Patriots Mailbag: Ranking the Positions the Patriots Could Target in the First Round

The Patriots could target a prospect at one of these five positions in the first round.

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The offseason of uncharacteristically aggressive moves for the New England Patriots isn’t complete without selecting a quarterback of the future in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

As we await Thursday night’s first round, the Patriots already broke their mold by going on an unprecedented free-agent spending spree that even left the owner questioning the approach. 

After discussing how most successful franchises don’t overspend in free agency and build through the draft, Robert Kraft expressed his desires to find a long-term solution at quarterback. 

The best way for the Pats to find an answer at the most important position is to select one in the first round later this week; their big offseason moves just hit differently without a big move at QB. 

Cam Newton could improve with a better supporting cast, but dolling out $77.5 million guaranteed to Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne and then skimping on the quarterback position for an inconsistent passer is counterproductive. 

According to two league sources, the Patriots are already having trade talks with teams inside the top ten to move up on Thursday night for a quarterback. Specifically, the most intense discussions are with the Carolina Panthers, who currently hold the eighth overall pick. 

The belief around league circles is that the Patriots are targeting Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, but we also wouldn’t rule out Alabama’s Mac Jones if the 49ers don’t take him. We would put the percentage chance of the Patriots trading up for a quarterback at around 35 percent. 

As far as acquisition costs go, it would likely be the 15th overall pick, the 46th overall pick, and potentially another mid-round selection in 2022 to sweeten the pot for New England to move up. 

If the Patriots don’t take a quarterback, here’s a ranking of what we would expect them to do:

1. Offensive Tackle – both of the Patriots’ current starting tackles will be free agents in 2022, with Trent Brown on a one-year deal and Isaiah Wynn’s fifth-year option looming. If the team doesn’t take a tackle early, I would expect them to pick up Wynn’s option by the May 3 deadline. However, if they come away with Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw, don’t be surprised if they look to trade Wynn during the draft. My eyes and scouts in the league believe that Darrisaw is a plug-and-play starter, which would make Wynn expendable. The other option here would be USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, who is a bit undersized but has excellent tape. The Pats might have an outside chance at Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, but expect him to be off the board. 

2. Cornerback – New England will take a corner at some point in the first three rounds, it feels like, which makes sense given Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson’s situations. Like at tackle, both starting corners will be free agents next offseason. Plus, with Jason McCourty still a free agent, the Pats’ outside cornerback depth isn’t where they usually feel comfortable. Is 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams ready to be a top backup? Or is he never going to get it? Williams is a major factor as well. If the Pats go corner in round one, we know the names; it’s either Patrick Surtain or Jaycee Horn. However, the reason why offensive tackle is above cornerback is that many believe both Surtain and Horn will be gone by the 15th pick. If Surtain and Horn are off the board, both Georgia corners, Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell, are generating top-50 buzz. 

3. Linebacker – the Patriots spent some cash to retool their linebacker group in free agency. Still, taking a long-term view at the position, they’re eventually going to need someone to take over for an aging Dont’a Hightower as the quarterback and tone-setter of the defense. Both Penn State’s Micah Parsons and Tulsa’s Zaven Collins fit the scheme as run-and-chase ‘backers who can also rush the passer. In Collins’s case, he’s also very effective in zone coverage. Both would be in play with the 15th pick. 

4. Wide Receiver – with the depth of this wide receiver class, I’d prefer the Pats to wait on a receiver and address other needs. Still, if one of the two Alabama wideouts falls to New England, it’ll be tough to pass up either Smith or Waddle. In this scenario, the Pats don’t get a QB, so going for the offseason grand slam by adding a number one wide receiver could make their skill group quarterback-proof. It would be much harder for any QB to fail throwing to that group.

Let’s get into some of your pre-draft questions. On a programming note, we will be live throughout the weekend, breaking down the draft from a Patriots perspective on our YouTube channel, Patriots Press Pass. A big thanks to everyone that has followed along this draft cycle. Now, to your questions: 

Regardless of what happens this weekend, I still believe Cam Newton will be the starter in Week 1. Cam makes the most sense for several reasons, including cost for a veteran quarterback and easing in a rookie. 

Tricky question to answer without knowing the board, but the player they don’t need to trade up for (Trask or Mond) still seems more likely than a trade-up candidate like Fields. The Pats did a lot of work on both Trask and Mond, who they like in a certain range. Narrowing down where they’d be comfortable taking those two is difficult, but my gut says late second round in a similar spot that they took Jimmy Garoppolo. 

