McCullers would bring the beef to the Patriots front
As the 2014 NFL draft rapidly approaches, we're turning our focus here at PatriotsLife towards the draft. Keeping that in mind, I'll be reviewing a different position of the Patriots roster each weekday, looking over their level of need at that position and some potential draft fits specific to their needs. We went over the defensive ends yesterday, and today turn our focus inside to defensive tackle.

Position: Defensive tackle

Currently under contract:
Vince Wilfork (signed through 2016)
Tommy Kelly (signed through 2014)
Armond Armstead (signed through 2015)
Sealver Siliga (signed through 2014)
Chris Jones (signed through 2016)
Joe Vellano (signed through 2015)
Marcus Forston (signed through 2015)

Need: Short-term: Moderate, Long-term: High

Positional outlook: 

Hard to tell at this point because there are so many unknowns. How much time will Vince Wilfork miss, and will he be the same guy at age 32 and coming off of a ruptured achilles? Tommy Kelly looked good early in the season, but can he stay healthy at age 33? Is Sealver Siliga for real, or was last December just a flash in the pan? Armond Armstead...is he even a real human being? Could he possibly turn out as well as Boston's last "Yeti", Carl Soderberg?

If everything falls into place, this position could be a strength. Wilfork is admittedly a question mark, but we all know what he's capable of. Kelly looked great last year before his knee injury, bringing some needed interior pass rush, and he's playing for another contract this year. Siliga is a big, run-stuffing space eater and, provided he can keep up his good play, will be a nice option to rotate with Wilfork in that role, keeping both players fresh an energized throughout the game.

How good is Armstead, and will he be on the field?
As far as we know, Armstead is expected to finally play this year, and he's the biggest wild card of
the group. If he plays well, the Pats will have another pass rushing playmaker to the interior, something which has been a weakness in years past. Armstead is relatively undersized at 285 pounds, but he's quick, strong and disruptive, and many scouts had him ranked as a second round level talent.

However, even if everything goes well this year, you still face concerns about the long-term strength of the position. Vince Wilfork's deal, as happy as it made everyone, merely kicked the can along for another year; the Patriots have to be prepared for the very real possibility that post-Achilles Vince isn't worth an $8.5 million cap hit in 2015. Kelly and Siliga are both due to become free agents after this year, with Kelly's age making him a dicey option even year to year. We still don't know if Armstead is good against NFL competition. We saw in 2013 what happens when you play Joe Vellano and Chris Jones too much. Re-stocking the pipeline with a talented prospect would help.

The Patriots have transitioned to a 4-3 base defense, but what they've traditionally run is more of a hybrid scheme because of the presence of Wilfork. In recent years, they've taken to moving Wilfork around to various spots, but still having him play with two-gap principles, taking up space and multiple blockers. His ability to occupy space and blockers helps to free things up for his teammates, most of whom are usually operating with upfield, attacking 4-3 principles. This hybrid of 3-4 and 4-3 principles is similar to what Seattle has done in recent years with Red Bryant, a 323 "defensive end" whose ability to clog the middle and take of up blockers often freed up his linebackers and fellow linemen to make plays.

While the Patriots prefer to have that 2-gapping presence up front, running a 4-3 necessitates linemen who can rush the passer, including from the interior. This is a bit of a new need for the Pats, who previously were more concerned about their linemen's ability to control gaps in a 3-4 than penetrate them. Wilfork contributes to the pass rush just by occupying blockers, but the team's recent acquisitions of Kelly and Armstead demonstrate the team's desire to add inside players who can win one-on-one matchups and get to the quarterback.

Given the uncertain status of Wilfork, they could choose to insure themselves by adding another big, space eater. Given the question marks surrounding Kelly and Armstead, they could choose to add another pass rushing playmaker. If they choose to go either route this year, they could be in luck, as there's a particularly deep and versatile class of defensive tackles this year. As a result, there will likely be talented prospects falling farther than they would in other years, making it a great year to find value.

