By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots lost a ton of talent in free agency, and given their lack of cap space they’ll need to turn to the draft to fill a number of holes. This year’s draft is more crucial than most, as the Tom Brady margin of error is now removed. Keeping that in mind, expect the Patriots to focus on more high ceiling, low floor ‘sure thing’ kinds of players early, while taking chances in later rounds.
With all that information in play, here’s how I see this year’s draft playing out for New England…
1st round, 23rd overall: LB Patrick Queen, LSU
Free agency depleted the Patriots linebacker depth. They need to go out and get solid contributors at the position, and Queen is about as plug-and-play as you’ll find in this draft. A bit undersized compared to what the Patriots usually look for at the position, Queen’s mix of speed and intelligence allows him to play much bigger than he looks.
To adress the two elephants in the room with this pick: Many people are expecting this pick to be a quarterback, but I believe that Jarrett Stidham is penciled in as the starting quarterback, pending something wild like a steep fall for Tua.
As for why they wouldn’t go with a wide receiver? After the top three players at the position (Jeudy, Ruggs, Lamb) who will all likely be gone by the 23rd pick, there’s a ton of depth. Players who other years may go at the back end of the first or early in the second round will be available in the third. Bill Belichick should exercise proper asset management and go with the value later on, while filling a need immediately at a position lacking in depth in this draft.
Taking a defensive player in the first round would also be a step towards confirming the theory that Bill Belichick is turning the Patriots back into a smashmouth football team post-Brady.
The Patriots send a third rounder (87th overall) and fourth rounder (125 overall), as well as a 2021 third rounder to the Chicago Bears for a second rounder (50th overall) and a 2021 seventh rounder.
Coming out of free agency, the Patriots can expect multiple third round comp picks in 2021. That gives them the flexibility to move their own third to recoup the second-round pick they gave up for Mohamed Sanu.
2nd round, 50th overall: TE Cole Kmet, Notre Dame
Some people are going to look at this and think it’s a little high for the 21-year-old Kmet, but being the best tight end in a very thin class will naturally raise his value. Why would the Patriots reach for him? They desperately need a tight end who can step in and start right away.
Pending a trade, Kmet is their last shot at adding that this offseason after failing to sign anyone in free agency. Guys like Adam Trautman or Hunter Bryant certainly project to become NFL-caliber tight ends, but Kmet is the only guy in this years draft who will be at that level on day one.
3rd round, 98th overall: IOL Shane Lemieux, Oregon
This pick would help in both the short and long term. With Ted Karras heading to Miami and David Andrews’ health still in question, the Patriots need a solid plan B at center. Lemieux, a highly intelligent, versatile interior lineman, could serve in that capacity in 2020.
After 2020, the Patriots will likely need a replacement for the franchised Joe Thuney. Lemieux could realistically slide over and have a chance to become a long-term guard if and when Thuney leaves.
3rd round, 100th overall: WR Van Jefferson, Florida
The Patriots just manage to sneak a wide receiver pick into the top 100. Jefferson checks a ton of boxes for the Patriots, particularly at wide receiver. He’s not a tremendous athlete, but he’s able to maximize the tools that he has. He can catch the ball through contact and knows how to use his body. His route running is among the best in the class, not just due to his natural ability to move but also his knack to read the field and find himself open space away from defenders.
On top of all of that, he fits the size profile the Patriots usually target (6-foot-2, 196 pounds), and comes from a football background. His dad Shawn played in the NFL for 12 years, including a three year stint in New England from 1996-1999. He has since gotten into coaching, and is currently the wide receivers coach and an assistant head coach with the New York Jets.
There are a few things working against Jefferson. Again, his speed isn’t great, he needs to use smarts and quickness to get separation from defenders. On top of that he’s one of the oldest players in the draft – he’ll be 24 years old when NFL camps open in July. While those facts may scare some teams away, they seem like the sort of flaws the Patriots may be ok taking on. That could turn this into a real value pick.
5th round, 172nd overall: S Tanner Muse, Clemson
Tanner Muse may be one of the best ‘project players’ in this draft, and we know how Bill Belichick loves himself a project.
The third-team AP All-American played anywhere from edge rusher to deep safety in his time at Clemson. Given his size (6-foot-2, 227 pounds) and perceived lack of speed many project him to end up as a box safety or nickel linebacker at the next level. Still, a 4.41 40 at the combine opened a lot of eyes.
Muse’s ability to cover tight ends up the field and get after the quarterback is a rare mix that is a helpful pairing in the modern age. Throw in the fact that he was a four down player for the Tigers (he was the team’s Co-Special Teams Player of the Year in 2016), and it’s easy to see why the Patriots may be interested. He could fit into Nate Ebner’s old role early with a long term projection of becoming a third-and-long gadget defender.
The Patriots can free up some cap space by taking on less draft picks. Given their 13 selections is the second most in the draft, they lighten the load a little bit and move a pair of sixth rounders (195th and 213th) for a 2021 fifth.
6th round, 205th overall: K Tyler Bass, Georgia Southern
Rodrigo Blankenship is the name everybody wants to talk about, but the reality is Bass may be just as good right now, has the same ceiling, and will go a round later.
Bass knocked down 93 percent of his kicks from 30 to 50 yards out last year. As going for it on fourth down in the red zone and just shy of midfield become more popular (like how the Patriots operated last season), that’s the range that teams will look at, and he dominated it.
7th round, 230th overall: EDGE Oluwole Betiku Jr., Illinois
First off…oh-luh-WOLE-ay Buh-TEE-koo.
Betiku is still incredibly raw, he didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school when his family moved to the United States from Nigeria. Still, with just two years on the field he managed to become a five-star recruit and one of the top ranked high school defensive ends in the nation.
After two years of limited playing time at USC, he joined Illinois as a grad transfer in 2019 where he made the All-Big 10 third team, recording nine sacks in nine games.
The Patriots have made it a habit in recent years of going after elite high school prospects who struggled at the college level (J.C. Jackson and Byron Cowart for instance), and Betiku certainly fits the bill there. They’ve also started bringing in more players with international backgrounds, drafting two such players last year (N’Keal Harry and Hjalte Froholdt), while adding another (Jakob Johnson) as a UDFA. They could bring in Betiku to compete on the practice squad, with the goal of him becoming a rotational pass rusher in two to three years.
Why no quarterback?
You may notice there’s no quarterbacks in this mock draft. Unless they can grab a guy like Justin Herbert or Jordan Love in the first round, anybody they bring in will be redundant to what they have now in Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer, and Cody Kessler. If the goal in bringing in a quarterback is just to add a body, they’d be just as well served with a guy like Brian Lewerke or Cole McDonald, who they could sign as UDFAs.
To see what changed from my first Patriots mock draft, click here.