By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The NFL offseason is officially upon us, which means mock draft season can fully begin. While draft projections in general are hard to nail down, the upcoming offseason is a new level of unpredictable, with expected unprecedented player movement on top of the COVID-related limitations imposed on events such as the Combine, pro days, etc.
Keeping that in mind, there’s some assumptions that had to be made in putting together a mock draft before internal free agency, external free agency, and prospect workouts. Before getting into the selections, let’s just clear up some of that context.
New England’s biggest unknown is, of course, the quarterback situation. For this draft, I worked under the assumption that the Patriots don’t make a major move at quarterback. No Wentz, Carr, Garoppolo, or any of the other clear starters on the market. Maybe they add a bridge veteran like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tyrod Taylor, but they’re still very much in need of a franchise QB.
Meanwhile, in this scenario the Patriots do spend money bringing in at least one big name free agent wide receiver. I’ll leave the name up to your imagination, but this draft was conducted under the assumption they’ve already upgraded at the position.
As for the internal free agents, assume the consensus results. David Andrews is back, Joe Thuney is gone. James White is back, Deatrich Wise is gone. Also, for the sake of this mock draft, let’s say all of the opt outs return.
I was tempted to trade Gilmore, but there’s already enough guesses here. For now, he remains in New England at least through April. I’ll save that move for a future mock draft (unless it happens in reality first).
One more note – the NFL likely won’t release the exact comp picks until early March. In the meantime, this mock uses the OverTheCap.com projections.
Alright, that’s enough context. Let’s get to the draft.
Round 1 Pick 15: Trade
|Jaguars get:||Patriots get:|
|15th pick (1st round)
96th pick (3rd round)
196th pick (6th round)
2022 4th-round pick
|25th pick (1st round)
47th pick (2nd round)
106th pick (4th round)
This trade makes sense for the Patriots because quality will be as important as quantity in this year’s draft. Yes, they move down 10 spots in the first round, but go up 49 spots from the third to second round, and 40 spots from the sixth to the fourth round. All of that movement happens without altering the total number of picks they have at their disposal in 2021.
On top of that, there is absolutely no chance Bill Belichick keeps the Tom Brady comp pick, which is the third-rounder used here. He won’t allow Brady’s departure to be tied to one single player. If you thought the Jimmy Garoppolo trade tree was wild, just wait.
Round 1 Pick 25: QB Mac Jones, Alabama
Mac Jones at 25th overall may be a bit of a stretch – especially after his performance at the Senior Bowl – but it’s not as unrealistic as you may think. The quarterback market as a whole will fluctuate wildly as the offseason goes on, which will swing Jones’ stock.
Right now NFL teams see the haul the Lions got for Matthew Stafford, and want to cash in with their own borderline QB. For example, the Raiders seem to think they can get two first-round picks for Derek Carr. The more veteran QBs that are traded, the more it pushes down Jones’ draft stock.
As for Jones himself, he seems to be the consensus pick for the Patriots right now. He checks so many of their boxes – from his football IQ to his ball security, to being an Alabama product and Senior Bowl participant.
It’s understandable if Jones doesn’t “do it” for some people. He’s not flashy like Justin Fields or Zach Wilson. But the Patriots aren’t in a spot to just plug in a QB and instantly become competitive. They need talent all over their roster, and trading down for Jones gives them more freedom.
Plus, what he lacks in ceiling he makes up for in floor. He represents a safe pick for a Patriots team that needs some stability. Even if he ends up being a net-neutral – a quarterback who doesn’t make plays on his own but also doesn’t make mistakes – that’s ok. The Patriots have the salary cap flexibility to surround him with NFL-ready talent on Day 1.
The 49ers reached the Super Bowl last season with Jimmy Garoppolo being a net-neutral. Tennessee was a game away with Ryan Tannehill. Obviously the Patriots don’t have the same roster as either of those teams right now, but they have the assets to expedite the process of getting to that point.
Round 2 Pick 46: LB Chazz Surratt, North Carolina
Chazz Surratt is, admittedly, a risky pick. But the Patriots need a linebacker in a weak linebacker year, and Micah Parsons just isn’t going to fall to them.
What makes Surratt risky? He’s very new to the position. Originally, Surratt was recruited to North Carolina as a dual-threat quarterback. Two years in however, he recognized his only path to the NFL was through a position change – especially after the Tar Heels added Sam Howell in 2018.
