The NFL Draft is about a month away and the New England Patriots have many needs to fill after losing some key pieces in free agency.
The defensive line is New England’s biggest need as they took the most significant hit this offseason when Trey Flowers, the team-leader in sacks, signed with the Detroit Lions. When New England opted to forgo placing the franchise tag on Flowers, it was highly unlikely they were going to be able to compete with the money other teams were going to throw his way. They also lost defensive tackle Malcom Brown to the New Orleans Saints. These are huge losses for a defense that were tied for the second-fewest sacks in the entire league this past season.
Sensibly, the Patriots were able to trade for Michael Bennett in anticipation of Flowers’ inevitable departure. Bennett provides some depth and stability to an already depleted defensive line and will immediately add a veteran presence to the locker room. Even at 33, he has proven he still has ferocity when going after the quarterback as he tallied nine sacks over 16 games last season.
Bennett fills a need for the upcoming season and with a second-round compensatory pick in next year’s draft being projected for losing Flowers, the Patriots have a stop gap until they draft some younger prospects to bolster the front seven.
The draft is wealthy with pass-rush talent and it is practical for the Patriots to target the best edge defender available in the first round.
New England is also thin at wide receiver. Julian Edelman, a 5-foot-10 slot receiver that has no outside threat to draw attention, is their top passing option at the moment. Josh Gordon is likely to be suspended for a good portion of 2019 and may never see the field again if he can’t stay straight.
The Patriots placed an original round restricted free agent tender on Gordon, so if he signs with another team New England receives a second-round compensatory pick.
Meanwhile, they’ve signed Bruce Ellington and Maurice Harris, and re-signed Phillip Dorsett to put bodies on the roster (but none of these guys are No. 1 wide receivers).
This year’s draft has plenty of wide receiver depth that will be available in the second and third rounds, in which New England possesses five selections. The receivers that will be available later in the draft have the potential to produce first-round results at a third-round price. Although, there are a few wide receivers worth drafting in the first round. It’s just a question if they make it to the 32nd pick or not.
The Patriots pass defense stepped up in a huge way during the playoffs and were one of the main reasons they were able to render the league’s top two offenses ineffective. The regular season was a different story. They allowed 247.7 passing yards a game which was the 22nd-most in the NFL.
Only 11 teams allowed more than New England’s 29 passing touchdowns. The McCourty twins and Patrick Chung make up three-fourths of the starting defensive backfield and will all be 32-years-old next season. The Patriots could draft a field general at safety to lead the secondary for years to come.
Now that Rob Gronkowski has announced his retirement publicly, New England will have the tight end position in high priority in both the draft and in free agency. Jared Cook has signed with the New Orleans Saints so the position is pretty thin in free agency. The draft will offer plenty of potential tight end stars, but the top guys may not be around when the Patriots make their first selection. The mid rounds will offer capable tight ends that New England will look to target if T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are off the board.
Unless New England makes a trade, they will see 31 prospects be drafted before they make their first selection. This makes it incredibly difficult to project who will most likely be available with the final pick in the first round. Trades will be made and some players will go earlier than projected or fall further down in the draft than anticipated.
The preferred strategy would be to select the best player available at any position of need. If there is a run on pass rushers early in the first round, the Patriots might be looking at the sixth or seventh best player by the time they are on the clock. Selecting the second best defensive back or third best wide receiver would bring more value to the 32nd pick.
Here are the players that should be at the top of the Patriots’ draft board and could still be available at pick 32:
Jeffery Simmons, DE, Mississippi State
Dexter Lawrence, DL, Clemson
Jachai Polite, EDGE, Florida
Deionte Thompson, S, Alabama
Nassir Adderley, S, Deleware
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, S, Florida
Kelvin Harmon, WR, NC State
Hakeem Butler, WR, Iowa State
N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama
Julian Love, CB, Notre Dame
Trayvon Mullen, CB, Clemson