Patriots owner Robert Kraft has made something clear in recent years: The team needs to draft well in order to maintain sustained success.
“I think we had a great draft last year,” Kraft said in late March. “It made up for what happened the previous four years or so. I look forward to, hopefully, having a great draft this year. That’s the only way you can build your team for the long term and consistently have a chance at winning.”
The Patriots have eight picks in the April 28-30 NFL draft, with one on Day 1, two on Day 2, and five on Day 3. Their needs are wide-ranging, with cornerback, linebacker, guard, and wide receiver all near the top of the list.
New England has already started to address some of those needs via trades and free agency, highlighted by the acquisition of wide receiver DeVante Parker from Miami earlier this month. The Patriots also added defensive reinforcements, bringing in safety Jabrill Peppers and linebacker Mack Wilson.
But Kraft’s point stands: The draft is paramount in the team-building process.
So, what could be in store for the Patriots this year?
New director of player personnel Matt Groh emphasized the importance of selecting players — at any position — who are able to provide an “instant impact.”
“Hopefully, your first-round pick is coming in and providing something for you right away,” Groh said Friday via conference call. “Similarly with the second- and third-round pick.”
Three of New England’s eight picks last year ended up playing meaningful roles as rookies. Quarterback Mac Jones (first round, 15th overall), defensive tackle Christian Barmore (second round, 38th overall), and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (fourth round, 120th overall) each showed tremendous promise — and the Patriots are hopeful that trend will continue.
Groh, speaking to reporters for the first time since his promotion following the offseason departure of Dave Ziegler, also acknowledged the depth among this year’s prospects.
“There’s good value across the board,” he said. “I think every year it’s pretty easy to say, ‘OK, here’s a group of players in that second- and third-round [range].’ There’s just more of those players than there is, say, those guys at the very top of the board.”
As for what the Patriots might do with their top pick at No. 21?
With the departure of J.C. Jackson, a cornerback would be welcomed, even though recent selections at that position have not panned out. 2019 second-rounder Joejuan Williams is often a healthy scratch, 2018 second-rounder Duke Dawson never saw the field before getting traded, and 2016 second-rounder Cyrus Jones was waived after two seasons.
The Patriots have found much more success with undrafted signings, namely Jackson (2018), Jonathan Jones (2016), and Malcolm Butler (2014). Groh called the team “very fortunate” to hit on those players.
“We’re always evaluating all of our processes and the way we evaluate different positions,” Groh said. “There’s never a ‘Oh OK, well, this is the way we do things.’ We’re constantly trying to evolve and adapt and trying to find better ways, more efficient ways of going about that.”
A dynamic, explosive linebacker would be welcomed, too. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has the Patriots taking Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd in his latest mock draft, while Kiper’s colleague Todd McShay has them taking Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean.
There are also multiple unproven draft picks from previous years — Ronnie Perkins, Cameron McGrone, Anfernee Jennings — so it’s possible the Patriots feel confident with their internal options. Plus, Wilson is under contract for a year. As is Raekwon McMillan, who missed last season with a torn ACL suffered during training camp.
While taking a wide receiver at No. 21 seems less likely now that Parker is in the mix, the position is still a need, especially in the long term. The offensive line is another area that might be serviceable this year but will soon need a boost. Trading down is always a possibility, especially given the expected value in the later rounds.
“We want our 21st pick to be valuable, just like we want our 54th pick to be valuable and kind of commensurate with where we see that player helping our franchise,” Groh said. “There is good depth. It’s so easy to get caught up in the splashy names.”
Whichever direction they go, Groh emphasized the importance of speed.
“We’re looking to get faster everywhere,” he said. “It’s not just defense. It’s offense. It’s special teams.”
Unlike last year because of the pandemic, the Patriots had the opportunity to return to key pre-draft events this year, including the combine and the East-West Shrine Bowl. The final Pro Day took place Friday, marking the last of the in-person scouting opportunities leading up to the draft.
Now, they have just under two weeks until the first round begins.
“We’ll just look at trying to home in on the positions and the players that we think can best help us going forward,” Groh said.