Hate to say it, Patriots fans, but this might not be that exciting of an NFL Draft for you.
Bill Belichick gets an unfair rap as someone who prefers to trade out of the first round and accumulate middle-round picks. He has done his share of trading up in the first round, too.
But it doesn’t seem as if the Patriots have much incentive, or ammunition, to make a splash in this year’s draft. And trading out of the 29th pick for more picks down the road is probably the way they would prefer to go.
Looking at the roster, there’s really only one position that could warrant a trade-up in the first round: strong safety, where we aren’t quite sure whether the Patriots have their replacement for Steve Gregory.
Maybe the Patriots are gung-ho about one of the top two safety prospects, Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and they make a play to move into the low 20s to snag one of them. But that’s pretty much the only big move we can envision, and even then, it’s not really a necessity.
Remember that they do have options in Duron Harmon and potentially Logan Ryan or Brandon Browner. And it’s not like they have a ton of premium draft picks to use as trade bait — just eight overall, with picks late in each round and extras in the fourth and sixth rounds.
No, this is the year to sit tight, let the draft unfold, and hope to create a little bit of a bidding war for some of the quarterback prospects who may still be available at the end of the first round. This year’s draft is deep in talent but muddied at the top. No need to do something foolish like sacrifice a second-rounder this year, or next year’s first-rounder. Instead, Belichick should look to accumulate more picks in the second and third rounds.
“There’s not much difference between players 20 and 50,” an AFC front-office evaluator told me.
If the Patriots do stick at No. 29, it’s not going to be a sexy pick. And that’s OK. They got the sexy out of their system in March by signing Darrelle Revis, Julian Edelman, and Browner in free agency. The roster is basically set. They already have 20 or 21 starters penciled in.
“Where we are today, if we had to go out there and play a game, we feel we could field a competitive team,” director of player personnel Nick Caserio said last week.
The Patriots have needs, no question about that. They need another tight end to pair with Rob Gronkowski, a young interior lineman to compete with Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell, and maybe a safety.
They need a fresh pair of legs to supplement their trio of running backs, each of whom is entering the final year of his contract. They probably need depth at linebacker after losing Brandon Spikes. And, yes, they need a new quarterback, but one to take over for Ryan Mallett, not Tom Brady.
But the Patriots aren’t really drafting for need this year. They’re drafting for depth and for starters in 2015 and beyond.
And that need is most glaring along the defensive line, where the Patriots have gotten old in a hurry. Both defensive tackles, Vince Wilfork, 32, and Tommy Kelly, 33, are coming off season-ending injuries. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich is 30, and the newest addition, Will Smith, will be 33 in July.
The Patriots could still be stout and productive up front with that cast of characters, plus Chandler Jones and promising youngsters Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga. But who knows how long Big Vince and the others have left? The Patriots would be wise to start drafting young, talented defensive linemen who can contribute now and take over in a year or two.
Just the Patriots’ luck, this is a good draft for that. There aren’t many elite defensive line prospects after Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack, but there are a lot of solid, versatile defensive linemen with potential who could be had in the late first, second, and third rounds.
It looks as if the Patriots’ pick will come out of a group of about four or five: Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman, Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, and Florida’s Dominique Easley.
Whom do the Patriots prefer? Hard to know; Belichick hasn’t told me yet. My pick is Tuitt, who is probably the most versatile player in that group. Belichick likes to vary his defense between three- and four-man fronts, and Tuitt should be able to provide good quarterback pressure and solid run defense from pretty much any inside or outside position.
Tuitt could be a super sub and third-down specialist, and also could allow Belichick to use Ninkovich as an outside linebacker at times.
It’s easy to make a case for any of the other linemen, too, which means the Patriots are in a pretty good position at 29. There should be several good options to choose from.
Just don’t expect the Patriots to make a big splash this year. The water is still drying from free agency.