With the 2013 NFL draft fast approaching, the New England Patriots are in their usual place of confounding the pundits and experts as they attempt to predict what moves Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio, Director of College Scouting Jon Robinson, Football Research Director Ernie Adams and Head Coach/Uber-Executive Bill Belichick make in the upcoming selection of amateur players leaving college. Unlike previous years, the Patriots are short-handed in the draft, having wisely traded a 4th round pick (#126 overall) to Tampa Bay for Aqib Talib and their 7th round pick (#226 overall), but unfortunately trading their 5th round pick (#162 overall) to Washington for defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and their 6th round pick (#197 overall) to Cincinnati for wide receiver Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson.
With picks in the 1st round (#29 overall), 2nd round (#59 overall), 3rd round (#91 overall) and two 7th round picks (#226 and #235 overall), the Patriots have fewer picks than they usually accumulate, as they often have parlayed a single pick into multiple picks. A recent example was when they traded down out of the first round in 2011 sending the 28th pick to the New Orleans Saints for the Saints’ second round pick that year (running back Shane Vereen, #56 overall) and the Saints first round pick in 2012, which was traded up to select defensive end Chandler Jones at #21 overall. Chandler Jones and Shane Vereen for an over-rated, washing-out quickly running back in Mark Ingram? Bill Belichick is likely not passing up that kind of deal if offered by a general manager desperate to trade into the first round.
Those kind of deals have infuriated fans in the past, but the example above is simply the latest example of the savvy, long-term deals that the Patriots have had success with in the past. After a string of terrible drafts (2006 to 2009) decimated the Patriots’ depth, the team has turned things around dramatically on draft day the past three years adding an infusion of young playmakers on both sides of the ball which has allowed for the continued dominance of the AFC.
In the 2010 draft, the Patriots front-office hit home-runs with cornerback/safety (and defensive captain) Devin McCourty in the first round, tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second round, and tight end Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round. Add in linebackers Jermaine Cunningham (contributions in spurts at last in 2012) and Brandon Spikes in the second round, and punter Zoltan Mesko in the 5th round, and this draft added five starters and a key reserve. In addition, another key reserve in defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick was added in the seventh round that draft.
In 2011, the Patriots added starting left tackle Nate Solder in the first round, top two running backs Steven Ridley (3rd round) and top backup and likely third down back Shane Vereen (2nd round) adding three key pieces to their offense. They continued to add to the offense with back-up offensive guard/tackle Marcus Cannon in the fifth round and back-up quarterback Ryan Mallett in the third round. Surprisingly, although littered with needs on defense, the Patriots only added cornerback Ras-I Dowling with the first pick of the second round (other than flyers in the sixth and seventh round that never panned out) on the defensive side. Dowling, of course, after starting the first game of the season after missing most of training camp, has hardly set foot on the field the last two seasons.
Finally, last season the Patriots continued to add solid depth to the team where the need was greatest, finally addressing the defense on all but one late-round pick. First round picks defensive end Chandler Jones started strong and looked like a future star before injuries derailed him late in the season. After a slow start, the other first round pick Dont’a Hightower stepped in and looked like a potential stalwart at linebacker next to captain Jerod Mayo. Surprise second round pick Tavon Wilson looked, well, like a rookie at safety at times, but flashed the athleticism and playmaking abilities (four interceptions) that made him a top 50 draft pick. Seventh round pick Alfonzo Dennard was the surprise star of the draft at cornerback, where his size and physical ability to match-up with opposing wide receivers made him a great compliment to Aqib Talib at cornerback outside.
Third round defensive end Jake Bequette out of Arkansas barely found the field, and was surprisingly taking a redshirt season, which calls into question his ability to make the team in 2013 and contribute opposite Chandler Jones. As the 90th pick of the draft, Bequette was expected to do more than be a blocking dummy for the offensive line at practice, but instead spent the season watching other rookies contribute. Sixth round pick (another move shocking analysts like Mel Kiper Jr.) special teamer Nate Ebner, after a hiccup in week two allowing a blocked punt versus Arizona, was the special teams ace that coach Bill Belichick wanted all along. Seventh-round pick and the only offensive player drafted, wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, failed to make the team and ended up bouncing around to the practice squad and failed to contribute on Sundays.
With only five selections this year, expectations regarding the Patriots lean towards them trading back in the first three rounds of the draft and accumulating multiple draft picks, especially without any picks in the 4th through 6th rounds. As always, the Patriots remain completely unpredictable in their intentions on draft day. Is this another season like in the 2012 draft where the defense was the focus? Do they follow the 2011 plan and reload on offense? Is there a first round wide receiver in their plans?
One thing is certain, the team still has needs it continues to need to fill in the off-season. On defense, the Patriots have a continuing need for a young defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork. With Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, and the already-released Myron Pryor unable to grab the starting defensive tackle spot, there is a potential need in a draft deep in defensive tackles to find a long-term option. With Wilfork in his 30s and a need at every position, the Patriots are going to need a replacement eventually and like when they picked Wilfork in 2004, they have the option of taking the best available player regardless of the position.
