By: Hayden Eskridge
The NFL draft is just over a week away, and while the Mel Kiper Jr’s of the world speculate and analyze the first round, us Pats fans are forced to sit back uninvolved for the first time all offseason. This isn't unfamiliar territory for the Patriots, as they enter the draft for the second straight year lacking a first round pick. While this is less than ideal, the Pats have remained successful the past fifteen years despite rarely being in position to take highly touted prospects. However, this draft class boast a deep group of talent with many players that can make an impact right away.
This team has been known for finding late round studs throughout the Belichick era, including everyone’s favorite 6th round Quarterback, and 7th round project, turned go-to receiver. While this has been a productive offseason, the Patriots still have some holes to fill if they plan to repeat as Super Bowl Champions. Let's take a look at these areas of need coming into Draft week, and some guys we could see in Patriots uniforms next season.
Edge Pass Rusher/ Defensive End
The Pats’ pass rush was pedestrian at best a season ago. Their 34 sacks ranked 16th in the league, as the Pats at times had difficulty creating pressure on opposing Quarterbacks.The departures of Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long leave two key roles on the defensive line open, as the duo combined for nine sacks in 2016 .The emergence of Trey Flowers was exciting a year ago, his seven sacks led the team as he flashed just how dominant he could be for years to come. Aside from Flowers the Pats don't have many guys opposing offensive lineman will lose much sleep over. They added Kony Ealy in a trade from Carolina, but inconsistent play and injuries have slowed him from progressing into the player we saw dominate in Super Bowl 50. Another thing Belichick has to have on his mind is a eventual replacement plan for the aging Rob Ninkovich, who will turn 34 at the end of next season. Ninkovich’s versatility has been coveted for years in the Patriots system, as his ability to pass rush and cover allow Matt Patricia to do a number of different things with the front seven. Ninkovich has shown clear regression each of the last two seasons, so it is safe to say the Pats would like to find his replacement sooner rather than later.I would expect a double dip at this position and for them to invest in a pass rusher with their earliest selection (Round 3, 72 Overall). Luckily for the Pats edge rusher is the deepest position group in this draft so they should have no problem finding a player to come in and contribute right away. Here are some names you should get familiar with.
Keionta Davis- Chattanooga
A small school standout, Davis dominated the Southern Conference making the All-Conference team 3 times, as well as winning the Defensive Player of The Year award. His 31 career sacks put him second on the school's all time list making the Chattanooga born kid a hometown hero. While much of his production came against lower level competition, Davis also posted impressive performances against powerhouse Alabama (Four tackles .5 Sacks) and in state rival Tennessee.He turned some heads at the combine when he decided only to meet with teams but not work out despite being healthy. Davis displays great functional strength simply overpowering offensive lineman at the point of attack. His instincts make him a particularly intriguing prospect for the Pats, as they love guys with high football IQ. Davis isn't a speed rusher by any means but can still muscle his way to Quarterbacks creating overall disruption. He is a very viable option for New England in rounds 4 through 7.
Ryan Anderson- Alabama
No team in college football is as similar to the Patriots in terms of scheme,culture, and success than Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. We’ve seen the Pats take their fair share of Alabama prospects, the most recent being Cyrus Jones with their first selection last year in round 2. We could very well see another Alabama defender make the journey North again this year in Anderson. He would fit in the Ninkovich role, as a stand-up edge defender who occasionally could drop into coverage. Another high IQ guy, Anderson just screams future Patriot and has the potential to see solid play time as a rookie. A five star recruit out of high school, Anderson didn't really jump out to scouts until his senior year when he posted 61 tackles with 19 going for loss to pair with 9 sacks and a pick six. His versatility, and size should have him on the Patriots’ radar.
Pats Nation took a collective sigh of relief when Dont’a Hightower re-upped with the team earlier this offseason. While Hightower will continue to contribute in both coverage, pass rush and filling gaps in the run game, his surrounding cast looks to be much less versatile. Elandon Roberts looked like a starter at times last year, but he was far too poor in coverage to be counted on as the “Jamie Collins replacement” many pegged him to be. Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy had their moments (good and bad) but expiring contracts make them expendable players in the near future. While the Pats are primarily in their nickel defense with only two linebackers on the field it wouldn't hurt to look to add a prospect through the draft. Keep in mind Barkevious Mingo also signed elsewhere leaving an opening to fill on special teams. The Patriots value versatility, size and instincts in their LB corps, these are some guys that fit that mold.
T.J Holloman- South Carolina
It seems like every year Bill Belichick shocks fans and draft experts by taking someone much earlier than they are projected to go. T.J Holloman could be that guy this year. South Carolina’s defensive captain the last two seasons, Holloman fits the new breed of hybrid inside linebackers that have the versatility to fill many roles. Prime canidate for special team duties, as well as situational roles in both nickel and dime packages, Holloman is a chess piece coach Belichick could move around the field.
Ben Gedeon- Michigan
A hard nosed, thumper of a linebacker who saw the field all four years at Michigan, Gedeon embodies what playing linebacker is all about. Great instincts compensate his lack of speed and athleticism, allowing him to make plays. Gedeon led a star studded Michigan defense in tackles with 106, earning him second team All Big-Ten honors behind early round projected pick Raekwon McMillan of Ohio State. Gedeon is a team first guy that will buy into the “Do Your Job” montra right away.
