The Patriots have several holes to fill on their roster as they begin the post-Tom Brady era.
Our big board takes the 50 best fits from a traits, scheme, and athletic profile perspective in New England and ranks them based on our grading system. For clarification, this isn’t an overall ranking of the draft’s top players, so Joe Burrow and Chase Young will not appear. But rather a look at prospects that will be available when the Pats pick at various points in the draft.
In this final installment, we break down the top ten best Patriots fits in the draft that we expect the team to strongly consider with their top selection, which is currently no. 23 overall:
10. DE A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
Some team is going to get a good interior rusher with A.J. Epenesa. Stout play-side DE on early downs, but kick him inside on passing downs.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 26, 2020
Epenesa is the easiest projection to make for New England in this draft for several reasons. He fits like a glove as a strong-side defensive end that can kick inside on passing downs. Epenesa’s ideal length and power at the point of attack make him the draft’s best run defender at the position and an exceptionally sturdy edge setter. He dominates most of his engagements, holding at the point of attack and stunning blockers with immense upper-body strength. Epenesa also uses his heavy hands to win as a pass rusher on a deadly two-hand swipe move and a stiff snatch move once he locks his hands inside the blockers’ chest. Iowa didn’t line him up over guards and centers often, so he’ll be a bit raw in that role, but Epenesa can win with quickness and power inside. A year ago, many pegged Epenesa as the top edge rusher in the class. But some of his warts, an average first step and a poor athletic profile came out in 2019. The Pats know exactly what they’re getting with Epenesa and what role he can fill as a day one starter.
9. DE Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
Yetur Gross-Matos reminds me a little of Chandler Jones at 'Cuse but a little more versatile.
Length, heavy hands, & quickness. Rushing on the left tackle. Uses inside hand with initial burst & hip power to push the tackle upfield, slams on breaks & finds the QB. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/3V2zzDE73e
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 26, 2020
Gross-Matos was named in an ongoing civil lawsuit accusing a group of upperclassmen of hazing an underclassman that could very well take him off New England’s board. But the talent is there for an already highly-productive collegiate player to grow into a stud in the pros. Gross-Matos had 17 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons at Penn State, using excellent explosiveness and length to defeat blocks without much technical polish. At 6-5 with nearly 35-inch arms, Gross-Matos uses his length effectively to eat up grass quickly as he turns the corner and implements a stiff speed-to-power rush. He also loves an arm over move as he knifes into gaps as an interior rusher, and has terrific lateral agility to shake blockers. The Penn State product holds at the point of attack with some effectiveness, although he needs to keep his pads down more consistently, and is at his best using his quickness inside to penetrate and slip blockers. Gross-Matos’s hands are incredibly raw. He’s often late to fire and needs to be more violent with his punches. He’s also a bit slow processing blocking schemes and reading out tackles. In many ways, Gross-Matos reminds us of Chandler Jones coming out of Syracuse. He has the length, strength, and athleticism to rush from multiple alignments and be successful, but he’s just scratching the surface of his abilities as he works on the technical aspects of his game.
8. SAF Xavier McKinney, Alabama
Alabama safety Xavier McKinney does everything well: reading the QB from centerfield, click and close in the deep half, competes in man coverage, extremely disruptive blitzer, fits the run better than most LBs in this class. Would love to see him with Belichick. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/dlTads3FmI
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 7, 2020
There’s no underselling how versatile and productive McKinney was in Nick Saban’s defense. He did everything from play centerfield, guard slot receivers and tight ends, come down into the box as a strong safety and pseudo-linebacker and even rush the passer as a blitzer or on the edge. He’s truly a do-it-all safety that hunts the ball in all phases and is an extra linebacker against the run. But, and there’s a but, McKinney tested in the 20th percentile with a 4.63-second 40-yard dash. He has terrific instincts and length from high zone to disrupt passes over the top, but his 40 time might signal that he’s not built to play deep in a single-high coverage. Even with that role off the table, McKinney will still be an extremely effective box safety that can play short and intermediate zones, split-safety high zone, and guard in man coverage. There’s zero hesitation on our part drafting him in the first round due to his physicality, playmaking, and advanced understanding of the game.
