Although the Patriots addressed the cornerback position in a big way by signing Stephon Gilmore in 2017 and acquired Jason McCourty this off-season, the team could still afford to upgrade this position. Everything about Ohio State’s Denzel Ward screams out Belichick guy. He is fast, physical, and the best man defender in the draft but he will be long gone before the Patriots pick. Louisville’s Jaire Alexander would also be a great fit. He checks a lot of the same boxes as Ward. He plays great in both man and zone, but struggles as a tackler and getting off blocks. Alexander should not be there at that point, but he could if teams are worried about his injury-related performance drop off in 2017, his height, or ig they simply think that he’s not a great scheme fit. UCF’s Mike Hughes and LSU’s Donte Jackson are more likely to be there for the Patriots. Hughes has excellent hips and the burst to make a play even when he appears to be out of position. Jackson lived in press at LSU and is the type of physical player the Patriots covet.
With rumors swirling that Rob Gronkowski is going to retire or get traded, tight end could be an option for the team early. Even if these rumors are not true (which they probably aren’t) the Patriots have had great success in the past utilizing two playmaking tight ends. The top candidates this year at South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert and Penn State’s Mike Gesicki. Both have the size and speed that have made them mismatch nightmares in college. Goedert lined up all over the formation at South Dakota State and made some ridiculous circus catches. Gesicki had some impressive sideline grabs and blew scouts away at the combine. Both would be incredible compliments to Gronkowski.
The Patriots lost Danny Amendola in free agency, but they have a plethora of other wide receivers who could step up. Just the same Memphis’ Anthony Miller would be an intriguing selection for the team. Miller can do a lot of the same things Julian Edelman does. He is effective both in the slot and as a vertical threat on the outside. Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk is another deadly weapon from the slot. A little deeper in the draft Middle Tennessee’s Richie James is small in stature but big in athletic ability. He is a guy that Josh McDaniels could have fun with. James is a guy an offensive coordinator needs to create touches for through screens, reverses, and wildcat plays.
This draft is very deep at defensive tackle and if there is one thing Bill Belichick likes it is a value pick. The Patriots could be tempted in the first round if someone like Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, Florida’s Taven Bryan, or Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne fell to them. Hurst probably should be the first tackle off the board, but was unable to perform at the combine after a heart issue of some sort was discovered. He was later able to perform at his pro day, but this could remain a concern for some teams. Bryan had really one good season of college production but impressed with his athletic ability at the combine. Payne was not much of a factor at Bama until the playoffs, but he flashed enough in the playoffs to draw heavy interest.