The Stephon Gilmore signing was a shocker on many levels, 1.) The forty million guaranteed given to Gilmore was the most the Pats have shelled out for a defensive player in the Belichick era, 2.) Malcolm Butler has voiced his displeasure with his current deal, and will become an unrestricted free agent next year. Since the Gilmore signing Butler and the Patriots both have shown interest in a split and a deal could very well go down in the next week. In the event this happens the Pats will have lost both of their top two corners from their Super Bowl team and would be left with Eric Rowe, Stephon Gilmore, Cyrus Jones as well as a few special teams guys at the position. Although this group isn't the worst Pats fans have seen it could use an upgrade. I know many fans have gushed over the idea of trading for Richard Sherman, but keep in mind he is about to turn 30 and comes with a hefty cap hit. If the Pats move on from Butler I don't think there is any doubt they will look to add a corner through the draft. The signing of Gilmore, and last years trade for Eric Rowe indicate the Pats are looking to get back to the mold of physical, press man corners we saw in 2014 with Revis and Browner. The Patriots could be in the market for another outside corner or look for a guy to occupy the slot if they don't think Cyrus Jones can bounce back to fill that role.
Rasul Douglas- West Virginia
A long armed, lengthy corner with great ball skills and playmaking ability, Douglas is a bit of a one year wonder. He burst onto the scene last year tying the nation’s lead for interceptions with 8 in route to earning a first-team All-Big 12 selection. Douglas is a ball hawk that takes risks, trusting his ability to read Quarterbacks and quicl;y close gaps between him and receivers. A guy that is faster than quick he will likely match up with bigger wideouts and needs to add some aggression to his game in order to be a successful outside corner. Could be a guy the Patriots look at to achieve what they had hoped for of Ras-I Dowling when they selected him in 2011 as they are similar in style.
The luxury of having as deep of a team as the Patriots do is that there is no extreme pressure for rookies to step in and start right away. This depth allows the Pats to take risks in the draft that could have huge potential payoffs, this could be the case with Sidney Jones. Once regarded as a first round pick, Jones saw his stock tumble after suffering a ruptured achilles at his pro day. The Patriots without a first round pick could still get first round talent if they feel they can afford to be patient and wait for Jones to recover. Once healthy Jones is a promising Cornerback prospect that could eventually become a star in this league.
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat, eventually I think Legarrette Blount finds himself back in a Patriot uniform next season. I don't buy into them having legit interest in bringing in Adrian Peterson, or even a Mike Gillislee (who’d they’d have to give up a 5th rounder to get). Ultimately I think all of the running back rumors are a ploy to get Legarrette to come down to their price. However, in the event LG ends up elsewhere let’s look at some options available in the draft.
Semaje Perine- Oklahoma
While most of the attention falls on Perine’s college partner in crime (In the backfield at least) Joe Mixon, Perine himself is building up some solid stock entering the draft. An absolute bowling ball at 5’11 233, Perine is a physical runner that is a load to bring down. Perine does not posses breakaway speed but still can create big plays as he is quick to find the hole displaying impressive vision. The highlight of his career was the record breaking 427 yard performance he posted against Kansas as a true Freshman. Perine’s running style is very similar to that of Legarrette Blount and he very well could be selected to step into the role as the Pats bigger back.
James Connor- Pittsburgh
By now it's likely you've heard the inspirational story of Pittsburgh running back James Conner. Tragedy struck the young runner when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma the offseason before his senior year. Connor exemplified his championship work ethic and character as he beat cancer and returned to the field in time to lead his Pitt Panthers onto field for their opener. Connor’s toughness off the field without a doubt transfers to the way he competes on it, an angry runner that seeks out contact with a mission to deliver punishment. Connor credits his run style as tribute to his favorite NFL player, Marshawn Lynch, who is the reason he dons the number 24 jersey. Connor may not be as flashy as the other backs in this class, but his physicality, character and passion for football make him a perfect fit for the Patriots.
Maybe not as glaring of a need, but a need nonetheless. Nate Solder’s contract expires at the end of the upcoming season and his inconsistent play brings to question his future with the team. Solder is a solid Left Tackle,but it would be no shock to see the Pats go younger and cheaper. On the other side, Marcus Cannon revived his career, improving dramatically from his dismal 2015 campaign. This due in large part due to the return of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia who came out of retirement,reviving the Pats O-line making them one of the better units in the league. Scarnecchia could be looking to get his hands on a guy he could develop and eventually become a starter. Cameron Fleming has been on the roster a few years now, only showing he can be a serviceable 3rd tackle at best. At some point the Pats should look to get a developmental guy to under the wing of Coach Scar in hopes they get their next starting Tackle.
Jermaine Eluemunor- Texas A&M
Still new to football after growing up in the United Kingdom, Eluemunor is a blank canvas with much to learn before he becomes a reliable player in the NFL. Ideal size for a Patriots tackle at 6’4 332, he is a strong run blocker with the athleticism to block pass rushers of all types. A player the Patriots could take a flier on in hopes he can develop into a starter with enough coaching. Right away he can come in and challenge Cam Fleming for the 3rd tackle spot and could see time in the Patriots’ extra tackle, power looks.
Javarius Leamon- South Carolina State
Another small school guy with prototype Pats’ offensive tackle build (6’7 332), Leamon could be a late round grab that the Patriots give a chance to compete for a roster spot.
With seven selections entering the draft, New England has the ammo to fill their needs and keep their dream offseason rolling. Adding a few young contributors would only strengthen the Pats’ case for Super Bowl favorite this season as well as establish some foundational pieces for the future. The beauty of the NFL draft is that you never know when your franchise could be taking their next superstar, let's see if the Pats can find another hidden gem.
Photo: (Sporting News)