Ngakoue brings serious pass rushing upside. Image via USA Today Sports
I've been counting down the days leading up to the draft with a positional review of each of the Patriots projected draft needs. With the draft somehow only a day away now, I'm consolidating the final two positions into one piece: off-the-ball linebackers and edge defenders.
Both positions are relatively well-stocked for this season, but things could change drastically on the depth chart next offseason depending on who stays and who leaves via free agency. At linebacker, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are arguably the league's best starting duo when healthy. Both missed time last year with injuries, which led to more snaps than expected for Jonathan Freeny. Previously known for his special teams capabilities with the Dolphins, Freeny surprisingly surpassed Jerod Mayo on the depth chart and wound up a starter for significant chunks of the season. While he exceeded expectations by earning that role, his uneven play as a starter suggested the team could stand to upgrade it's depth. That led to the offseason signing of Shea McClellin, a former first round pick whom the Patriots reportedly coveted during the 2012 draft. McClellin looked like a massive bust after failing to generate pressure as a defensive end during his first two seasons, but showed promise the past two years after converting to an off-the-ball linebacker. The years and total money on McClellin's deal suggests the Patriots see a significant role for him, which likely pushes Freeny down to fourth on the depth chart and back into a primary special teams role. Competing for depth roles behind those four are former Bears second round pick Jon Bostic, recent signing Tony Steward, veteran special teams addition Ramon Humber, and unproven second year players James Vaughters and Kevin Snyder.
The depth chart at defensive end took a hit with the Chandler Jones trade, but the team had already prepared for the eventual departure of Jones by drafting both Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom last spring. Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard return as the clear starters, but the team's preference to rotate it's defensive linemen will likely mean someone will earn significant snaps alongside those two. Right now, it looks like Flowers will be in a battle with veteran signing Chris Long, an aging star looking to prove he can replicate his prior form with a clean bill of health. Flowers was uber productive in the SEC and showed impressive flashes during the preseason, but became an after thought once the regular season began due to a deep depth chart and his own lack of special teams value. It's worth mentioning that Sheard, Flowers and Grissom all can bump inside on passing downs, which could factor into the team's plans to replace the interior pass rush of Dominique Easley.
The major question marks hit next offseason, when Hightower, Collins, Sheard, Ninkovich, Long, Freeny, Bostic and Humber are all scheduled to hit free agency. Hightower and Collins figure to top the team's priorities, but it wouldn't be shocking to see one of them walk if their market value gets out of control. Sheard could cash in big time with another team if he repeats the pass rushing form he showed last season, while Ninkovich will be a 33 year old by the time he hits the market. The signing of McClellin and drafting of Flowers insured them somewhat against potential departures, but next year's numbers crunch strongly suggests the Pats will need more reinforcements at one of these positions next offseason.
Out of reach
Without a first round pick, early NFL futures lines predict the Patriots can't expect to land a truly elite prospect at any position. At linebacker, they'll certainly miss out on UCLA's Myles Jack, Georgia's Leonard Floyd (whose stock has risen thanks partly to the success of Collins in New England), Ohio State's Darron Lee and Alabama's Reggie Ragland. As far as edge defenders go, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and the Clemson duo of Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd will surely be off the board. Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah and Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence are both wild cards who could fall farther than expected come draft day, but neither are likely to fall too far into the second round.
Day two targets:
Yannick Ngakoue: Maryland
If drafted by New England, the Patriots will be hoping that Ngakoue becomes as much of a nuisance for opposing quarterbacks as his name will be for beat reporters. That was the case last fall during a breakthrough junior season that saw him finish second in the nation with 13.5 sacks (along with an impressive 45 pressures). At 6'2" and just 252 pounds, Ngakoue is smaller than the typical Patriots edge player, and will likely need to add muscle to his frame to hold the edge on running downs at the pro level. However, he possesses excellent quickness and flexibility as a pass rusher. The ability to bend around the edge and maintain balance is a natural talent that can't be taught, and Ngakoue combined that with his strong motor to put up impressive production for the Terrapins. His natural talent gives him the upside to develop into an explosive edge rusher at the next level, particularly if he adds some refinement to his approach as a rusher. He'll be a situational edge rusher at the start of his career, and would give the Patriots a high-upside rusher to pair with Flowers should Ninkovich and Sheard leave following this season. The Patriots appear to be very intrigued by that possibility, as they've put him through a private workout and used one of their 30 pre-draft visits on hi since originally meeting with him at the combine.