Ideal fit: Daniel McCullers, Tennessee

You can't teach size, and size is one thing the 6'7", 352 pound McCullers has in abundance. Even by NFL standards, McCullers is a mountain of a man whose pure size demands double teams. McCullers is tough to move against the run, even when double-teamed, and there are moments when he simply overwhelms blockers with his size. He is a bit limited as a pass rusher, but his ability to occupy extra blockers gives him some value there (just as it does for Wilfork), and he flashes the ability to cave the pocket in with his push.

The upside is tantalizing, but McCullers is a bit of a raw prospect. At times his technique gets sloppy, and he predictably has a bad habit of letting his pad level get too high. He was good at Tennessee, but he wasn't able to consistently dominate the way he arguably should have. He's a guy who has yet to put it all together yet, but could become an absolute monster if he does so.

That bust factor combined with the depth at defensive tackle in this draft have most projections pegging McCullers for the third/fourth round, where he could be an intriguing pick for New England. He has tremendous upside for a pick in that range, and New England could be an ideal landing spot for his development. The Patriots have a good track record of developing defensive linemen, and McCulllers is a guy who could really benefit from a year of being around hard working veteran leaders like Vince Wilfork. He's scheme versatile, having played both the nose in a 3-4 and as a 4-3 tackle, but would ideally be used similarly as the Pats use Wilfork now; a massive two-gapper taking up blockers and space to the benefit of his smaller, faster 4-3 based teammates.

The Patriots saw first hand how much a big defensive tackle like this can impact a game when they ran into all 6'3", 335 pounds of Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton in the AFC championship game. Like "Pot Roast", McCullers size gives him dominant potential, but the early portion of his career has created some doubt over whether he'll reach his full potential. It took a few years for Knighton, but his play late last season was a glimpse of what a player like this can bring when focused and motivated. A prospect with that kind of upside is well worth a roll of the dice in the middle rounds.

Other potential fits: 

Timmy Jernigan, Florida State

Jernigan is a tough player to project come draft weekend. Some mocks have him going in the top 15 picks, while others have him falling out of the first round entirely. There's a chance he's on the board when the Patriots make a pick, and a player with his talent level is always worth a discussion.

Jernigan had only two career starts going into this year, as he had previously waited his turn behind eventual NFLers Bjoern Werner, Cornelius Carradane and Brandon Jenkins. However, he took his opportunity and ran with it in 2013, earning All ACC honors and improving throughout the season while racking up 63 tackles (11 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks for the Seminoles. He capped off the season by fighting through the flu to rack up 9 tackles in the National Championship game.

At 6'2" and 299 pounds, Jernigan is a bit undersized, and certainly not built for two-gapping, but he has the potential to be a disruptive force in the backfield. Despite his relatively small size, Jernigan is strong as an ox, and uses his hands well to defeat blockers and penetrate. He's an excellent athlete, with the ability to move laterally and collapse gaps, and he can bring the heat on passing downs. He's also still very young (21) and has a very high ceiling.

Most people think of defensive ends when they think of pass rushers, but having players who can generate pressure up the middle can often be even more valuable. If Jernigan is available, he'll certainly be a tempting option to plug into the defense and bring a jolt to their interior pass rush, while also showing tons of potential as a complete, every-down player.

Louis Nix, Notre Dame

If the Patriots want to add a two-gapper to complement Wilfork/Siliga, the consensus top nose tackle in the draft will certainly be a consideration. Nix is listed as a Wilfork-esque 6'2" and 331 pounds, and he uses that size to command constant double teams. Like Wilfork, Nix is incredibly light on his feet for a man his size, and is surprisingly athletic despite his bulk. However, his best asset is his pure size and power, which he uses to clog up the middle and stuff the run.

Nix is good, but his reputation has begun to exceed his play a little bit. He commanded double teams but has yet to show the ability to defeat them, and didn't dominant as often as he arguably should have. He's had some issues with weight control, and the extra pounds he was carrying in 2013 likely contributed to his play taking a dip from it's breakout 2012 form.

