Two days are completed in the 2013 NFL Draft and the New England Patriots have added four new players after their big trade-down on day one and then two selections in both the second and third rounds. The Patriots second round picks were analyzed here, and the Patriots draft picks in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft have been covered exceptionally on the website by the staff of MusketFire.com. Now, as the Patriots prepare for the last day of the 2013 NFL Draft with one pick in the 4th round and three 7th round picks, there are still players that may surprise and contribute during the season, like Patriots cornerback and 7th round pick in 2013, Alfonzo Dennard.
One quirk of Patriots Coach/Uber-Executive Bill Belichick is that when he finds a player that fits his specific profile as a “Belichick-Guy”, he is all in and draft prognosticators opinions be damned. In 2009 it was tackle Sebastian Vollmer in the second round out of Houston, last year it was safety Tavon Wilson of Illinois in the 2nd round, this year it was Rutgers safety Duron Harmon. Like Wilson, Harmon was a player that the experts on television had pegged as a late third day draft pick. Whether the player would be available a round or two later is entirely up to debate, but the Patriots did not become the most successful franchise of the free agency/salary cap era of the NFL by picking players based upon public perception.
Part of Bill Belichick’s quirky draft picking (or arrogance, as it is sometimes referred to) is a product of being in charge of the entire coaching staff and front office in New England for the entire 21st century, as his whims are going to be met. In this case, Belichick obviously saw something in the Rutgers defensive system that translates to his defense in New England, and jumped to grab two members of that secondary to add to the Patriots. No matter what any scout or front office personnel says about a player, Belichick is going to be on the practice field with his draft picks and is going to get his man. Remember, Owner Robert Kraft, after the Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll/Bobby Grier fiascos of the 1990s is not going to make waves with Belichick over a second or third round draft pick and overrule him and make him take a player he does not want.
While safety may not have been considered a huge need for the Patriots–with veteran free agent Adrian Wilson added this offseason from the Arizona Cardinals, last year’s second round pick Tavon Wilson, and both returning starters: 2010 first round pick and former cornerback Devin McCourty (like Duron Harmon and other 3rd round pick, cornerback Logan Ryan, a Rutgers product) and 2012 free-agent from the San Diego Chargers, Steven Gregory–this move of drafting safety Duron Harmon could have a domino effect on the roster. Despite being in the top 1/3 of NFL teams in salary cap space, the Patriots front office appears to be comfortable having a cushion of cap space to add veterans during the season and keep their injury replacement list stocked with players who can help the team, regardless of cost.
Taken in the light of how these picks in terms of salary cap space and roster building, these two third round picks suddenly seem to create a domino effect on the Patriots roster. Safety Steven Gregory struggled at times last season, and is likely fighting for a roster spot at this time. Gregory’s cap number for 2013 is $2.55 million (cap dollars courtesy of our friends at overthecap.com, who do a fantastic job tracking this information) which is a very high number for a player competing at a position with both a 2nd and 3rd round pick taken in the past two drafts. Cutting Gregory would create some dead cap space, of course, but would potentially clear almost $900,000 in cap space this year.
The Patriots first pick of the 3rd round was a cornerback, Logan Ryan out of Rutgers. Lack of depth at cornerback–it could reasonably be argued–has cost the Patriots two Super Bowl championships the past two seasons. Last year, the Patriots had to trade for Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib to solidify the secondary. When Talib went out of the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens with an injury, the lack of depth allowed Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco to attack the back-ups and turn a 0-0 tie into a convincing Baltimore win. In the prior season, the lack of quality cornerbacks was a key against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl as the Patriots defense gave up a number of big completions to wide receivers on the outside as the Giants drove to victory against the Patriots.
With the position stabilized by re-signing free agent Aqib Talib, re-signing nickel cornerback and free agent Kyle Arrington, and second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard not serving jail time for his off-field, pre-draft incident in Nebraska, the Patriots have a solid core at cornerback. However, Talib is on a one-year deal, safety Devin McCourty is not likely to move back to cornerback after playing so well at safety last season, and 2011 2nd round pick Ras-I Dowling has been unable to stay healthy and off injured reserve so far in his short career. Ryan is a great fit for the Patriots defense and should step in immediately in their sub packages as the fourth cornerback. Dowling is suddenly fighting for his roster spot.
If the Patriots draft an offensive lineman with their 4th round pick, it could signal the end of guard Dan Connolly’s days in New England. Connolly had injury issues and struggled at times last year, and with his salary cap number of $3.33 million, Bill Belichick is not going to shed any tears moving on from Connolly at right guard with left guard Logan Mankins already taking a chunk of cap space with his $10 million cap number. With tackle Marcus Cannon now able to move inside (which appears to be a better fit for his skill set), Connolly could see himself competing with Cannon for that starting right guard position as his release would free up $1.16 million in cap space. Drafting an interior offensive lineman could be a signal that Connolly could be gone even before training camp.
Also, don’t be surprised to see the Patriots look for defensive end/linebacker again with their 4th round pick. As much as Bill Belichick loves his Mike Vrabel clone, Rob Ninkovich, he is hardly a premier pass rusher and carries a large cap number. Ninkovich carries a $3 million cap charge this season, and if he is cut he frees up $2.4 million in cap space for the Patriots. While I find it unlikely that the Patriots would move on from Ninkovich, drafting a young pass rusher and signing a veteran pass-rush specialist like defensive ends John Abraham or Dwight Freeney could still be an option and paying one of these veterans and Ninkovich may not be in the cards.
Looking ahead, the Patriots may also be altering their strategy on day three of the 2013 NFL Draft, as quarterbacks Matt Barkley of USC and Ryan Nassib of Syracuse are two players expected to have gone in the first two rounds of the draft and are still available at the start of the 4th round. With pre-draft chatter about the Patriots potentially trading back-up quarterback Ryan Mallett for a high 2014 draft pick, Barkley or Nassib could be a target for New England in the 4th round to bring in to back-up star quarterback Tom Brady and get value for a 3rd round pick from two years ago.
With three 7th round picks, expect the Patriots to be aggressive in looking for those hidden gems that they seem to unearth each year. In 2008, special teams captain Matthew Slater was a solid pick in the 5th round; in 2009, it was wide receiver/special teams/emergency cornerback Julian Edelman taken in the 7th round; the 7th round in 2010 netted defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick , who has carved out a role for himself on the Patriots defense as a sometimes starter next to Vince Wilfork; In 2011, guard/tackle Marcus Cannon who dropped from a 2nd or 3rd round value to the 5th round due to medical concerns is now a top back-up on the offensive line and is expected to compete for the starting right guard position this training camp; and finally, last year’s 7th round pick, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard out of Nebraska fell from a projected 2nd or 3rd round value to the 7th round due to character concerns following his arrest before the draft. With Dennard starting at cornerback for the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, it served as a telling sign of how valuable these third day draft picks can be, and have been, for the New England Patriots.