The Patriots added starters and built depth through trades and free agency this offseason, addressing positional needs ahead of a draft in which they currently have just six picks.
New England’s modus operandi is to build through the draft while simultaneously stockpiling extra picks to cash in later. This is the cash-in year, as the team used picks to acquire Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, Dwayne Allen, and Kony Ealy.
As a result, the Patriots are left with their fewest selections since 2002 (also six). They hit a home run in that draft, grabbing four impact players (Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, Jarvis Green, and David Givens), with the first two coming in the first two rounds.
This year the challenge will be tougher as the Patriots must wait until the third round (No. 72 overall) before making their first selection.
Without a glaring need in any one spot, the Patriots have the luxury of grabbing the best player available regardless of position, which is something they like to do anyway.
Here’s a best guess at the rookies who’ll be calling Foxborough their second home once the dust settles Saturday evening.
■ Third round (No. 72 overall): JAKE BUTT, TE, Michigan.
Butt probably would be higher in the tight end pecking order if he hadn’t torn his ACL in the Orange Bowl. The 6-foot-5-inch, 246-pounder offers great value here, even if he isn’t ready to start the season.
Butt is an excellent route runner and is very versatile, as he can line up anywhere — in line and off the ball. He’s tough, competitive, and seasoned after playing four years in the Big Ten.
Rob Gronkowski and Allen are the first-teamers, and if they’re healthy, the Patriots are set at tight end. However, both have injury histories, so preparing for the future is important.
■ Third round (No. 96): JORDAN WILLIS, DE, Kansas State.
A durable and strong player, Willis played four seasons for the Wildcats, starting 29 straight games over his last three years. The 6-4, 265-pounder has good speed and a nose for the quarterback (26 sacks, including 11½ in 2016).
Willis is known for his leadership, preparedness, and nonstop motor — traits the Patriots love.
Trey Flowers and Ealy figure to be the starters at this position, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia loves a rotation and Willis could step right into it.
■ Fourth round (No. 131): ALEX ANZALONE, OLB, Florida.
Anzalone (6-3, 241 pounds) is another guy who could be higher on many boards if it weren’t for past injuries (shoulder, arm). He’s very smart, instinctive, and versatile (he can play outside or inside).
Anzalone is an underrated athlete with long arms and a powerful upper body. Like Willis, he was considered a leader of his defensive unit.
Dont’a Hightower and Shea McClellin are the starters but Anzalone could nicely fit into a rotation with Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts.
■ Fifth round (No. 183): AHKELLO WITHERSPOON, CB, Colorado.
With Malcolm Butler apparently staying and Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe at the ready, cornerback is not an immediate need, but Witherspoon is too enticing to pass over here.
He possesses a nice blend of size (6-3, 198 pounds) and speed (4.45 40-yard dash) and freakishly long arms; he led the country with 22 pass breakups. He’s a bit gangly and will need some polishing but he could be a steal.
Justin Coleman and second-year players Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones are the top backups at corner, but Witherspoon could easily challenge for a spot.
■ Sixth round (No. 200): STORM NORTON, OT, Toledo.
This massive skyscraper (6-8, 311 pounds) is an underrated athlete with sneaky quickness and speed and one of the best names in this draft class.
Norton, with his terrifying 85-inch wingspan, was the leader of a line that gave up just 12 sacks last season. He lacks raw power and he’ll need to clean up his footwork at this level, but both of those can be accomplished as he serves a redshirt year, perhaps on the practice squad.
Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon are locked in as the starters, but Solder’s deal is up at the end of the season (though an in-season extension is entirely possible) so the Patriots must keep an eye toward the future.
■ Seventh round (No. 239): CHASE ROULLIER, C, Wyoming
The Patriots lack a backup to David Andrews at center (though Ted Karras would answer the bell), and Roullier could be the answer because of his toughness, athleticism, and versatility; he also played guard in college.
Roullier has excellent size (6-4, 312 pounds), functional strength, and surprising nimbleness. Like Norton, he could spend a year learning the ropes and polishing the rough edges before serving as the top backup all along the offensive line.
. . .
As always, the Patriots will add some undrafted rookies, and there will be a keeper or two among this bunch. Some names to consider:
■ De’Veon Smith, RB, Michigan
The Patriots appear set at this position, but practice squad depth is important and Smith has good size (5-11, 220 pounds) and a hard-charging rushing style. He won’t make many defenders miss but he’ll make them pay for taking him on.
■ Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn
This may be wishful thinking, as Adams may get plucked in the sixth or seventh round, but if he goes undrafted, he’ll get lots of calls. Adams has size (6-4, 304 pounds) and strength but was dogged by inconsistency in college.
■ Cole Hikutini, TE, Louisville
The Patriots love having an abundance of tight ends in the program. Hikutini (not to be confused with Hoomanawanui) is an athletic receiver with sneaky-good blocking skills. Hikutini (6-4, 247 pounds) was the favorite safety valve of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, making 50 catches in 2016 for 668 yards and 8 TDs
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org