Every year there are more and more mock drafts trying to predict and decipher what 32 franchises will do on draft weekend. With the 2019 NFL Draft in Nashville, TN beginning on Thursday, April 25th at 8 p.m., despite the NBA and NHL playoffs and the MLB season in full swing, all eyes are on the NFL that weekend.
For the fans of the 32 NFL franchises, there is no bigger offseason excitement than the NFL Draft weekend. Like Christmas morning, teams unwrap their newest shiny toys and fans breathlessly imagine how this infusion of young talent will push their team to the next level and have them playing in February.
For the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, they are in the familiar position at the end of the first round having earned the number 32 overall pick by outlasting the rest of the NFL in 2018. However, due to an influx of compensatory draft picks due to losing free agents and shrewd trading, they enter the 2019 NFL Draft with a dozen picks and six in the first 101 picks.
With that, let’s look at some realistic draft targets for the Patriots in the 2019 NFL Draft.
PATRIOTS’ POSITIONS OF NEED:
First and foremost, team needs are going to dictate what positions the Patriots pick. ALL NFL team–even Bill Belichick and the Patriots–draft based on need. While sometimes it is a future need two years in advance instead of immediate need, using a premium draft pick on a stacked position is simply a waste of resources.
Just look at Miami last year drafting Minkah Fitzpatrick (a great player) at a crowded strong safety position with two veterans in Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald already fighting for playing time there. Picking Fitzpatrick is a fine decision, but not going into the season with three starters at one position. The Jets went through this recently with drafting Leonard Williams (the best player in the 2015 NFL Draft) but having first-round draft picks Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson already at defensive tackle led to all parties being disaffected and only Williams remaining.
Looking at the New England roster shows a few positions already set at starter and with multiple levels of depth that should be eliminated from consideration for a high draft pick. Running back is one position with 2018 first-round draft pick Sony Michel, receiving weapon James White, fullback James Develin, multi-purpose back Rex Burkhead, and special teams ace Brandon Bolden under contract. Veteran T.J. Yeldon got a visit in free agency and Jeremy Hill could return if his knee is healthy.
Also, linebacker is a position with some depth already in place. Dont’a Hightower has made huge plays on defense in all three Super Bowl victories (remember, he was on injured reserve when New England lost to Philadelphia) and Kyle Van Noy is a solid complement to him. Add in the improving Elandon Roberts (learning to play fast but under control finally) and 2018 fifth-round gem Ja’Whaun Bentley who was playing starter snaps at linebacker through three weeks before a torn biceps ended his rookie season. Four deep at linebacker, the Patriots still have redshirt Christian Sam returning and usually are playing with just two linebackers and an extra secondary player anyway.
Flush any mock draft that has the Patriots taking a cornerback or safety in the first round. Seriously, whoever is mocking has not even bothered to look at the roster in New England. Cornerback and safety are loaded right now with ten roster locks in place already:
The Patriots have invested heavily in the secondary in the past five years and have a deep (and expensive) group already. Stephon Gilmore is arguably the best cover cornerback in the NFL right now and impressive undrafted free agent J.C. Jackson looks to build upon a fantastic rookie season. New England goes four-deep at cornerback with veteran Jason McCourty and slot cornerback Jonathan Jones. Add in 2018 second round draft pick Duke Dawson to the mix with speedy 2018 seventh round draft pick Keion Crossen and the cornerback spot is loaded headed into 2019.
At safety, the Patriots are paying a premium for three veterans at the position for the next two seasons. Jason McCourty bounced back in 2018 after some struggles in 2017 and seems rejuvenated playing beside his twin brother. Patrick Chung remains one of the most underrated safeties in the NFL and Duron Harmon–despite being repeatedly scorned by Boston radio loudmouths Felger and Mazz–has done nothing but make big plays in his time in Foxborough. Add in intriguing safety Obi Melifonwu–a top 60 draft pick in 2017– getting a full offseason and training camp, and New England is deep in the secondary right now.
