Final thoughts heading into a Pivotal Patriots Draft
Niang is one of several injured players who could fall further than usual this year. Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Draft day is finally here, albeit under unique circumstances. It won't look anything like what you've been used to, but tonight we'll all sit down in our living rooms, boo Roger Goodell at every opportunity, and watch as the next crop of talent gets selected into the NFL.
This year happens to be the most important draft for the Patriots in quite a long time. The GOAT is no longer under center in New England, which means the Pats are no longer operating under the win now, "championship or its wasted year" mindset that has driven their roster management for the past few years. In fact, years of trading draft picks for proven veterans and a few down years at the draft have Patriots stuck with one of the league's oldest and most expensive rosters. Mainstays such as Donta Hightower, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Julian Edelman and Marcus Cannon remain productive but are dangerously close to their NFL expiration date.
With the roster no longer good enough without Brady to realistically compete for a championship, the time is come for a reset. With the Brady era sadly in the rear view mirror, this draft is an opportunity for the Patriots to begin building the core for a new era. Adding a few core building blocks from this draft for that next core would be a major success. On the other hand, striking out would be a major setback, leaving them with a woefully inadequate amount of young talent to replace their aging veterans.
With that in mind, here are some of the key points to consider going into this Patriots draft
Look to the Future
As I've already stated, we're in rebuilding mode now. This draft is about building the foundation of a roster that can legitimately compete again. That means that filling short term needs is less important now more than ever, as deep down inside we know next season will be more about development and internal progress than win loss results.
That's why the best moves for the Patriots might not be the most popular amongst the fanbase. For example, it's understandable for fans to be pining for a big play receiver or a tight end after the offensive struggles of last season. But that doesn't mean they should they should take one over a better player at another position, even if that other player is unlikely to fill a major roll immediately.
With a lack of proper offseason installation and workouts due to coronavirus serving as extra factors working against rookies this season, drafting with the long term should be more of a strategy around the league. Teams should be lowering expectations for rookies across the board, as they'll be missing out on invaluable practice reps and installation with offseason activities cancelled and training camp questionable at best. Under these circumstances, why would you draft with the expectation of major immediate contributions from your rookie class?
With that in mind, the Patriots could make a high selection or two on players that don't have an immediate starting role. A few positions that come to mind are offensive tackle and safety, where the team returns its starters but will need replacements for Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon in next few seasons. A high selection at either position would disappoint fans hoping offensive playmakers, but acquiring a stud at a hard to fill position like offensive tackle or deep safety would almost certainly benefit the team more in the long run than a skill position player.
Leadership matters more this year
Proven leaders like Murray bring extra appeal. Bryan Terry/the Oklahoman
Brady. McCourty. Hightower. Edelman. Chung. Slater. Those six players have been studs not just on the field but as leaders in the locker room. Throughout all the weird turns and drama of the past decade, those guys have maintained the teams winning culture, holding the rest of the team accountable while leading through the example of their preparation and approach to the game. They succeeded a core of similar leaders (Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk) and grew into being the core of a new championship run of Patriots football.
Brady is already gone. Hightower is entering his contract year, while Edelman, Chung, McCourty and Slater all will do the same next year. All five of those guys are getting dangerously close to their football expiration dates, with Hightower, Edelman and Chung all having lengthy injury histories to boot. It's very possible that none of them are still on the team two years from now.
With that in mind, the Patriots will be drafting looking for guys who are studs both on the field and off it with their preparation and approach. The Patriots culture has always been maintained with a top-down approach; with the expectations and example set and maintained by top players like the aforementioned players. With a need to add players who can grow into that kind of leadership role, look for the almighty "football character" to play heavily into the Pats evaluation of this draft class, particularly in the earlier rounds. The extra incalculable value that those kind of players bring to an organization will give a major boost to the guys that fit the description, with Kenneth Murray and Antoine Winfield Jr being two names that come to mind to me in this department.
The more picks, the merrier
You all know the drill. Pats Fan A thinks that Bill Belichick the GM hurts BB the coach with his subpar drafting, but Pats Fan B disagrees and pulls up Bill's drafting record and all the productive players he's picked or acquired during draft weekend. This argument is tired and old.
It's also pointless, because both sides are right to an extent. Belichick, like all GMs, has had his ups and downs in the draft. He's not infallible as a draft day GM, as any number of fans and radio hosts will gladly tell you. Despite that, he does have an overall successful record, with even his less renowned drafts typically landing unheralded contributors and diamond in the rough finds.
The key has always been valuing volume when it comes to drafting. No GM, not even a historical football figure like Belichick, can truly know how these players will acclimate to the pro game. Regardless of how much you study these prospects and get to know them, submitting a draft pick is always ultimately a guess that you hope you get right.
