Now that the New England Patriots have signed veteran defensive end Will Smith one might assume the team is ready to focus on other needs in the first round of the NFL draft that is set to begin in Thursday night. I would be a big mistake, however, for the Patriots not to focus on the defensive line in the first round or with the team’s first pick should it trade out of the first round. The defensive line has been by far the biggest weakness for this team over the past few seasons and has really been the team’s Achilles heel. While Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich both had solid years in 2013, there was a huge drop off in production behind them and the team needs to address that more seriously than simply bringing in one veteran pass rusher.
While Will Smith might offer the veteran pass rushing presence the Patriots need and specifically contribute in sub packages, he also might not be the same player he was before missing the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL and the Patriots are certainly cognizant of that potential. Regardless, even if Smith does emerge as a reliable pass rusher for the Patriots, the team still needs to make an investment in the defensive line early in the draft. The only promising young player the Patriots have on the defensive line is Chandler Jones. The team should view the 2014 draft as an opportunity to both build much needed depth on the line and also to develop a foundation of youth around Jones that the Patriots can rely on for years to come.
Many analysts do believe this is what the Patriots will do with the 29th pick, as the most common names being floated in mock drafts are Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’shede Hageman, and Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III. And if the Patriots do take one of those players in the first round it would be a smart pick and exactly the kind of move the team needs to make to start investing in the defensive line more strategically. But what Bill Belichick will do on draft day is really anyone’s guess. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Patriots trade out of the first round altogether and look to upgrade the defensive line in the second round. Whenever the team does pick first, however, it would be a real mistake not to focus that early pick on the area of most need, which is clearly the defensive line.