Nassib's lunch pail game has been compared to Jared Allen's
Carl Nassib: Penn State
A former walk-on, Nassib was once told by then-head coach Bill O'Brien that he should forget about playing pro football. Four years later, he projects as a day two pick after leading the nation with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles as a redshirt senior (despite missing two games with injury). As impressive as those numbers are, Nassib was a one year wonder in college, and scouts question his ceiling as a pro due to a lack of elite explosiveness. However, Nassib is a tactician who combines good upfield burst and a non-stop motor with excellent length and hand usage to get the most out of his natural talent. His skillset and body type have earned comparisons to Jared Allen, another over-acheiver who racked up eye-opening production despite a lack of prototype measurables. He also validated his senior year success with an impressive showing against good competition at the Senior Bowl. He'll need to get stronger, particularly in his lower body, to reach his full potential at the next level, but Nassib has already proven that no one will outwork him. He's likely to slide farther in the draft than he should due to his lack of measurables, and could become an absolute steal for someone if he remains available well into the third round.
Joshua Perry: Ohio State
Perry's Buckeye teammate Lee has gotten more buzz as a potential first round pick, but Perry better fits the Patriots preferences at linebacker. Fewer and fewer linebackers come out each year with the size that Belichick seeks from the position, but the 6'4", 254 pound Perry is an old-school thumper against the run. A renowned worker and leader for the Buckeyes, Perry earned All Big 10 honors for his play as a senior after leading the National Championship team in tackles the previous season. Perry is instinctive, physical and tough, but his average athleticism has scouts questioning his ability to stay on the field on passing downs. That could push him all the way down to the Patriots range at the end of the third round, where'd he'd offer value as a potential future starter.
Calhoun is long and explosive off the edge
Shilique Calhoun: Michigan State
Like Ngakoue, Calhoun was highly productive in college but will need to gain weight to realize his full potential at the next level. Calhoun earned All-America honors in three straight seasons for the Spartans, including a 10.5 sack senior season this fall. Like Ngakoue, Calhoun has the natural ability to maintain balance while bending around the edge, a skill that combined with his excellent burst off the snap and length to lead to consistent production in college. However, also like Ngakoue, Calhoun is a twig at the NFL level. He'll be a liability against the run until he adds more muscle to his 6'4", 251 pound frame, and he could be overpowered by bigger tackles as well early on. He'd project as a pass rushing specialist early in his career with the upside to develop into an explosive, impact pass rusher if he fills out his frame and adds more refinement to his pass rushing moves. For what it's worth, Yahoo's Charles Robinson has reported that the Patriots "have worked on" Calhoun, adding that he could see them trading back into the first round to land him with the fifth year option available on first round rookie deals. That seems like a stretch to me, but Calhoun certainly could be a target if he begins to fall in the second round.
Kamalei Correa: Boise State
An underclassman entry to this draft, Correa is smaller than most Patriots edge defenders but comes with an impressive burst of the edge. At 6'3" and 243 pounds, Correa brings twitchy athleticism and a non-stop motor to the field, where he 19 sacks and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons. Scouts believe he has plenty of upside, as achieved much of that production due to hustle and aggressiveness rather than refined pass rush moves, but he'll also have to add bulk to hold up on the edge at the NFL level. While his ability to chase down ball-carriers from sideline to sideline is impressive, he'll struggle to hold the edge early on his career, and bigger tackles could engulf him in protection. Still, his athletic upside has made him a draft riser throughout the process, with some even believing he has an outside chance to go in the first round. I consider that somewhat unlikely, but think he's likely to get overdrafted early in the second round due to this draft's lack of pure pass rushers. The Patriots did their homework on him in case he slides into their range by meeting with him at the combine.