Still, prospects with this specific skill-set are rare and coveted by teams that utilize two-gap principles. As a result, Nix is generally projected to go in the first round, with some linking him to the Patriots at 29. If drafted by New England, Nix would clearly be Wilfork's successor as the franchise's next space-eating monster. However, there's a growing buzz that the Chargers, who desperately need a nose tackle to shore up their 3-4 front, will him if he's there at 25.

Will Sutton, Arizona State

Sutton would be ranked a lot higher if he was coming off of his 2012 performance, when he won Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year after racking up 64 tackles (23.5 for a loss), 13 sacks, 5 batted passes and 3 forced fumbles. However, he returned for his senior year and put on some bad weight after the coaching staff requested that he bulk up. Even with that extra weight slowing him down, Sutton was still a disruptive player, winning Pac 12 DPOY again (undeservedly this time) while compiling 48 tackles (13.5 for loss), four sacks, three passes batted and one interception. Still an off-year combined with a deep crop of DTs will likely push him into third round range.

He could be a steal in that range, as he's flashed exciting ability with the Sun Devils. Sutton has a short, compact build at 6'0" and 297 pounds as of his pro day, and he uses that to his advantage in gaining leverage against taller linemen. He's also tremendously athletic for a big guy, with an explosive first step and spin move, and he can bring the power to penetrate into the backfield. At his best, his game recalls the unconventional dominance of Cincinnati Pro Bowler Geno Atkins, who has a similar combination of short, stout build and quick feet.

Keeping his weight down and his focus up seems to be the key to Sutton. He was listed as 6'1", 267 pounds during his explosive 2012 season. He was most likely a little heavier than that, but he certainly wasn't close to the 315 pounds he weighed during a sluggish showing at the Senior Bowl. He was down to 303 at the combine and 297 at his March 7 Pro Day, and he'd probably be best served to play at around 290.

The culture of accountability in the Patriots locker room could do wonders for Sutton, who has exceptional upside for a prospect who could be available on Day 3. He has the talent to contribute right away as gap penetrating playmaker if his head is screwed on right.

Potential reach: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota 

Hageman is a guy who's been projected to the Patriots at 29 in a lot of mock drafts, with many pundits lauding him as a "classic Belichick player". The only explanation I can come up with for this is that these people haven't been paying attention, as the Patriots have transformed into a base 4-3 team since the days of Richard Seymour and Ty Warren. The days of 300 pound DEs are gone, as the new prototype at end is 6'5", 265 pound Chandler Jones (he's listed at 265, but is probably closer to 270 now based on added definition from the weight room).

Don't get me wrong, Hageman has tremendous upside. At 6'6" and 310 pounds, Hageman is built similarly to a young Seymour, with explosive strength and freakish length. He's an athletic marvel, and flashes the ability to dominate.

However, his performance on tape doesn't come close to matching his talent level. Despite his obvious physical gifts, Hageman was inconsistent at Minnesota. His pad level is a major issue, which prevents him from putting up much of a fight against double teams. He also doesn't display good instincts or awareness of blocking schemes, has little in terms of pass rushing moves, and his motor runs hot and cold. At Minnesota, he was the type of player that would make a "wow" play or two, but also maddeningly disappear for long stretches. The upside is high, but there's a major bust factor here as well.

Furthermore, Hageman simply doesn't fit well into what the Patriots are doing nowadays on defense. Most scouts agree that Hageman is best suited to play a "5" technique as a 3-4 defensive end. While the Patriots do incorporate 3-4 principles in their scheme, they certainly don't utilize the "5" technique enough to justify spending a high pick on that position. He's not a space eater like Nix or McCullers, and he has yet to develop his pass rush ability (only 10 sacks in three years with the Gophers). The only way I could see the Patriots taking him is if they think his potential is too good to pass up, but even then it's tough to imagine considering the alternatives they'll likely have available.

