5 Best-Case Scenarios for New England Patriots in 2014 NFL Draft
In the preliminary stages of the 2014 NFL offseason, it appears the New England Patriots are well-positioned to be Super Bowl contenders once again next season. While far from a perfect team, the Patriots do not currently possess any potentially crippling weaknesses, and they look like one of the league's most complete teams.
Consequently, New England can approach the draft through a long-term lens. The Patriots do not necessarily need any rookies to play significant roles next season, though some surely will—either as a result of injury or based upon their own merits.
When crafting ideal draft scenarios for the Pats, it's important to keep in mind the balance between long-term upside and short-term readiness. The Patriots can afford to lean more toward the former outlook—though, by definition, any prospect with a high ceiling might cash in and surprise people in 2014.
New England's roster flexibility puts them in the enviable position of truly being able to select the best available player rather than pigeonholing themselves into a certain position. Yes, the Pats have needs, but none of them are glaring enough to warrant an immovable early-round commitment.
With that in mind, here are a few realistic draft-day scenarios that would represent fortunate breaks for the Patriots.
All height and weight information courtesy of NFL.com.
5. AJ McCarron or Zach Mettenberger Are Available in Fifth Round
Though he will turn 37 before the start of the season, Tom Brady continues to be one of the league's truly elite quarterbacks. However, while the Patriots might not be considering Brady successor just yet, it appears they will need a new backup in the near future.
Ryan Mallet is entering the final year of his contract in 2014, and it seems highly unlikely that he will remain content as a professional clipboard holder beyond this season. Whether the Pats trade him or not, Mallett will almost certainly be on another team at this time next year.
In this year's crop, there are a pair of SEC quarterbacks who would make for intriguing mid-round developmental prospects. Per NESN.com's Doug Kyed, Alabama's AJ McCarron would welcome the opportunity to learn behind Brady. Critics are quick to point to McCarron's average athleticism and superior collegiate supporting cast, but he is well-versed in terms of operating a pro offense and possesses admirable maturity and intelligence.
Meanwhile, LSU's Zach Mettenberger might not boast the same sterling intangibles as McCarron, but he comes with more tantalizing physical tools. Mettenberger thrived under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in 2013, consistently displaying his excellent arm strength in a vertical passing system that emphasized outside-the-numbers throws.
Both McCarron and Mettenberger possess prototypical size, as well as an advanced progression-read ability. The Patriots have generally emphasized smarts over pure athleticism at the quarterback position, making both prospects legitimate Day 3 possibilities for New England.
4. Brandon Thomas Is Available in Third Round
Despite re-signing starting center Ryan Wendell, the Patriots still have questions in the middle of their offensive line. Wendell and guard Dan Connolly were below-average performers in 2013, but with largely unproven prospects like Josh Kline and Chris Barker behind them, there is currently little competition at those positions.
The Patriots will surely attempt to rectify this, perhaps through both free agency and the draft. If New England is looking for a potential Day 2 selection who could start immediately, they need look no further than Clemson guard Brandon Thomas.
At 6'3 and 317 pounds, Thomas size allows him to match the power of NFL-caliber interior defensive linemen. As Greg Gabriel illustrates in his scouting report for National Football Post, Thomas is already capable of being a significant asset in the run game:
I see his best fit as a run blocker. He comes off the ball quickly and is powerful on contact. He is able to generate movement with his run blocks and shows he can get to the second level and be somewhat effective. He has the strength and power to turn and seal off defenders in the run game.
Additionally, Thomas is athletic and light on his feet, making him ideal for the type of pulling and second-level blocks the Patriots demand from their linemen. And having played left tackle at Clemson, he also possesses versatility to kick outside if needed, not unlike what Marcus Cannon did last season.
3. Dominique Easley Is Available in Second Round
With Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly agreeing to re-structure their hefty contracts, the defensive tackle situation is not nearly as urgent as it appeared just a couple weeks ago. While the Patriots still need youth at the position, especially with both veterans coming off traumatic injuries, they can afford to gamble on long-term upside a bit more.
