The painstakingly long pre-draft process always leads to several different projections for the Patriots and Bill Belichick at the top of the NFL Draft.
Mainly, we’ve seen wide receivers, linebackers, offensive and defensive linemen, and corners from local and national mock drafters for New England in the first round, which will take place in two weeks.
Following a predictable selection in quarterback Mac Jones a year ago, Bill Belichick is back to having everyone guessing this time around. But it’s not just Belichick.
Based on the buzz around the league, the entire 2022 draft is wide open. A driving force for that unpredictability is a down year for quarterbacks. For the first time since 1999, three QBs went 1-2-3 in the 2021 draft, and five quarterbacks went in the top 15. In this draft cycle, we could see no signal-callers selected in the top ten, which means non-QBs will fly off the board.
There isn’t a consensus with the number one overall pick with quarterbacks missing at the top of the board. Most experts expect the Jacksonville Jaguars to take Michigan edge rusher Aiden Hutchinson. But Georgia’s Trevon Walker, Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, and top offensive tackle Evan Neal also have cases.
By the time the draft gets to the Patriots at 21, there could be several surprises in what one AFC scout described as a “flavor” draft, meaning scheme and culture fit will be significant factors.
Although the Pats factor needs into their decision-making process, Belichick is also known for viewing the board and New England’s priorities differently than the consensus.
With that in mind, what are some of the under-the-radar needs for the Patriots? The Pats might not necessarily target these positions early, but let’s discuss:
1. EDGE Defender (Outside Linebacker/Defensive End)
Kyle Van Noy logged 1,256 snaps for the Patriots on the line of scrimmage in 2019 and 2021. The Pats have always had a featured role for a player like Van Noy, with Rob Ninkovich and Mike Vrabel playing similar spots in Bill Belichick’s defense. Currently, New England doesn’t have an obvious replacement who has the playing strength to set a sturdy edge, rush the passer, and drop into coverage on the strong side of the formation. And according to a league source, bringing KVN back on a reduced salary hasn’t been discussed with Van Noy yet. Internal options include 2021 third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, who is 253 pounds and could have the skill set to step into Van Noy’s role. However, he’s adjusting from a three-point stance (DE) at Oklahoma to a two-point stance (OLB) with the Pats. A full-time role that stresses players physically and mentally might be too big of an ask for Perkins, who didn’t log a single snap as a rookie. Other than Perkins, 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche has upside but isn’t the sturdy edge-setter they need. Although New England has Matthew Judon, there’s a hole on the other side of the line.
Fits: Jermaine Johnson, Florida State (first round), Boye Mafe, Minnesota (top 50), Drake Jackson, USC (third round), Michael Clemons, Texas A&M (day three)
2. Running Back
The Patriots have drafted 14 running backs in 22 Belichick drafts and three backs in the last four drafts. In other words, they like taking running backs, and there’s a good reason behind it this year. Top early-down back Damien Harris is in a contract year, and although he might be the rare Pats back to receive a second contract with the team, they need to prepare for a potential departure next offseason. Brandon Bolden is now a Raider, James White is coming off significant hip surgery, and the Pats only have two backs under contract past the 2022 season (White and Rhamondre Stevenson). The only question is how early will the Patriots take a back to keep the cupboard stocked?
Fits: Brian Robinson, Alabama (day two), James Cooks, Georgia (day two), Rachaad White, Arizona State (day three), Kyren Williams, Notre Dame (day three), Tyler Baddie, Missouri (day three), Hassan Haskins, Michigan (day three), Trestan Ebner, Baylor (day three)
3. Backup Quarterback
Obviously, the Patriots aren’t looking for a starting quarterback this year. But despite signing a two-year contract this offseason with the team, one has to wonder how much longer Brian Hoyer will have a guaranteed roster spot versus potentially transitioning to the coaching staff. Then, Jarrett Stidham’s time with the Pats could be ending with the 2019 fourth-round pick in the final year of his rookie deal. It seems unlikely and unnecessary to re-sign Stidham, so the Patriots are doing their homework on future backup QBs in a class with some options.
Fits: Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky (day three), Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan (day three), E.J. Perry, Brown (day three), D’Eriq King, Miami (day three/UDFA)
Without further ado, let’s empty the mailbag with two weeks remaining until the 2022 draft:
What are your thoughts on Devin Lloyd since he ran a 4.66 40 at the combine? If you look at recent 1st rounders, only a few (Parsons, Devin White… the guys who can run 4.45's) have panned out. Wouldn't they be better off getting a faster sideline to sideline guy?