Potential sleeper: Ryan Carrethers, Arkansas State

Carrethers is a pure nose tackle
If the Patriots want to add another space-eater at DT, they could find tremendous value in Carrethers later in the draft. At 6'1" and 337 pounds, he's a pure nose tackle with top-notch, NFL level weight room strength (32 reps of 225 pounds at the combine, 8 more than Louis Nix) and the pure mass to command double teams. He was good in 2012, but he exploded in 2013, registering 93 tackles (an incredible number for a nose tackle), two blocked field goals and a touchdown run while masquerading at fullback.

Two-down players like Carrethers are typically undervalued on draft day, unless they have athleticism that sets them apart (like Wilfork and Nix). Because of Carrethers very limited skillset, he's expected to fall all the way back into the late rounds of the draft.

This could be a terrific value, as Carrethers would be an ideal fit to help lessen Wilfork's workload, something that will be a priority as the Patriots attempt to ease Wilfork back into the rotation. He'd also present solid insurance against Wilfork leaving in 2015, as he's shown nothing that suggests he won't be able to handle manning the nose at the next level.

High-risk, high reward: Dominique Easley, Florida

Easley might be the biggest "high risk, high reward" wild card in the entire draft. He has so much explosive talent that some believe there would have been a legitimate "Clowney or Easley?" debate at this time for the top overall pick had he stayed healthy. However, the only thing scarier than lining up across from Easley is his medical history, which includes ACL surgeries on both of his knees.

First, lets look at the good. Easley is undersized at 6'2", 288, but he has explosive quickness which he uses to penetrate (heh heh) and make plays in the backfield. He knows how to use his natural leverage edge to his advantage, and uses his explosive first step and quick, active hands to quickly disengage and blow by blockers. Florida moved him all around their defensive front, but it didn't matter where he lined up; he was simply to explosive to be blocked. He also plays with a relentless motor and brings palpable energy to a defense.

However, there are a few major red flags on Easley that will push him into the second round. Injuries are the biggest concern, as Easley has had an ACL surgery on each knee during his collegiate career. He tore his the ACL in his left knee in the regular season finale in 2011, but proved to be a quick healer, coming back to start 11 games in 2012 (he did miss two games with a sprained meniscus). However, what was supposed to be his breakthrough 2013 season was cut short after three games when he ruptured the ACL and meniscus in his right knee during a non-contact practice drill. He's recovered enough to reportedly impress teams during workouts, despite being about "80% healed".

He looks like he's largely recovered from that most recent knee injury, and is in the final "regaining strength" portions of his rehab, but tearing both ACLs before even turning pro is some very scary stuff. If you draft Easley, you are doing so knowing his shelf life may be significantly shorter than other players. It's a case that is eerily similar to Rob Gronkowski, in that Easley may be a dominant player, but a dicey year-to-year proposition due to his health.

One other red flag stems from a 2011 incident with former Alabama player Reggie Myles. The University of Florida police department recommended that Easley be charged with misdemeaner battery following the fight, but the State Attorney's office declined to press charges on either player. Keep in mind that was over two years ago now, and Easley was a team captain in Gainesville.

Despite all the red flags, Easley isn't expected to fall out of the second round. The Cowboys, Seahawks, Bears, Rams, Niners and, yes, Patriots are amongst the teams that have shown the most interest in Easley. If you want him, you are going to have to roll the dice in the second round. However, if Easley falls into the late 50s/early 60s range (the Patriots currently hold the 62nd pick), his upside could be too good to pass up.

Easley's disruptive potential is tantalizing, and a defensive-minded head coach like Belichick could be the best person to properly utilize him. Easley's talent and versatility could make him the ultimate Belichick chess-piece, with him being moved all over the defensive formation to create athletic mismatches. He would immediately add a new pass rushing dimension to the team inside, and would give the Patriots defensive line three stand-out players who demand extra attention from blockers: Wilfork, Chandler Jones, and Easley.

What say you, Pats fans? Is Easley worth the risk, or would you rather see them go elsewhere with that pick? Let us know what you think on social media (I'm @therealnedbrady on twitter) and in the comments. Stay tuned tomorrow, when we take a look at a position that will almost certainly get a look on draft day; linebacker.

Ned Brady 4/24/2014 11:55:00 AM Edit

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