New England Patriots: Bold Predictions for the NFL Draft – 2 of 5

Feb 20, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick scouts from the seats during the 2015 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2015 NFL Draft fast approaching, the New England Patriots players are delving into their off-season workouts after a period of rest and celebration as they prepare to defend their Super Bowl championship.With a tough off-season already with defections in the secondary with the free agent loss of veteran cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner as well as defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and running back Shane Vereen, the Patriots have a need for reinforcements on both sides of the ball.

 

Apr 25, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New England Patriots former player Joe Andruzzi (left) and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell make a Boston Strong presentation during the 2013 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

One thing for certain about Bill Belichick and the New England front office is that they will keep the NFL Draft analysts guessing. Last year, with a deep wide receiver class and a need at tight end they ignored the positions almost entirely and only drafted a wide receiver who did not make the team in the seventh round. In 2013 the Patriots traded down from the first round and accumulated a number of contributors.

 

In 2012 the Patriots surprised by moving up in the draft to snag pass rushing defensive end Chandler Jones. Then they kept their second pick and grabbed Dont’a Hightower. In addition, they surprised all by picking Tavon Wilson at #48 overall. In 2011 New England had the first pick of day two and surprisingly did not trade down (when they should have since they wasted the pick on Ras-I Dowling). In 2010 the Patriots moved down (to #27 for Devin McCourty) and then up again (to #42 for Rob Gronkowski) with a dizzying array of moves.

 

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Robert Turbin (22) is tackled by New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) in the second quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots have traditionally used the NFL Draft to find key contributors on both sides of the ball in recent seasons and maintain the pipeline of talent. These draft picks such as McCourty and Gronkowski (2010), Nate Solder, Stevan Ridley, and Vereen (2011), Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower (2012) and Jamies Collins (2013) have become the strength of a team that went to two Super Bowls and four AFC Championship games in the past four season.

 

In addition to these key players, the Patriots have built up their impressive depth on both sides of the ball with contributions over the past four years from Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Deaderick, and Brandon Spikes (2010), Marcus Cannon (2011), Alfonzo Dennard and Tavon Wilson (2012), and Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan (2013).

 

Each of these players have played a key role in winning games be it Cannon stepping in at right tackle for the second half of 2013, Spikes keying the defense to a Super Bowl in 2011, Dennard as a  surprise starter as a rookie in 2012, or Harmon with his key interception to defeat the Ravens in the Divisional Playoffs this past January.

 

What can one expect from the 2015 NFL Draft from the Patriots? Based on their recent draft history there are tea leaves to be read. Initially, the bold predictions began with “Expect the Patriots to Move Down and Accumulate Future Draft Picks”. Here is the second of five bold predictions about what the New England Patriots will (or won’t do) in the 2015 NFL Draft:

 

Two: Vince Wilfork’s Replacement is not Coming From this Draft

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) celebrates an interception during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots have a big order to fill in finding a replacement for defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.In 2013 the veteran was injured early in week four and the Patriots defense suffered agains the run the rest of the season. With New England forced to start rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones at defensive tackle (and run-stopping linebacker Jerod Mayo out for the year) the Patriots finished 2013 30th in rushing yards allowed.

 

WIth Wilfork back and healthy in 2014 the rush defense improved to 9th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. Make no mistake that Wilfork was a big part of that improvement. Wilfork rated sixth among 3-4 defensive ends per ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) in the league in stopping the run. However, Wilfork’s age (he will turn 34 next season) and salary cap number necessitated his release.

 

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots defensive lineman Sealver Siliga against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Without Wilfork, the Patriots did bring back two key defensive linemen from 2014: Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch. Branch is a veteran who was signed at midseason after off-field issues and weight issues forced him out of Buffalo. Branch was a solid run-stopper with a bit of burst in the pass rush coming off the bench and keeping Wilfork fresh in 2014. He will be expected to contribute more in 2015 with a likely increased role. Last year, Branch never played more than 44% percent of the defensive snaps as he was worked into the defense.

 

Siliga was the diamond-in-the-rough the New England front office uncovered late in 2013 as he was signed off the Seattle Seahawks practice squad and gave the defense the boost needed while WIlfork was out. By the playoffs Siliga was the best player on the defensive line as he helped carry New England to the AFC Championship game. His 2014 season was derailed by a broken hand in training camp and then in week three a foot injury landed the big guy on injured reserve/designation to return.

 

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots nose tackle Alan Branch (97) attempts to tackle Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (24) during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Not surprisingly, the additions of Siliga and Branch to the defense helped shore up a run defense that was among the stoutest in the second half of 2014. The Patriots also have 2014 first round draft pick Dominique Easley who is expected to be back at full strength in 2015 and bring a pass rush presence to the defensive line.

 

Easley was taken out of Florida with the 29th overall pick of last year’s draft despite back-to-back seasons being ended by knee surgery. At Florida Easley jumped off the game tape with his quickness off the line and penetration and strength as a pass rusher. In 2014 he showed little of that as he got back on the field and adapted to the speed of the NFL. New England shut down Easley in the second half of the season to get him to full strength and speed for 2015.

 

Oct 5, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones (94) sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) during the second half quarter at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Bengals 43-17. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The most overlooked defensive tackle on the roster is Chris Jones. He played more than twice as many snaps on the interior defensive line in 2014 as anyone not named Vince Wilfork. A sixth round draft pick of the Houston Texans in 2013 Jones was released at final cuts and then signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After being waived two weeks later the Patriots nabbed him and he ended up starting 11 regular season games and both playoff games and contributed 6 sacks as a rookie. Last year Jones had three sacks and continued to provide an interior pass rush presence.

 

New England also has undersized tackle Joe Vellano on the roster. Vellano was forced into action as an undersized undrafted free agent in 2013 and was able to be stashed on the practice squad last year. Vellano is a favorite of head coach Bill Belichick with his motor and smarts allowing him to contribute in the NFL despite his size and stature.  The Patriots signed former Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Antonio Johnson to a futures contract after he missed 2014 due to injury. He has over 50 career starts and is another interior pass rusher.

 

Nov 30, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Kyle Orton (18) prepares to throw the ball in front of Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (97) during the first half at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest boost inside on the defensive line may come from free agent defensive end Jabaal Sheard. Signed from Cleveland, Sheard has been strong against the run while providing a solid pass rush. With Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich holding down the defensive end/outside linebacker role the past three seasons, Sheard not only brings depth but allows the Patriots to shift Chandler Jones or Sheard inside on passing downs to bring additional pressure.

 

With the depth already in place at defensive tackle the New England front office may not be interested in spending another top draft pick on a position they invested in with a first round pick last year. With Dominique Easley expected to step in and invigorate an interior pass rush the Patriots could be set at defensive tackle. Add in a healthy Sealver Siliga and veterans Alan Branch and Antonio Johnson and there is quality depth. With holdovers Chris Jones and Joe Vellano on the roster as well, the Patriots could be set on the interior offensive line and look elsewhere in the draft.