Jenkins brings a physical presence against the run
Jordan Jenkins: Georgia
An underrated contributor throughout his career with the Bulldogs, Jenkins lacks the high-end athleticism or draft buzz of his teammate Leonard Floyd, but has a pro-ready skillset that should enable him to contribute to an NFL defense early in his career. Capable of playing either as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker or as a 4-3 defensive end with his hand in the dirt, Jenkins has pro-ready size (6'3", 259), which he uses to set a physical edge. Scouts love his instincts and smarts on the field, and he uses his length and powerful hands well to stack and shed defenders against the run. He also earns points for his versatility, as he can handle himself in zone coverage remarkably well for a power player. While all of those skills will prove useful for a defense, Jenkins is a lower upside prospect due to average quickness and burst, which limits his ability to be dynamic as a pass rusher. He'll use power and leverage to get the occasional sack, but Jenkins isn't going to be a double digit sack player anytime soon at the pro level. Therefore, he's likely to last well into day three if not into day four, where he'll offer serious value as a pro ready run defender on the edge. The Patriots have shown significant interest in him by putting him through a private workout since meeting with him at the combine.
Jaylon Smith: Notre Dame
One of the draft's biggest wild cards, Smith seemed destined to be a top 10 pick prior to suffering a devastating knee injury in Notre Dame's bowl game. Now he's unlikely to play at all in 2016 and faces questions about whether he'll ever recover from ongoing nerve damage in his foot. Many teams are reportedly scared off by Smith's medicals; while the nerves in his foot are likely to regenerate, it will be impossible for teams to know for sure prior to this weekend's draft. Thus, he's likely to fall out of the first round, although he could be picked at any point on day two by a team willing to gamble on his upside. If Smith does fully recover for 2017, the team patient enough to take him on day two will be getting a mega-bargain, as Smith has the potential to become an elite, every-down linebacker at the next level. At just 225 pounds, he's significantly smaller than what the Patriots typically look for from their linebackers, but he has (had?) elite athleticism. When healthy, his sideline-to-sideline range is nearly unparalleled, and he also projects as one of the games top coverage linebackers if he makes a full recovery. He'd certainly be a luxury pick in New England, but the value of stashing a potentially elite prospect could be tough to pass up if Smith is still on the board late in the third round. New England is one of the few teams with both the draft capital and overall roster depth to afford to make such a high-upside gamble.
Ward is raw but has intriguing tools and tons of upside
Jihad Ward: Illinois
A raw prospect with tremendous upside, Ward has physical traits that could make him an intriguing defensive chess piece for Belichick and Patricia. A former receiver and safety as a JuCo prospect, Ward bulked up all the way to the 6'5", 297 pounds he currently weighs in at as a versatile defensive lineman. I'm projecting Ward primarily as a powerful edge setting end in New England, but Ward's versatility to bump inside and play multiple spots and techniques is likely attractive to the Patriots coaches. Ward has the length and power to effectively two gap, and he has the potential to improve dramatically as a pass rusher with more experience and coaching. Ward's backstory as a former poverty-stricken JuCo player is fascinating and highlights the never-ending work ethic that built him from an obscure prospect to an intriguing, high-upside day two pick (seriously, click that link and read the piece, it's worth your time). The Patriots unsurprisingly seem interested in Ward's upside and versatility, and met with him at the combine.
Bronson Kaufusi: BYU
A unique athlete with impressive collegiate production, Kaufusi spent his first two years on campus as a two-sport athlete splitting his time between basketball and football. He quit basketball to focus on football as a junior and appears to have made the right decision after earning All Independent honors in back-to-back seasons along with landing on the Nagurski trophy and Bednarik award watch lists as a senior. At 6'6" and 285 pounds (20 of which have been added since the season's end), he brings a unique body type to the field, which sometimes makes it difficult for him to maintain proper pad level. However, Kaufusi has the desired length to set the edge (34 1/2" arms) and plays with a non-stop motor. He also displayed a knack for making disruptive plays on special teams, using his long levers to block both a field goal and a punt as a senior. There's plenty to like here, but he'll likely need to continue adding muscle to his frame to hold up as an every down player at the next level. Scouts also question his upside, as many of his sacks came from hustle rather than dynamic pass rushing ability. The Patriots have met with Kaufusi this spring and would likely consider him an upside developmental pick if they nab at some point on day three.