Once moving to the linebacker position, Surratt made an instant impact. He recorded 115 tackles, 15 for a loss, and 6.5 sacks as a junior in 2019. That effort earned him a first-team All-ACC nod, and he was runner up for ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Again, it was his first season playing on the defensive side of the football. In 2020, Surratt proved that performance was beyond a fluke as he once again was named first-team All-ACC.
As he learned the nuances of the linebacker position, Surratt relied on his natural athletic ability and general football IQ to carry him. Right away, he proved to be a sideline-to-sideline defender who could be physical at the point of attack. He also showed a knack for at least basic coverage, being trusted to drop into zone and at times taking tight ends in man-to-man assignments.
Surratt should be able to contribute as a traditional outside linebacker right away. If he continues to bulk up (he’s currently 6-foot-1, 227 pounds) and picks up the intricacies of playing linebacker at the professional level, he should be able to handle middle linebacker assignments as well.
Whatever team drafts Surratt is going to need strong coaching to get the most out of him, and as soon as possible. So what better place is there for him to land, than in a building where he’ll regularly get to work with Bill Belichick, Jerod Mayo, and Dont’a Hightower?
Assuming he hits his projections, Surratt could actually end up a fit for Dont’a Hightower’s role – switching between middle linebacker and edge rusher depending on the situation. He might be slightly more or a risk than the typical top-50 draft pick, but the potential reward on that risk is incredibly high as well.
Round 2 Pick 47: Trade
|Bears get:||Patriots get:|
|47th pick (2nd round)
145th pick (4th round)
242nd pick (7th round)
|52nd pick (2nd round)
2022 4th-round pick
Once again, the Patriots move down to move up. By dropping five spots in the second round, they turn the second-to-last pick in this year’s fourth round into what should be an early-to-middle fourth round pick in 2022. That also recoups the future pick they gave up in the Jacksonville trade.
Round 2 Pick 52: DL Marvin Wilson, Florida State
The Patriots have a solid history with big yet athletic defensive linemen from ACC Florida schools, and Marvin Wilson fits that description. He moves surprisingly well given his 6-foot-3, 319 pound frame, which allows him to be effective in both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts.
Wilson’s most noticeable trait is how well he gets off the line of scrimmage, and transfers into this initial move. He can hand fight his way past an offensive lineman, or just use his strength and momentum to just push an overly-aggressive blocker over.
After winning at the point of attack, he can use his athleticism to chase down quarterbacks and even running backs on screen plays. To cap things off, Wilson is a sure tackler as well.
Currently, Wilson projects as a situational interior pass rusher. With Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler both pending free agents, adding another player of that mold this offseason is key. Even if both come back, the injuries that tend to pile up at the position still make this a solid pick.
So that’s Wilson’s current fit, but it’s his potential that makes him worth a second-round look. As strong as he is with his upper half, he’s yet to completely add his legs to the equation. Getting him in both an NFL weight room and working with NFL coaches should help bring along the lower body element of his game. If he can figure out how to incorporate his base more into his overall attack, he has the tools to become a three-down defensive tackle.
Round 3 Pick 74: Trade
|Patriots get:||Cowboys get:|
|74th pick (3rd round)||120th pick (4th round)
2023 4th-round pick
Bill Belichick rarely lets major gaps pass without making a pick. 52 to 106 is too much of a break, so the Patriots use a future asset to jump back into the third round, and pick up a bonus top-100 pick.
Round 3 Pick 74: WR Jaelon Darden, North Texas
“Making someone miss is like waking up in the morning and brushing my teeth…I gotta do it every day.” That’s what Jaelon Darden told a TV crew during a pregame interview during his time at North Texas. It’s a bold statement, but he backs it up and then some.
This might be a little high for Darden, who is currently seen as a borderline top-100 pick. But given his skillset, the Patriots will likely be higher on him than most teams.
Darden does most of his damage with yards after the catch, as is made obvious by both the quote above and another line he gave later in the interview, “slow feet don’t eat.” He matches his twitch and elite footwork with explosiveness out of his cuts, which results in plays where he weaves his way between defenders as he gets downfield.
That explosiveness as a ball carrier transfers to special teams as well. Darden returned both kicks and punts for the Mean Green, although those responsibilities dropped off later in his career as he became a more featured part of the offense.
The 2021 draft class features a number of wide receivers who fit the mold of the newest, wildly popular NFL weapon – fast, shift players who do most of their damage after catching the football. Jaylen Waddle is at the top of that group, followed by Kadarius Toney. Darden falls in behind them, although to much less fanfare.