One worthy candidate for such a gamble would be Florida's Dominique Easley. Easley comes with significant medical red flags, as he has torn an ACL in both knees. Most recently, Easley played just three games in 2013 after tearing his right ACL and meniscus in a non-contact practice drill.
According to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, Easley's agent Tom Santanello asserted that the knee is currently a "non-issue." If that's true, Easley is a first-round talent who could easily fall into the late stages of the second round, where the Patriots hold the 62nd pick.
Easley is one of the most disruptive penetrating defensive tackles in this class, and he looks like an ideal 3-technique fit for the 4-3 portion of New England's hybrid defense. With an excellent motor and credentials as a former team captain, Easley's intangibles match his impressive physical tools.
Make no mistake, Easley's knees make this a risky pick, and perhaps the Patriots would rather select a safer option like Penn State's DaQuan Jones. Nevertheless, Easley could be an immediate game-changer available in the second round, a rarity the Pats would be irresponsible not to at least explore.
2. Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Troy Niklas Is Available in Second Round
As sad as it is to admit, the Patriots can no longer rely on Rob Gronkowski's availability. With eight surgeries on his resume at the age of 24, Gronk's injury history is not a fluke at this point. If the Pats ever receive anything resembling his 2011 production again, they should consider it a bonus.
Thus, it might behoove the Patriots not to search for a pure receiving "F" tight end complement, like Texas Tech's Jace Amaro, but rather someone who could reasonably replicate Gronkowski's all-around role. New England might be able to trade down from their first-round pick and still select one of two worthy alternatives, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Notre Dame's Troy Niklas.
Ironically, some analysts, such as NFL.com's Dan Greenspan, have likened Seferian-Jenkins to Gronk, noting his superior size (6'5", 262 lbs) and athleticism. Indeed, Seferian-Jenkins would provide a worthy red-zone alternative in Gronkowski's absence, as he caught 21 touchdowns during his collegiate career. Seferian-Jenkins is not an advanced blocker, but coming from a basketball background, his freakish physical traits are undeniable.
If the Patriots are seeking pure balance, however, Niklas stands out as arguably the most well-rounded tight end in the entire draft. At 6'6" and 270 pounds, Niklas is a true in-line "Y" tight end, one who provides a big target down the seam. Though he does not possess top-end speed, Niklas could be a dual asset in both the passing and running game.
Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that the Patriots met with both prospects at the combine, so the interest is evident. In a deep draft, New England might want to consider trading out of the first round and piling up assets, especially if they can still nab a tantalizing tight end in the Round 2.
1. Louis Nix or Ra'Shede Hageman Is Available in First Round
While I mentioned Dominique Easley as a defensive tackle possibility earlier, the truth is that the Patriots might take the first-round dive if either Louis Nix or Ra'Shede Hageman is available at No. 29.
Nix and Hageman are actually quite different in their skill sets. Nix would have been a no-brainer had the Pats released Wilfork, as the Notre Dame product has drawn comparisons to Wilfork. As it is, Wilfork's incentive-heavy contract makes him a year-to-year proposition, meaning that the Pats should not hesitate to look for his successor.
Nix is an ideal 1-technique defensive tackle, possessing the ideal size (6'2", 331 lbs) and power to hold the point of attack in a two-gapping scheme. Nix is also a better penetrator than many give him credit for, and like Wilfork, has sneaky athleticism and speed for someone his size. A scheme-versatile prospect, Nix is an ideal fit for New England's multiplicity concepts on defense.
Likewise, Hageman (6'6", 310 lbs) has a diverse tool kit, though he comes with more risk than the projectable Nix. As SB Nation's Richard Hill illustrates, Hageman is capable of playing the 3-technique or 1-technique in a 4-3 scheme, or the 0-technique or 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme.
There is a very real chance that both Nix and Hageman could be off the board by the late-teens or early-20s, so all this speculation may ultimately be fruitless. However, if either one is available at the end of Round 1, the Patriots would have to think very hard about solidifying a position with a shaky long-term outlook.