After the Patriots selected quarterback Mac Jones in the first round, New England addressed what was monumentally their biggest need heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.
Although Jones doesn’t render the rest of the draft moot, the following eight selections that the Patriots made were certainly addressing secondary needs that the team had after a big free agency.
Most expected to see the Patriots look ahead to potential holes in 2022 at cornerback, offensive tackle, and free safety while adding to a wide receiver room that feels like it’s missing an impact player.
Instead, Bill Belichick added three players to the defensive front seven, one of which, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, is a very intriguing interior pass-rusher with significant upside.
Then, New England took a running back, a college tackle that projects as an NFL guard, a slot safety, and finally took a wide receiver with their final pick of the draft in the seventh round.
As Belichick said, the Patriots don’t control the board, and it didn’t break their way at offensive tackle or cornerback, somewhat preventing filling those long-term needs with a premium pick.
But with each passing round, receivers came off the board that were within range and could’ve given the depth chart a jolt.
My explanation as to why the Patriots, who have mostly passed on consecutive stacked receiver classes outside of UCF’s Tre Nixon at no. 242, is that they’re acknowledging it’s a scouting blindspot.
Belichick spoke at length a few offseasons ago about the drastic differences between the college passing game and the pro passing game, especially compared to the Pats’ offense.
College receivers tend to run simpler route trees and lack the nuanced option routes that the Patriots feature. If you are an X receiver at most schools, you may only run four or five routes; a go/fade, slant/dig, comeback, and maybe a screen or shallow cross. In New England, those routes convert based on the coverage and become far more complex.
As a result, evaluating college receivers and projecting them into the Pats’ system is challenging because you don’t see college receivers doing Pats-like things often.
Plus, there’s going to be a steep learning curve for most as they adapt to a more elaborate scheme, so a rookie receivers’ path to contributing will likely be rocky.
Many of the Patriots’ busts at the wide receiver position over the years can be explained in part by these issues. It feels like the Pats are going the route of acquiring pro talent at the position because it’s easier to project those players into their system.
My hypothesis doesn’t make it any easier to swallow a pill that continues to lead the Patriots down a road that lacks young, productive receiver talent like we see across the league.
However, the Patriots avoiding using another premium pick at wide receiver and spending money on veterans at that position will likely be a more successful strategy for this team.
With all that said, here are breakdowns on the five players the Patriots selected on day three:
Round 4: No. 120 – Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, Oklahoma
Couple things that stand out about new #Patriots RB Rhamondre Stevenson: patience, contact balance to run through tackles, and a little burst once he gets through the traffic. Can see the fit in the early-down back role. pic.twitter.com/rpWxr0IZ6u
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 1, 2021
We weren’t surprised when the Patriots took a running back with their first pick of day three, but Stevenson fits their early-down mold rather than a shifty receiving back a la James White. Nevertheless, I like the pick. Stevenson is a powerful runner with excellent contact balance, vision, patience, and enough burst once he gets into the open field to get chunk yardage. He’s far from a home-run hitter, but I think he can break off medium-sized gains. The one element of Stevenson’s running style that stands out the most is that his feet are constantly active, and he seldom freezes or overreacts to early penetration and unblocked defenders. Plus, he can catch the ball as a check-down or screen option while holding up in pass protection. Stevenson will garner comparisons to former Pats running back LeGarrette Blount, mini-Leggie, I would say, and those are somewhat accurate. If he can fix his fumbling issues, Stevenson has the makings of a productive early-down back.
What does it mean: the Patriots taking Stevenson puts 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel on notice. The deadline for the team to pick up Michel’s fifth-year option is May 3, and it seems very unlikely to happen now. The Pats almost always redshirt rookie running backs, so Sony is likely safe for this year, but if Stevenson balls out in August, it could get interesting, and it’s hard to envision a second contract for Michel now. Furthermore, the Pats passing on the receiving backs in this class suggests they feel good about J.J. Taylor, who has the inside track to succeed White.
Round 5: No. 177 – Cameron McGrone, LB, Michigan
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 1, 2021
The Patriots dipped back into the Michigan pipeline for McGrone, who will likely need to sit out the 2021 season due to an ACL injury last November that caused him to fall in the draft. McGrone is going to be worth the wait, though, as he has the athletic tools and instincts to be a four-down player in New England. The former Michigan linebacker is an explosive athlete that has the speed to pursue the ball from off the line, rush the passer, and drop into coverage. There’s plenty of evidence on tape of McGrone scraping at the second level where he works across the formation to meet running backs in the hole, and he’s got enough pop in his upper body to disengage off blocks. The Patriots are trying to get faster at the second level with two Wolverines that are superb athletes in 2020 second-rounder Josh Uche and McGrone. This is one of my favorite picks of the entire draft, even if we have to wait a year to see McGrone.