In addition, the Patriots could use a another young defensive end to rush the passer opposite last year’s first-half of the season rookie sensation defensive end Chandler Jones. While Rob Ninkovich has added some value the last two seasons, he is not an elite pass rusher. In addition, Ninkovich is versatile enough to find enough snaps at linebacker so as not to devalue him if he’s not starting at defensive end. With the Patriots flirting with–but not signing–veterans John Abraham and Dwight Freeney this off-season, the team recognizes the need for a pass rush specialist opposite Jones. If a top pash rush defensive end drops in the draft, do not discount the Patriots being aggressive like last year in the draft to get the bookend opposite Chandler Jones and help create mayhem in the opponent’s backfield.
A coverage linebacker is a desperate need as the Patriots defense has had problems covering tight ends and running backs with none of their three starters are known for their coverage skills. In addition, linebacker Brandon Spikes is entering the last year of his rookie deal and with his lack of coverage skills, off-field shenanigans, and expected salary increase on the open market, searching for a replacement may be necessary.
Also necessary is continued help in the secondary which is thin at cornerback and could use a talented coverage cornerback with Aqib Talib on a one year deal. Back-up cornerback Ras-I Dowling has spent the past two seasons on injured reserve and is hardly a lock to make the team, let alone provide quality depth for a position that had multiple problems last season. Moving Devin McCourty back to cornerback could alleviate some concern at cornerback, but potentially create a need to find another safety. With the draft deep at cornerback, this could be a position where the Patriots find the long-term solution that has eluded them (after numerous high draft picks at the position over the years) since cornerback Asante Samuel left as a free agent after 2007.
The Patriots could look for help at safety again with the position manned by a cornerback (Devin McCourty), a surprise second-round pick last season (Tavon Wilson), a 35-year old free agent (Adrian Wilson), and last year’s inconsistent free agent (Steven Gregory) who carries a high cap number ($2.5 million) which hardly makes him a lock to make the squad and return next season. While likely a position that could be looked at in the later rounds, the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick have never been shy about continuing to draft players at the same position each year until he gets the right players there.
On offense, a top-three round pick has been spent on a quarterback twice in the past five years (Ryan Mallett, Kevin O’Connell), so trading back-up quarterback Ryan Mallett to a quarterback needy team on draft day and drafting a replacement is not outside the realm of possibility. Although unlikely, as the Patriots learned in 2008, a quality back-up quarterback is necessary and the team will do what it needs to do get the right insurance policy for quarterback Tom Brady.
At running back, the Patriots have already loaded up in the 2011 draft taking start running back Steven Ridley in the third round and top back-up/potential third down back Shane Vereen in the second round. Undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden looked like a steal last season until his suspension for performance enhancing drugs derailed his rookie season. Bolden should be back in a regular back-up role to Ridley to spell him and power over tired defenses. The Patriots signed free agent Leon Washington to be a special teams contributor and possibly depth as a third down back, although his role has been limited these last few years at running back. Another rookie free agent is likely to come in and compete for a role, but as they did in 2011, a running back is always a possible pick by the Patriots in the draft.
On the offensive line, the Patriots seem set with having recently drafted future long-term left tackle Nate Solder and re-signing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer this off-season. Add in free agent tackle Will Svitek as the top back-up and that frees up tackle Marcus Cannon to move back to guard and compete with guard Dan Connolly for a starting job. Just when anyone figures they have figured out Bill Belichick in the draft, he throws a wrinkle. No one had the Patriots taking guard Logan Mankins in the first round of 2005, but they did. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer was a surprise to the draft gurus in the second round of 2009, but has turned into an excellent NFL player. Having taken tackle Nate Solder in the first round of 2011, the Patriots could very easily surprise again with an early round pick on a protector of Tom Brady.
Tight end is suddenly a position in flux in New England. After supplementing their arguably two best draft picks since Tom Brady in 2000 (tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 in the second and fourth rounds respectively) with free agent Daniel Fells, injury steal Jake Ballard, and their own restricted free agent tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, that depth will be tested again early with both star tight ends coming off surgery and possibly restricted through training camp. Suddenly, picking up an impact young tight end looks like a smart move for the Patriots.
Wide Receiver is a position that has been in flux this off-season in New England and garnered a lot of attention as long-time starter Wes Welker left in free agency to Denver and was replaced by Danny Amendola. Wide receiver Julian Edelman re-signed in New England and last season’s starter, Brandon Lloyd, was released. Former Bills receiver Donald Jones was signed as was former Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins. After attempting to pry Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders away with a restricted free agent contract, speculation is high that adding another wide receiver is in the works through the draft. Of course, with Bill Belichick’s spotty record of drafting wide receivers, there are questions about finding a young receiver who can step in and thrive in the offense. With draft busts Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, and Taylor Price all washing out after being high draft picks over the past few years, there may be some reluctance to pull the trigger on another wide receiver early in the draft. Prognosticators seem to think this year the Patriots will pull the trigger and try to find the missing deep threat, and considering how Bill Belichick is impossible to predict on draft day, a trade down out of the first round and selecting a wide receiver in the second round is a distinct possibility.
The New England Patriots will likely again confound the draft experts who will attempt to predict what wheeling and dealing, moves up and down, trades and selections in the upcoming draft this weekend. The Patriots need to continue their draft success as they did the past few years, rather than their swings and misses that hurt the team after their Super Bowl runs. The Patriots have holes to fill and depth to add on both sides of the ball, and will take another step towards filling them and getting back to the Super Bowl come Thursday night.