Personally, I do not think this is the draft for a Tom Brady replacement at quarterback. I think 2020 makes more sense with a deeper class of high-end talent and would not be surprised to see the Patriots more likely to trade away a second-round pick in 2019 for a 2020 first-round draft pick for extra ammunition to move up next year and get a quarterback of the future. Also, although not a fan favorite, Brian Hoyer is a solid back-up quarterback who the New England coaching staff is very familiar and comfortable with behind Brady.
Special teams at kicker and punter are set with Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen returning. Long-snapper Joe Cardona is in place as well. Kick and punt returner are needed with Michel and Julian Edelman the most experienced returners and neither starters should be in that role. However, a high draft pick should not be spent on a returner (see: the Rams drafting Tavon Austin at number eight overall in 2013 or the Vikings drafting Cordarrelle Patterson at number 29 overall in 2013).
This leaves defensive tackle, defensive end, offensive line (tackle and interior) and wide receiver/tight end as team needs. With a dozen draft picks, expect New England to double-up at a few of these positions.
With needs on the defensive line, the Patriots will likely spend their top draft pick on a defensive tackle or end. Both positions are extremely deep with talent this year. That is good for the Patriots because oftentimes these players drop in the draft as teams reach for quarterbacks, wide receivers, and cornerbacks in the draft and top-15 talent at these spots drop to the end of the first round.
New England has benefitted this way in the past having Vince Wilfork drop to them at number 21 in 2004 and grabbing top-15 talent Chandler Jones at number 21 in 2012. In 2014 Dominique Easley dropped to New England at number 29 overall and although he was a gamble that did not work out, there was no doubt his talent made hima worthwhile risk. In 2015 it was Malcom Brown dropping to number 32 overall.
Talent such as Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, Brian Burns, Josh Allen, Ed Oliver, Jeffery Simmons and Christian Wilkins should be nowhere near number 32 overall when New England is on the clock. However, Clelin Ferrell, Jerry Tillery, Rashan Gary, Charles Omenihu, Dexter Lawrence, Chase Winovich, Christian Miller or Jachai Polite could be available at the end of the first round depending on what the teams ahead of New England do. There are two players from that group who could be future stars tumbling to New England:
Jerry Tillery from Notre Dame is long and strong and looks like a fit inside with New England. Not a big space-eater, he is powerful interior force who could contribute by the end of the year on defense. He is a bit raw and needs to be coached up in the NFL. He wasn’t consistent with his technique, but could be a dominant player if he can take direction. His lack of consistency could cause him to tumble.
Jaichi Polite burst on the scene as a dominant college pass rusher this past year from Florida who bombed at the combine. Bad workouts, bad interviews and bad testing saw his stock fall. Another project who may tumble to the Patriots because of these concerns, Polite could be an elite pass rusher at the NFL level if New England can coach him up and get him into ideal playing shape.
The Patriots may actually have several of these players available and look to trade out of the first round and add to their middle-of-the-draft haul going back to the high-30s or early 40s overall and still get their preferred edge rusher or interior defender. With another pick at 56 overall in the second round, the Patriots would be in good shape to get both an edge rusher and interior defensive tackle before their four picks between number 64 and 101 overall can address the offensive side of the ball.
With a need at wide receiver, look for the Patriots to address that need with their last pick of the second round or one of their three third-round draft picks. Expect a run at wide receiver in the middle of the first round and early in the second round as traditionally those players fly off the board in those rounds. Outside of the top dozen prospects at wide receiver, a popular choice is UMass slot wide receiver Andy Isabella who seemingly fits a New England slot wide receiver profile.
Stanley Morgan Jr. is a name bandied about due to the legacy in New England with the Stanley Morgan of the 1970s and Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow has spoken about his own feelings about his fit in New England’s long-line of slot receivers. Isabella did not play in the slot like Renfrow and Morgan and may have a learning curve inside. Morgan is an outside receiver who is not spectacular but does everything–including blocking–well (that sounds like a Patriot).
My personal choice at wide receiver would be Riley Ridley from Georgia. However, it seems unlikely he would last until the end of the second round as the brother of Calvin Ridley will likely be scooped up despite his lack of top-end speed. Ridley has good size, great hands and a polished route runner. He would be a great fit on the outside in the New England offense.