Day three targets:
Alex McCalister: Florida
McCalister is very raw and undersized (6'6", 239), but he has some exciting physical traits to work with. His burst of the snap and length are both well-above average, even at the NFL level, and he flashed pass rushing upside by recording 12.5 sacks over the past two years despite playing in under 40% of the defensive snaps. However, his ability to gain or even maintain weight is a serious question, and McCalister was also booted from the Florida program at the end of the year after multiple suspensions for violations of team rules. He could be a late round upside gamble if the Patriots liked what they saw when meeting him at the combine.
Steven Daniels: Boston College
Daniels is likely to fall well into day three due to his coverage limitations, which make him a dinosaur as an early down thumper at inside linebacker. However, he flashed the potential to be dominant in the right role in college, as he was one of the nations best run defenders for the Eagles. The Patriots have valued early down thumpers against the run more than most teams and have taken advantage of the extra access provided to local prospects with him. Plays like this illustrate why he's earned comparisons to former Patriot Brandon Spikes throughout the draft process.
A former top 10 defensive end recruit, Bailey had a solid but unspectacular career for the Bulldogs. He brings impressive length, strength and toughness to the defensive line, where he projects as a physical edge setter but has the versatility to play multiple spots on the line. He also earns points for his work ethic and leadership, both which were lauded by his teammates and coaches in Athens. Bailey lacks the athleticism or pass rushing upside to be an early round pick, but he could be an early down contributor. For what it's worth, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia met with Bailey and put him through a workout following Georgia's pro day.
De'Vondre Campbell: Minnesota
A two year starter for the Gophers, Campbell earned an All Big 10 honorable mention nod for his senior season. At 6'4" and 232 pounds, Campbell is a little undersized for the Patriots usual tastes, but he has athleticism in spades and brings some pop behind his pads as a hitter. There's some upside here, but Campbell will be a project early on thanks to inconsistent technique and poor instincts. The Patriots worked him out privately right after the conclusion of his pro day.
Theiren Cockran: Minnesota
Another All Big 10 honorable mention defender from Minnesota, Cockran is a long lanky defensive end who will be undersized (6'4", 252 pounds) at the NFL level early on. Cockran has the frame to add more weight and solid length and burst as a pass rusher, but he wasn't overly explosive or productive in college. A potential late round pick or undrafted free agent, Cockran was also put through a private workout with the Patriots immediately after his pro day.
CJ Johnson: Mississippi
An undersized tweener at 6'1", 234 pounds, Johnson converted from defensive end to linebacker as a senior for the Rebels. Johnson was obviously far too undersized to play defensive line at the next level, and he's still a very raw project at linebacker. However, coaches and teammates rave about his work ethic and leadership, which could give him a chance to make the same position convertion that Tedy Bruschi did years before him. The Patriots met with Johnson at the combine.
Desmond Morgan: Michigan
Morgan was a productive four year starter for the Wolverines, but a lack of prototype size and athleticism has him considered a late round pick at best and possibly an undrafted free agent. Whichever team acquires him will hope that the 6'1", 236 pound Morgan can continue to use his superb instincts and hustle to make up for a lack of elite athleticism, just as similarly skilled Zach Thomas did for years with the Dolphins. The Patriots worked with him at Michigan's pro day.
Dadi Nicolas: Virginia Tech
Another undersized hybrid type of prospect, the 6'3", 235 pound Nicolas was woefully miscast as a 4-3 end for the Hokies. He was a liability against the run in college due to his lack of size and power and will continue to be overwhelmed as a pro if he stays on the line of scrimmage. However, Nicolas has the athleticism to contribute in some way to a defense, perhaps as a late convert to an off-the-ball linebacker role where his sideline-to-sideline speed could be better utilized. The Patriots met with him at the combine.