— sohereswhatino (@sohereswhatino) April 13, 2022
To be honest, I’ve come a long way with Devin Lloyd since my first evaluation of the Utah linebacker in January. I still don’t love how he navigates the box or takes on blocks against the run. He’s not a physical thumper who will blow up a lead blocker. But he has grown on me with his versatility, range, and above-average coverage traits. Ultimately, Lloyd’s ability to effectively play on and off the line is what sold me. He’s an elite edge rusher and interior blitzer, which suggests he can be Hightower-like in that sense. Belichick would have fun with Lloyd, using him as a game plan and situational chess piece. His 40 time also isn’t an accurate reflection of his ability to go sideline-to-sideline. He plays much faster than 4.66-seconds (see Stanford game), and that 40-yard dash is still above-average (61st percentile). I’m in.
Is the main reason we keep talking about John Metchie his connection with Mac Jones? Tell me why I should be excited about him as a prospect
— Dwayne Pogue (@Prostarr27) April 13, 2022
It’s surprising to see so many followers who don’t understand the hype around Methcie, and no, it’s not just about his connection with Jones, but that certainly is a big aspect. Metchie is a three-level threat who shows excellent short-area burst at the top of routes and plays much bigger than his size suggests down the field. He runs a devastating three-step slant, ranked third in the SEC in yards after the catch in 2021 (640), and shows good toughness and a high football IQ. He might not be a true burner, but he’s quick and runs nuanced routes. Metchie would be a great fit in New England’s scheme regardless of the quarterback. It’s an added bonus that the Mac-to-Metchie connection was so productive in 2020.
Any chance NE trades up a little to give them a better chance at Lloyd or somebody like that?
— Jack Prokopis (@JackProkopis) April 13, 2022
There’s certainly a case for the Patriots to move up to secure a blue-chip talent in the first round. When you look at consensus mock drafts, you see Jordan Davis, Chris Olave, Devin Lloyd, and others in the 15-20 range, so I get the argument. But the problem for New England is draft capital. They don’t have any extra top-100 picks this year or next year, so you’re shrinking your draft haul considerably by trading up. This team doesn’t feel like a player away right now, with several holes to fill on the roster. They’ll likely hang onto the picks or even accumulate more by trading down at some point.
Are there any teams below the Patriots in the Draft order that jump out at you as potential trade partners?
Where that team moving up and the Patriots getting some of their draft compensation line up with players who might be there and make sense?
— Patriots_karma (@Patriots_karma) April 13, 2022
Predicting trade down partners is challenging without knowing who is available at 21. Teams don’t trade up or down just for the sake of doing it. They do it because they’re targeting a specific player. The most likely partners would be Kansas City (have two first-rounders), Green Bay (also have two first-rounders), and Detroit (pick at 32 and 34). The safest bet is the Packers (to avoid getting leap-frogged by KC) or the Chiefs trading up to draft a wide receiver.
Do you see Belichick actually looking for offensive line at 21?
— Rohan (@YoungParag) April 13, 2022
Drafting an offensive lineman in the first round makes sense and follows historical precedent for the Patriots. New England needs a starting guard, has future needs at both tackle spots, and a pocket passer at quarterback. As much as we all love wide receivers, the best thing for Mac is to keep him upright. Historically, Belichick has always had a plan at left tackle. He drafted Nate Solder with Matt Light on the roster, then drafted Wynn and traded for Trent Brown when Solder signed with the Giants. There’s always been a clear succession plan. Trevor Penning and Bernhard Raimann are top targets for the Patriots in the first round. If the team were to play a game tomorrow, left guard is the most obvious hole in the starting lineup. They have other needs at a more premium position, so I’m not a fan of the positional value at guard in the first round, but it’s hard to ignore the hole there. Multiple offensive linemen are coming.
Are there any popular first round prospects that you feel are overhyped in the media, and if so, which ones would you be annoyed by if the Patriots took them in the 1rst round?