7. WR Denzel Mims, Baylor
Denzel Mims might be the best vertical threat in this years class. Opens up a path to the sideline in his release, throws inside hand to keep jam away, good initial burst and works to stack the CB, uses arm bar to keep the CB away from the catch point. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/rE7XgCHU8A
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 30, 2020
Mims tested in the 95th percentile at the combine, but he’s more than a terrific athlete in spandex. Mims was the alpha in Baylor’s offense, averaging nearly 1,000 yards per season over the last three years to go along with 28 career touchdowns with several clutch grabs in big moments. He’s a former High School track star with 4.38 speed and outstanding initial burst off the line to get over the top of defensive backs and makes terrific downfield adjustments on off-target throws using a large catch radius to haul in passes (6-3 with nearly 34-inch arms). Mims is more of a linear athlete that doesn’t win with short-area agility or crisp route breaks, but he flashes smooth transitions on things like quick posts to pair with his vertical route running. We understand concerns about the Pats taking a receiver that reminds some of their busts in the past, but Mims is different. He was a big-time producer in college, unlike Chad Jackson, and unlike recent draft pick N’Keal Harry, he plays and tests fast; there’s a massive difference between 4.53 (Harry) and 4.38 (Mims). Mims can make his breaks more effective with some technical refinement while offering immediate help as an “X” receiver on the outside.
6. OC Cesar Ruiz, Michigan
Would not be mad at all if the #Patriots drafted Michigan C/G Cesar Ruiz in the 1st round. Absolute Stud.
First two plays I watched (playing center, #51): first, immediately climbs to 2nd level & pancakes LB. Second, picks up looper on stunt and easily mirrors in pass pro. pic.twitter.com/RlzbVZCSmR
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 1, 2020
We might be reaching a little high for a center with David Andrews returning this season, but Ruiz is an absolute stud that would hold down the position for the next decade, and Andrews is far from a sure thing. At Michigan, Ruiz was, as many great centers are, a field general that got his line in order, calling all the protections at the line of scrimmage. He’s got an excellent combination of athleticism, nasty, and skill with eye-popping snap-to-step quickness and the ability to mirror and anchor against all interior rushers. He also plays with outstanding leverage and sniffs out schemed pressures before and after the snap. Ruiz isn’t a powerful people mover, but he’s a terrific positional run-blocker that has plenty of grit, and his foot speed suggests he could move over to guard if there’s an opening. Many casual Pats supporters might roll their eyes at Belichick for taking a first-round center, but informed fans will realize the type of player they’re getting with Ruiz.
5. QB Justin Herbert, Oregon
Writing on the draft QBs for the #Patriots over the next few weeks. Will do quick threads on here too.
Justin Herbert first. Impressed with his command of the offense, knew where his answers. Some 2018 tape vs Stanford. Cover-2, has the post splitting the safeties. Great throw. pic.twitter.com/V8aExbCXhB
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 23, 2020
Herbert is the lone quarterback to make our top 20 because we expect both Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa to be out of reach for New England. Our grading loves the tools that Utah State’s Jordan Love possesses, but the decision making (17 interceptions in 2019) and peaks and valleys on tape go against what the Pats typically look for at the position. With Herbert, New England would have an athletic prospect with an absolute hose that took care of the football and understands how to beat coverage with ball placement. Herbert might not be quickly reading a full-field progression at this stage, but he knows how to attack out-leveraged defenders downfield and is great throwing vertically up the seam and outside the numbers. Herbert’s inconsistent downfield accuracy is a concern, and Oregon’s scheme made him into a screen (22% of throws were screens) or deep passer. But he looked comfortable working within the structure, and his pocket poise should improve in a different system with a better offensive line. Is Herbert better than Jarrett Stidham right now? Maybe, maybe not. But he is better at this stage than Stidham was coming out of Auburn.
4. LB Patrick Queen, LSU
Don't know if Belichick would draft a 230-pound linebacker in the first, but LSU's Patrick Queen is the real deal. Insanely quick to diagnose pullers and beat blockers to their spots as a run defender. Love how under control he is and how he stays square to the line. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/xVGQrMhNaY
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 6, 2020
Would Bill Belichick draft a 229-pound linebacker? Finding a parallel to Queen in Belichick’s draft history is difficult, as we know the Pats typically like throwback linebackers with size. But Belichick is also aware that the league is changing, offenses are getting ridiculously fast, and Queen clicks into plays at warp speed. Seriously, we’ve never studied a linebacker prospect that sniffs out blocking schemes and beats blockers to their spots with more regularity than Queen. His understanding of running schemes is incredible, reading the footwork of the offensive linemen to react to pullers, lead blockers, or zone schemes to fill gaps before the ball carrier even gets the ball from the quarterback at times. Plus, Queen, who is an 84th percentile athlete with terrific speed for a linebacker, would also have above-average speed if he was a defensive back. He offers three-down coverage skills in man or zone coverage and as a blitzes. Plus, sideline-to-sideline range as a run defender and a quarterback spy. The Patriots will need to break their mold to draft Queen in the first round, but times are changing, and Belichick is usually ahead of the curve.