Darden should compete at the NFL level from day one as a slot receiver heavy on screens, and can maybe even be used out of the backfield in the right scheme. His upside will be determined by how the rest of his route tree rounds out, although his size (5-foot-9, 170 pounds) will always be a question.
Round 4 Pick 106: T James Hudson, Cincinnati
It just wouldn’t be the NFL Draft if the Patriots didn’t take a developmental tackle prospect, so here we are. Coming off a strong week at the Senior Bowl, Hudson has been described as the best project tackle in the draft.
Hudson as all the unteachable traits. With his size (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), raw strength, and mobility, there’s no questions about him having what it takes physically to play tackle at the next level.
#Cincinnati OT James Hudson III (6-4, 302) has flashed some serious potential. His athleticism stands out as well. Springy initial steps out of his pass sets.— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) January 28, 2021
Former defensive lineman while at Michigan, who could be a nice project for zone blocking scheme teams. pic.twitter.com/uwh40qEexP
That being said, Hudson still needs a lot of coaching to be ready for a regular role in the NFL. Originally recruited to Michigan as a four-star defensive lineman, Hudson played sparingly for the Wolverines. He transferred to Cincinnati in 2019, but played in just one game. 2020 was his first and only full year as a starter.
Given the Patriots’ strong history when it comes to developing offensive linemen, Hudson is the perfect pick for them. He can already do all of the things they can’t teach, and they’ll have at least a year to work with him before they need him in a significant role, with Isaiah Wynn being in the final guaranteed year of his rookie deal. After the 2021 season, they can reassess and decide if he’s made enough progress to replace either Wynn or Marcus Cannon.
Round 4 Pick 139: S Richard LeCounte III, Georgia
This time last year, LeCounte was penciled in as one of the top safeties of this draft class, and a late first round pick. However, a dirt bike accident in late October limited him to just five games in 2020, and has teams second-guessing his draft stock.
We’ll start with the accident, since I can only assume some people reading this are already fuming at the mere suggestion the Patriots draft a kid who once rode a dirt bike. According to the Athens-Clarke County Police report, LeCounte’s bike struck a car attempting to turn into a gas station. That pushed the bike into oncoming traffic, where it was hit a second time.
Miraculously, LeCounte suffered only non-life threatening injuries, and didn’t even need surgery. It’s believed the helmet he was wearing at the time saved his life.
Naturally, there are questions about the decisions around the accident. However, it’s not like LeCounte has a reckless history. If anything, the incident seems out of character based on how those around him and who cover the Georgia Bulldogs talk about him. He’s been praised for his work ethic and leadership ability, and was named a team captain heading into the 2020 season.
That work ethic shows up on film too. LeCounte is a highly-instinctual player, and already breaks on plays at an NFL level. Whether it’s pre-snap or during the play, he seems to possess a next-level understanding of what opposing offenses are trying to do. He’s also shown some versatility, occasionally lining up as a slot cornerback in man coverage. On top of that, he was a core special teams player for the Bulldogs.
For everything he brings to the table mentally, the biggest on-field concern with LeCounte is his physical makeup. He’s not going to be the biggest (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) or fastest player on the field. Tackling bigger backs and tight ends can be a struggle at times (although he’ll surprise you with the occasional big hit), and he has to use his instincts and strong ball skills to make up for his lack of explosiveness.
Those shortcomings, combined with the dirt bike accident and ensuing injuries that held him out of the Senior Bowl two weeks ago, are going to give teams pause. When it comes to the interview stage of the draft process, he’s going to have tough questions to answer. Given his natural abilities though, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t at least one team who will want to take a chance on him if he falls to Day 3.
Should the Patriots be the team to take that chance? LeCounte will probably never be a true elite centerfield safety like Devin McCourty, but he could be very successful in a secondary deep safety role, similar to the one Duron Harmon played during his time in New England. Combine that with his ability to also play spot corner and special teams, leadership trait and work ethic, plus the Georgia connection, and he makes a ton of sense for New England if everything checks out regarding the October incident.
Round 5 Pick 160: EDGE Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa’s Elerson Smith is an interesting prospect with a ton of upside. Right away, his frame stands out at 6-foot-7 with an 83-inch wingspan. As Patriots fans will remember from watching Chandler Jones, long arms can do wonders for a pass rusher when it comes to leverage.
With that kind of size and raw athleticism, he was a monster for the Panthers. As a junior, he led the FCS in sacks with 14, to go along with 21.5 tackles for losses. FCS teams didn’t play in 2020 due to COVID, so that ended up being his last full college season.