As I wrote in my full film breakdown of Mills, I believe he’s another Stidham. A quarterback with a strong arm, likable developmental traits, and a former five-star recruit but wildly inconsistent. I have Mond and Trask graded considerably higher than I had Stidham in 2019, so I see them as prospects with a higher floor and thus on a tier above Stidham overall. Remember, Stidham has been in the offense for two years now, and we haven’t seen any significant improvements. These prospects are just entering the league, so the chances of substantial growth are higher. 

Paye’s name isn’t getting talked about a lot for the Patriots, which is surprising. The Pats love taking guys from the Michigan defense, and I’ve already made my Trey Flowers 2.0 comparison with Paye. He’s undersized for a defensive end but has excellent explosiveness, power, and ability to use his shorter stature to get underneath blockers. Paye can align at multiple spots, and a recent video showed how smooth he is dropping into coverage as well. He is a great fit.

Parsons is the more impactful athlete, but I’ll continue to vouch for Collins, who is a terrific athlete in his own right. Collins also has better size, is a better processor off the ball, and is significantly better in coverage. In other words, Collins is further along in his development than Parsons and still brings an athletic specimen with pass-rush value to the front seven. If the Pats want to go linebacker, I’m all-in on Collins. 

As much as it would pain me to see the Patriots use a first-round pick on Alabama’s Christian Barmore, New England needs to fill Adam Butler’s old role. There are a few names I would look at: Florida State’s Marvin Wilson (day two), West Virginia’s Darius Stills (day three), or Pittsburgh’s Jaylen Twyman (day three). I think all three can bring pass-rush value to the interior and play in a specialized role like Butler’s for the Pats. If they want stouter options, Texas A&M’s Bobby Brown has some explosiveness off the ball to wreck blocking schemes and create havoc inside, while NC State’s Alim McNeil has starting nose tackle potential. The league is very down on this defensive line class, but I think there are some decent mid-round options. 

I’ll give you two names: Florida’s Stone Forsythe or Northern Iowa’s Spencer Brown. Brown might be a round two guy after a fantastic Pro Day (RAS – 10) and a strong week at the Senior Bowl. At 6-foot-8, 311 pounds, Brown is an elite athlete who combines good movement skills with strong hand technique and length as a high-level pass protector but will need significant technique work to lower his center of gravity and become a true road-grader. Forsythe is getting slept on in this class, but my thought is he might’ve stood out while the Patriots watched Trask and Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari in the Florida-Georgia game last fall. Forsythe is very smooth with his slides in pass protection and knows how to use a heavy punch/outside hand to shut down edge rushers. With the Pats’ success developing offensive line talent, both Forsythe and Brown could be future starters in their program. 

On offense, it’s Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers. Rodgers is in a similar mold to 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel, an elite ball carrier who can create chunk plays. He also has good separation quickness on quick-hitters over the middle and can play the slot or operate in motion. On defense, Missouri safety Tyree Gillespie caught my eye late in the process. Gillespie is a hard-hitting center fielder who can play deep safety and on special teams. He’d fit in nicely as a Duron Harmon-type with the potential to develop into the McCourty role.  

Although he’ll be a 24-year-old rookie, Stanford wide receiver Simi Fehoko strikes me as a Patriots fit and is projected to go in the fifth round. Fehoko can play inside or outside and ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at 6-4, 222 pounds. He’s got good size, versatility, and excellent speed and quickness. Fehoko needs to develop his route releases against press coverage, and his hands are inconsistent, but his tape against UCLA will quickly win you over. I’m not sure if he’ll be around for long on day three, but TCU safety Ar’Darius Washington is a certified baller who is very undersized for the league, which could cause him to fall. He’d be another name to watch.

The fit with Mason is obvious, and I would agree that he’s more in the Develin mold at fullback than what they currently have on the roster. Mason is a battering ram, and since we know fullbacks will continue to have a role in the Pats offense, it makes sense to take one of the best ones to enter the draft in years. As much as you like their depth there already, the Patriots will likely have a small board of draftable grades this year, and Mason figures to be on the shortlist. 

It wouldn’t shock me at all to see the Patriots draft another kicker. If they don’t, I’m sure they’ll sign one as a UDFA to compete in camp. Florida’s Evan McPherson is considered the only kicker worth drafting this year, but who knows after the Pats surprised us all with Rohrwasser. 

The Pats are unlikely to have a big crop of undrafted rookies due to their roster depth and a small rookie class in general. If former Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks goes undrafted, I’d take a flier on him as UDFA. Franks has an NFL arm and athleticism, so there are some tools there to develop. If Louisville wideout Dez Fitzpatrick goes undrafted, sign him up too.