— anon (@pattycakesburn) April 13, 2022
Most of my regulars will probably expect another diatribe about selecting a guard in the first round, but my feelings are already well-documented. Although it wouldn’t bother me, per se, I’m not as high on Washington corner Trent McDuffie as others. When the traits you’re highlighting in a cornerback prospect are play speed and open-field tackling, it makes you question why the player isn’t forcing more incompletions. In McDuffie’s defense, many of his targets were quick throws that are hard to eliminate. But taking a player in the top-21 with two career interceptions and eight pass breakups isn’t what you want. The Pats can get guys that are fast and can tackle later in the draft. What you want in the first round is a shutdown corner with playmaking traits. Not sure McDuffie is that guy.
Is James cook the perfect RB to redshirt this year? (Or have if white ends up being unable to come all the way back?)
— Dave (@ChefdDds89) April 13, 2022
The Patriots hosted Cook on a top-30 visit this week. The Georgia running back, who is Dalvin Cook’s younger brother, has a similar running style to the Vikings star. He is a one-cut runner who can sequence multiple lateral cuts in a row to elude tacklers and is very patient behind his blocks. Cook was also a featured pass-catcher coming out of the backfield and occasionally lining up outside to run routes as a mismatch weapon. The younger Cook brother isn’t as sturdy between the tackles or balanced as his big brother, but he should be an impact player at the next level. Cook is ready to contribute as a rookie like Sony Michel did coming out of Georgia and isn’t necessarily a “redshirt” candidate. Although we discussed running back as an under-the-radar need and Cook is a fit, he’ll probably go higher than it’s necessary for the Patriots to take a running back.
Chances that Wynn is dealt during the draft, if Pats take a OT w/ their 1st selection? Hard to in-vision a red-shirt season for a guy like Penning or Raimann when Wynn would be making $10+ mil in a lame duck season.
— Pats Chatter 24/7 (@pats_chatter247) April 13, 2022
My read on the situation is that the Patriots wouldn’t move Wynn during the draft but might entertain it at the end of training camp if they draft a first-round tackle. Despite his up-and-down play, even if they draft a tackle early, it’s hard to envision that the coaching staff would have the confidence in a rookie to trade Wynn without seeing the draft pick at least on the practice field. Until you see Trevor Penning, for example, in an NFL practice, he’s just another prospect that you’re projecting into the pro game. Wynn could become expendable if they get through camp and Penning (just an example) is dominating. A 2023 mid-round draft choice would be an obvious prediction if they trade Wynn, but don’t sleep on a player-for-player swap.
What do players work on in off-season QB/WR throwing sessions? Is it route running, ball placement and timing, that kind of stuff? Or more just fitness plus chemistry?
— If I believe in dinosaurs, then they believe in me (@SquirrelTheWR) April 13, 2022
Good question. For the most part, there isn’t much heavy-lifting in these workouts. The goal is mainly to build relationships with your teammates, get some work in, and maybe tinker with a few things here and there. For example, landmarks and ball placement on chemistry throws (such as a back-shoulder pass) could be one point of emphasis. During these sessions, nobody is reinventing the wheel, but it’s a good way to hit the ground running once training camp rolls around.
I wanna know more about the draft picks who haven’t played much and are coming back from their “redshirt” year. McGrone (!) Perkins. Jennings. Uche. Nixon. Wilkerson. Is there growth and talent there?!
— Craig Larsen (@siegelars) April 13, 2022
There isn’t much to say about the redshirt Patriots right now besides, “we’ll see.” Is there talent? Sure. Uche, Perkins, and McGrone stand out among the group as NFL-caliber talents. Is there growth? Who knows. We don’t get to see them at practice during the season, and there’s minimal game tape, so it’s impossible to know. If I had to stand on the table for one of them, it would be Uche. He seems to start hot, and then an injury causes him to fall off the tracks. If he can stay healthy, he has by far the most quality reps on an NFL practice or game field.
Do you think the Pats are done with FA/trades? If not, who do you think could find a way to the team before or after the draft?
— Anthony Curtis (@AnthonyCurtis68) April 13, 2022
With only two weeks remaining before the draft, you can expect things to remain quiet on the free-agent front until afterward. Most veterans would prefer to wait to sign since they wouldn’t want to go to a team that just loaded up at their position in the draft. Plus, free-agent signings beginning the Monday after the draft (May 2) will no longer count towards the 2023 compensatory pick calculations. If there are any big free-agent additions in the works, expect the Patriots to make that move after the CFA deadline passes. Unless they attack that position in the draft, I still expect Trey Flowers to reunite with Belichick and Matt Patricia.