Despite having not played in a year, Smith put together a strong showing at the Senior Bowl. Aside from his performance on the field, his weigh-in also likely caught the attention of scouts. As a junior, Smith played at 245 pounds – too small for him to be effective with his style of play at the NFL level. He showed up to Mobile at 262 pounds, and reportedly plans to add another 10-15 more to his frame. Assuming he can maintain his quickness with the extra weight, it will go a long way in helping him last in the NFL.
Outstanding TFL by Elerson Smith on the reverse pic.twitter.com/cUSCaSVyPh— Billy M (@BillyM_91) January 30, 2021
While he was able to compete with Power 5 prospects at the Senior Bowl, Smith still needs to refine his technique, especially at his new size. Right now, he’s purely an off the edge rusher. If teams want him to also be able to work to the inside, he’ll need to learn how to generate more power from his base.
The Patriots love drafting players they can coach up, and mold their game to specifically fit the defensive scheme. Smith gives them that kind of canvas, without question. However, his effectiveness against the run at the next level is a question mark, and at least to start he’ll be limited almost exclusively to a sub pass rusher role. That puts a ceiling on his value, but his other attributes should be enough to catch the Patriots’ interest if he’s still there midway through Day 3.
Round 6 Pick 201: TE Tre’ McKitty, Georgia/Florida State
After the kind of production the Patriots got (or didn’t get) from their tight end position last year, fans may roll their eyes seeing a sixth-round tight end pick. However, context is key here. The 2020 draft class was historically weak for tight ends, while the 2021 class is historically strong. McKitty would have likely been a significantly higher pick last season, and likewise guys like Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene would probably be ranked somewhat lower had they entered the draft this year.
So what makes McKitty enticing? He can do everything. At Florida State he was used both as a receiver and blocker, and proved to be capable of both. While he’s not outstanding at any one thing, he’s going to be capable of whatever assignment he’s given. Again, looking back on the Patriots’ tight end play from last year, that would be an upgrade.
On top of that, McKitty is described by those who have been around him as a football junkie, constantly studying and watching film. Due to coaching changes during his time with the Seminoles, McKitty ended up having to learn three different playbooks and offensive systems. By all accounts, he was able to do so.
In his two full seasons at Florida State, McKitty caught 49 passes for 497 yards and two touchdowns. He then transferred to Georgia in 2020, where he noticeably refined his skills as a blocker.
At 6-foot-4, 247 pounds, he’s big enough to block linebackers, but quick enough to earn safety assignments in coverage. He can change direction surprisingly well for a guy his size, especially over the middle. Florida State used him on seam routes often, a design the Patriots ran with regularity under Belichick until last season.
McKitty will need to sure up his technique – both as a blocker and when it comes to catching the football – at the next level. Ideally, he’d start off at a TE2 behind a free agent signing like Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith.
Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene both being on rookie contracts could complicate this pick from an asset management perspective, and might give the Patriots pause. But if the goal is to add solid football players who fit what they want to do, they should absolutely give McKitty a look on Day 3.
• In this mock, the Patriots make four top-100 picks. It would be their third year straight making four selections that high.
• Six of these eight players took part in the Senior Bowl, with another (Lecounte) being invited to the game but pulling out due to injury. Darden is the only one who wasn’t in Mobile.
The Patriots generally rely heavily on the Senior Bowl when it comes to the draft, and with no combine or pro days this year, expect them to go all in on those prospects.
• Two of the players in this draft, Surratt and Hudson, changed positions in college. The Patriots have made a run on such players as UDFAs in recent years, bringing in guys like Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, and Rashod Berry. It seems to be a trait they’re attracted to, so instead of waiting for the undrafted period, they take a couple outright here.
• The goal here was to keep things as realistic as possible in terms of the Patriots typical draft tendencies. In that regard, not having a seventh round pick was tough. Belichick tends to covet the value of those late Day 3 selections, and has picked in Round 7 in all but two of his seasons in New England (2008, 2017).
So what makes this justifiable? First, the Patriots have no comp picks after the fourth round, which is rare. They’ll usually use a fifth or sixth to move back for a package of two later picks. Plus, by all accounts Belichick is taking a much more aggressive approach to this offseason. That means using Day 3 picks to trade up, not down.
That’ll do it for Mock Draft 1.0. Expect the next edition sometime in mid-March leading into free agency, after the internal free agent decisions have been made.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.