A later round sleeper to keep in mind is Georgia State’s Penny Hart. A smaller slot receiver prospect, the small school star is dangerously quick. In college he was a staple of jet sweeps and can return kicks and punts. Hart and his quickness and special teams role could be a late-round pick finding a way to get on the roster.
Tight end is another position of need with the retirement of Rob Gronkowski. For all the talk wasted on the two star tight ends coming out of Iowa, neither is likely to be on available at the end of the first round of the draft. The Patriots may address the position at the end of the third round as free agent signings of Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Matt LaCosse–added to Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson and Ryan Izzo–give the Patriots options who can block and catch adequately to fill the tight end role in the New England offense.
Hace Sternberger is mentioned as a fit in New England. Despite strong numbers receiving, Sternberger lacks top-end speed, strength and blocking ability. The problem is that there is a need at tight end for multiple teams and outside of Sternberger, T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant and Irv Smith there is little high-end talent available.
Most of the tight end prospect are big slot receivers (Josh Oliver from San Jose State) or bigger players who are not great blockers and lack the separation ability to succeed in the NFL after piling on against college level coverages (Isaac Nauta from Georgia) or so raw that they are a two or three year developmental project (Kaden Smith from Stanford). Outside of the handful of tight ends expected to be scooped up early, there is little quality depth at tight end.
The Patriots should also be looking for mid-round depth on the offensive line. The Patriots have done well in the middle rounds of the draft getting offensive line talent. In 2016 they got starting guard Joe Thuney in the third round (and versatile back-up Ted Karras in the sixth round). In 2015 it was guard Shaq Mason who was a steal in the fourth round (Tre’ Jackson was an immediate contributor in the fourth round as well before injuries derailed his career).
In 2014 the Patriots got a starting center in Bryan Stork in the fourth round. Stork started immediately before concussions ended his career early. Fellow fourth round pick Cameron Fleming was a valuable swing tackle and spot starter for four years in New England. Finally, in 2011 the Patriots snagged tackle Marcus Cannon in the fifth round and the cancer survivor has been excellent stabilizing the right tackle position.
The team needs a tackle and interior linemen and should look to continue their good fortune drafting in the middle rounds. One problem, however, is that the Patriots have no picks between number 134 overall and number 205 overall. Some trades down in the earlier rounds could be coupled with those four late seventh round draft picks to fill in those gaps.
As always, the offensive tackles are expected to fly off the board in short order with Jawaan Taylor, Cody Ford, Jonah Williams, and Dalton Risner all likely day one draftees. Andre Dillard, David Edwards and Yodny Cajuste are all expected off the board by the time the Patriots pick at the end of the second round.
I love the idea of Alabama State’s Tytus Howard in the third round as an athletic former tight end with all the physical tools and just needing some time at “Camp Scar” to make him into a potential star. Oli Udoh is another small school prospect (Elon) who has natural ability and is extremely raw who could be a great late round pick-up at tackle.
Inside, top interior offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom (from Boston College), Erik McCoy, Michael Deiter and Garrett Bradbury will all be gone by mid-second round. Teams have shed their reticence of drafting guards and centers in the first round and recognized the value of interior offensive linemen.
The Patriots have had good luck doubling up at positions in the draft with at least of the two working out (and usually getting value from both). Another “Camp Scar” candidate is UNC-Charlotte’s Nate Davis. Davis played guard and tackle in college and has the quick feet that the Patriots prefer for their interior offensive guards. Davis would be a good find at the end of the third round.
Jon Baker is a late round prospect from Boston College. Baker can play center and guard and bounced back after missing all but one game of the 2017 season due to a knee injury. Baker was a captain at BC and was a space-clearing grinder in the middle of a strong offensive line. He could be a value pick for depth for the Patriots in the middle of the offensive line.
The Patriots have a number of needs on both sides of the ball, but should be in position to be able to address multiple spots in the 2019 NFL Draft.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01