Knowing this, Belichick has always valued acquiring picks, often infuriating fans in the process by trading down. The strategy makes sense at a basic logical level: the more picks you make, the more chances you have of guessing right landing a good player who will help your team. After all, that's all we're trying to accomplish here, right?
That strategy certainly could apply here. Belichick is known to loathe long gaps in the draft board and the Patriots are currently slated to sit for 64 picks between their pick at 23 and their next selection at 87. It would shocking if they don't do something to acquire picks to fill that gap, be it by trading back from their first round pick or by moving a veteran from their roster (more on that possibility later). Extra picks also give them maximum flexibility to move around the board and target "their guys", which has always been how Belichick operates on draft weekend.
Value sweet spot
Of course we'll never know how the board plays out until the draft actually happens. Every year we see surprise names come off the board long before expected and names once projected to go in the first round fall to day three every year. After studying this draft class extensively, it appears to me that there might be a sweet spot of value in this draft from the final picks of the second round through the early and middle portions of the third round.
Here's my thinking: There's seems to be a consensus 15 player "elite tier" of this draft; three quarterbacks (Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert), three receivers (Ceedee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs), the big 4 offensive tackles (Jedrick Wills, Andrew Thomas, Tristan Wirfs, Mekhi Becton), two defensive tackles (Derrick Brown and Javon Kinlaw), one linebacker (Isaiah Simmons) and two corners (Jeff Okudah, CJ Henderson). After that there's a handful of players with first round value/potential, depending on your board, and then a vast sea of similarly rated players, all with exciting upside, none without flaws. At that point, the difference between players is more decided by scheme and organization fit than talent.
That pool of similarly rated talent should extend pretty deep into the third round, making the first 10-15 picks of that round a potential gold mine of second round talent still available. Some of the guys that fall might do so due to being perceived as "riskier", some might just not be an option for as many teams due to scheme fit. Regardless of how they fell there, there should be plenty of intriguing talent available in this range.
This could be where some of the classes injury red flags come off the board, as players recovering from injuries are bound to fall further than normal this year due to team's incomplete medical checks. Offensive tackle Lucas Niang, defensive end Darrell Taylor and wide receiver Bryan Edwards are three such players I find particularly intriguing in this range. All three have explosive athletic talent and would likely be first or second round players if healthy, but didn't partake in the Senior Bowl or combine testing due to injuries they were rehabbing. With teams unable to get their own doctors opinions on their recovery and long term outlooks, none of them will likely go until the late second round range. All three have the potential to develop into high level starters at the pro level if they are able to regain full health.
The Patriots have always been willing to exchange value for medical risk on draft day, with varying results (Gronk good, Dom Easley bad). With most rookies likely to struggle more than usual with their transition to the pro game, this could be the perfect year to roll the dice on that type of player; a medical risk, but one that could pay off big time if the player is able to stay relatively healthy.
Don't forget about the NFL guys
Howard could be acquired to fill the TE void. Stephen Morton/AP Photo
We think about college players when we think about the NFL draft, but there is plenty of player movement among active NFL players as well. Patriots fans show know better than to dismiss the possibility of turning draft picks into proven NFL talent, as the 2018 draft saw the Patriots flip a late third round pick to the Niners for Trent Brown. Brown, of course, gave the team excellent play at left tackle during a season that ended with a championship.
From a Patriots perspective, they might be the sellers this time around as a rebuilding team with several expensive veterans who could still help a team trying to win now. The prime candidate for a trade remains Joe Thuney, as his representation and the team remain far apart in negotiations for a new deal. With the likelihood of striking a deal dwindling and Thuney's franchise tag taking up $14.8 million on a team desperate for cap space, Thuney could easily be dealt for picks this weekend. Edelman and Hightower are other veterans whose age and contract situations could lead to them being dangled in trade talks as well, but the entering-his-prime Thuney will fetch the best compensation and open up the most cap space by leaving.
Trading a veteran for picks will open up plenty of possibilities for the rest of the draft. Not only would the picks acquired help to bridge that glaring gap between 23 and 87, but the cap space freed by such a move would open up possibilities as far as veteran player acquisition. With just over $1.1 million in space currently, the Pats don't have enough space to even sign their rookie class. A move like trading Thuney would make them suddenly comfortably under the cap, putting them in the market to perhaps trade a pick for a veteran to fill a position of need like tight end. OJ Howard remains an intriguing name that is rumored to be available for the right price, and he would provide much more relief at the tight end position than any rookie attempting break into the league with no offseason program or mini camp.