3. OT Josh Jones, Houston
Couple of examples here of him bringing down the ax when the rusher tries to get into his body. Smooth. pic.twitter.com/7IAfVAq5Rw
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 2, 2020
The Patriots might not feel the need to draft a tackle high this year, but they have a lot riding on two injury-prone players (Isaiah Wynn and Yodny Cajuste) and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is getting long in the tooth (31) with a hefty cap hit ($9.6 million). Many describe this tackle draft as a “big four” class at the top, but others quickly correct them to include Jones in that discussion. Jones is a battle-tested left tackle prospect that checks all the boxes from a size (6-5, 319, 34-inch arms) and athletic perspective with the necessary foot speed and lateral agility to mirror pass rushers. He’s also a quick and effective puller, climbs to the second level with ease, and reaches difficult blocks in zone schemes. All of Jones’s flaws are coachable, starting with a slight false step and a bit of an early-opening outside shoulder in his pass set. He’s already an effective left tackle with plug-and-play qualities, and with some polishing, the sky’s the limit. The Patriots often draft with a long-term outlook in mind, which could mean they see a need at tackle depending on where their trust level is with Wynn and Cajuste.
2. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU
Shot out of a cannon with the speed rush and natural bend to run the arc. pic.twitter.com/5e8DVFufdA
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 26, 2020
Chaisson’s skill set and frame don’t necessarily fit the Patriots’ mold, but his character and on-field demeanor scream New England. Chaisson wore the no. 18 leadership jersey for LSU last season as a permanent team captain, and in a locker room full of future NFL players, his voice carried the most weight. He is an explosive, high-motor prospect that plays with an aggressive demeanor in several different roles. He’s mostly a standup edge rusher that wins with a terrific first step and speed rush as well as a long arm (speed-to-power), rip and dip, and two-hand swipe. He’s also a terror on stunts, loose enough in the hips to cover tight ends or play over the slot, and possesses excellent play speed. Despite a somewhat skinny frame, Chaisson held up pretty well on the line of scrimmage against the run with excellent hand power and gap discipline to set a firm edge. Similar to our theory with Queen, the league is evolving, and Belichick knows that his arm-side edge defender better be an athlete that can run. Otherwise, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, and others will give New England fits when they roll out of the pocket. Chaisson is the perfect edge rusher to contain the mobile quarterbacks that will be on the Patriots’ schedule for years to come.
1. WR Justin Jefferson, LSU
Justin Jefferson is lethal on these option routes. Lot more space than he'll get in the NFL probably but very savvy. Squares up the DB, reads out coverage/leverage while slow-playing his intentions, then breaks it off quickly into space. Love the change of speeds. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/qjFrypeoQW
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 29, 2020
Finally, we get to number one on our board, and it’s once again a prospect from Baton Rouge. If the Pats select Jefferson, he will be the most complete receiver Belichick has ever drafted. Jefferson put up 875 yards as a sophomore primarily lining up outside, showing suddenness at the line of scrimmage and terrific downfield ball skills to win on the boundary. As a junior, the LSU product was dominant in the slot, hauling in 111 out of his 122 targets with a 92.3 contested-catch rate to finish third in the FBS in receiving yards (1,540) and second in touchdowns (18). Yes, those numbers are real. Jefferson put up those insane stats because of a terrific combination of route running and athleticism, silencing any doubts about his speed with a 4.43-second 40-yard dash. As a route runner, Jefferson is excellent at pacing his routes, changing gears to create separation by accelerating through his breaks, and he understands the little intricacies of the game in his footwork. He offers tremendous versatility to run routes from any alignment and comes in with no significant flaws. Unlike early selections at the position in the past for New England, Jefferson is not a project.