What does it mean: likely nothing for now since McGrone is injured, but it’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for defensive captain Ja’Whaun Bentley. Bentley is entering the final season of his rookie contract, Uche is already an ascending player, and it wouldn’t surprise me if McGrone flashes quickly as soon as he can get on the field.
Round 6: No. 188 – Joshuah Bledsoe, DB, Missouri
New #Patriots safety/slot DB Joshuah Bledsoe can cover. Has some good downfield ball skills as well:
– good flip-&-run recovery to catch up to Smith for a PBU
– Physical coverage to stick to the slot fade and PBU
– Plays to his leverage and sticks with over route pic.twitter.com/UXjcVmC0dZ
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 1, 2021
The Patriots waited till the sixth round to take a box safety, so that’s one positive. The other is that Bledsoe can cover, plays a physical brand of football, and isn’t afraid to fill on the ball against the run. The Missouri defensive back is a pure slot or box safety, mainly playing over the slot in the Tigers defense. He flashed some quality coverage skills with the ability to run downfield with receivers and make plays on the football, but the concern is that he’s a little stiff in his hips to stick with shifty pass-catchers at the top of the route. Bledsoe also isn’t going to play much deep safety. He doesn’t have enough experience back there or the range, so this isn’t a Devin McCourty successor. Instead, the Pats may be thinking more about Patrick Chung, or even special teams, with this pick.
What does it mean: the Patriots continue to stockpile these types of defensive backs with free-agent addition Jalen Mills also in a similar mold. My thought is that they may consider transitioning 2020 top pick Kyle Dugger to a free safety role as a McCourty successor, which is where he played in college and was a very impressive ball-hawker. Could Dugger be the McCourty replacement, thus sending Belichick on a search for a Chung heir? The Bledsoe selection, along with the Mills signing, suggests that might be the case.
Round 6: No. 197 – William Sherman, T/G, Colorado
Some tape of new #Patriots T/G Will Sherman. Played both left & right tackle. Clips below are at RT:
– Explodes out of stance in pass sets to cut off angle, has foot speed to match inside moves
– Good awareness/looks for work
– Can block in space/climb to second level pic.twitter.com/2xN8C6RgtK
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 1, 2021
On day three, the New England O-Line factory pumped out another one with Colorado’s Will Sherman, who, due to a lack of length, projects as a guard in the NFL. Sherman played both left and right tackle at Colorado. Although he wasn’t rated highly on most media boards, it’s hard to question the Pats’ ability to identify late-round lineman. Sherman is explosive out of his stance in his pass sets, allowing him to cut off the angle to the quarterback, showing adequate foot speed to slide and mirror pass rushers. His athleticism also translates on combination blocks up to the second level and perimeter blocks on screens or outside runs. Functionally, he has the movement skills to stick in the NFL. The concerns are a lack of upper-body power to move defenders in the run game effectively. But he did show the flexibility to sink and drive as a run blocker in the tape I saw. Sherman is built like Isaiah Wynn, but his tape reminds me of Justin Herron’s a year ago.
What does it mean: Sherman has the versatility to play tackle or guard, so he has value as a backup. Don’t automatically jump to Sherman being a home run like Michael Onwenu was in the sixth-round last year. He has some skills, but he’ll likely be a serviceable backup to multiple positions if he sticks at all. Still, there’s value in that.
Round 7: No. 242- Tre Nixon, WR, UCF
This was a nice win against press coverage from new #Patriots WR Tre Nixon (bottom of screen). Quick stretch release gets the CB to put weight on outside foot/opens inside release, burst off the line and limit surface area to avoid jam, then he's just runs by the CB for the TD. pic.twitter.com/yWd6Pxl39x
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 2, 2021
Nixon is the only receiver the Patriots have drafted over the last two drafts, which is a little wild considering the production from that position over that span. The good news is that Nixon can run with a 4.44-second 40-yard dash and a relative athletic score of 8.99 out of ten. Nixon’s timed speed translates on tape as a vertical threat, with a good initial burst off the line and the ability to stack defenders downfield both outside and in the slot. However, you don’t see much of his separation skill outside of comebacks/stops set up by vertical stems. He timed well in the three-cone drill (6.81s), so there’s some agility there, but UCF had him on a vertical route tree where he mainly was stretching the field. The other issue I had with his tape was inconsistent hands and downfield ball skills. He didn’t seem to track it well and didn’t attack the ball at the catch point. A shoulder injury limited him in 2020, and he played with some NFL receiver talent that took away targets. There’s enough explosiveness in Nixon’s movements to suggest that he can separate at the NFL level, but he’ll need to finish the play more consistently to stick around.
What does it mean: the Patriots needed to come away with something at the wide receiver position in this draft. Nobody is going to count on a seventh-round pick turning into anything, but at least Nixon can run. Still, I have zero expectations for Nixon.