New England Patriots: 5 Bold Predictions for 2014 Draft
For the New England Patriots, draft weekend always brings a significant number of moves, many of which are surprising to everyone across the spectrum.
They're constantly trading up and down the board or selecting players the networks have no highlights packages of long before any of the pundits thought those players would be selected. Trying to predict what the Patriots are going to do can be the most futile of all pre-draft exercises.
Still, the Patriots' needs are clear after an early free-agency period that left them light on defensive ends, tight ends and linebackers, along with significant questions at other positions like defensive tackle and running back.
Here are five bold predictions for what the Pats will do in the draft.
They'll Take Multiple Interior Offensive Linemen
The Patriots return their offensive line fully intact from the last two seasons with the re-signing of center Ryan Wendell this offseason. Despite Dan Connolly's sizable cap hit, per Spotrac, he has thus far avoided being a cap casualty or restructuring his deal.
The Pats' tackles are the strength of the offensive line. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer should return from a broken leg, while Nate Solder enters his third year starting at left tackle. Both are huge bookends with great athleticism.
However, with Logan Mankins getting older and Connolly and Wendell showing inconsistency in the last two seasons, there's good reason to believe the Pats will target both a center and guard in the draft.
Ideally they'll look for versatile players who might be able to play multiple interior positions, but the real goal is to pick up two players who can push or even replace Wendell and Connolly, or develop into a long-term replacement for Mankins.
Some players that could be targets include Colorado State center Weston Richburg, Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson, UCLA guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and Arkansas center Travis Swanson.
The Pats will pounce early and often on interior linemen in this draft, reinforcing the heart of their offensive line for the long term.
They'll Take a Quarterback
The Patriots have had private workouts and been connected to a number of different quarterbacks this offseason, including a high-profile visit with Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater that garnered a lot of attention.
That sparked speculation if the Pats might realistically consider taking a quarterback high enough in the draft where players like Manziel and Bridgewater would be available. That is probably unlikely.
But with Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his rookie deal and likely to depart next offseason for a chance to compete to be a starter, and Tom Brady set to turn 37 this summer, the Pats definitely need at least one more quarterback on the team.
Brady has four years left on his contract and any 2014 draft pick would have the same, definitely drafting Brady's heir apparent doesn't quite make perfect sense just yet. But should Brady start to decline sooner and more drastically than expected, it would be wise to have a talented backup in the wings.
The Patriots cannot afford to lose Mallett next year and have no experienced backup behind Brady. Developmental players like Logan Thomas and AJ McCarron could be groomed as a third-stringer this year, be primed to take over the backup role in 2015, and then perhaps start to compete against Brady to be the starter heading into their final two seasons under contract.
They'll Take a Running Back Sooner Than Expected
In today's NFL, there's no better place to get a running back than in the draft. Running backs have a short shelf life and nothing can handcuff a team more than overspending on one in free agency only to see him break down.
Rookie running backs can often step in and immediately contribute, especially if they're able to pass block.
So it shouldn't be concerning that the Pats lost LeGarrette Blount in free agency and have yet to replace him. But with both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the final years of their rookie deals, the Pats definitely have a short- and long-term need for any kind of running back.
Both Ridley and Vereen have had their issues, and while it's impossible to know for sure what the Patriots' long-term outlook for the two are, it wouldn't be a shock for the Pats to try to draft a potential stud long before anyone expects them to.
The value of running backs has fallen and if we know there's one thing Bill Belichick can't pass up, it's great value. Players like Carlos Hyde, Bishop Sankey and Andre Williams could all be good additions for New England.
They'll Take a Wide Receiver
Despite having 10 wide receivers currently on their roster, including three entering their second year who showed promise as rookies, the Pats should add another wide out, possibly in the early rounds.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reported last week that the Pats could possibly even trade up to land another impact weapon for Tom Brady. Couple that with their significant interest in some of the most highly-regarded receivers in this draft class and it certainly seems like there's plenty of smoke.
But is it a smoke screen?
The Pats brought back Julian Edelman and added Brandon LaFell this offseason. Danny Amendola also enters his second year in New England and could make a significant leap. They do have some solid pieces in place that they can win with.
However, you can never have too many weapons and this year the situation could be right for one of the better receivers like Marqise Lee or Allen Robinson could fall into the Pats' lap. They can't pass up a receiver who could make an immediate impact.
Pass-Rushers a Priority
NFL defenses live or die by their pass rush. Yes, the Patriots put up the 5th most sacks in the NFL last season, but that was a deceiving stat. By most other metrics, the Patriots pass rush was below-average.
They reinforced their secondary by adding Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Those two additions alone should buy their pass rush an extra second, but the front seven still has a lot of questions.
Will Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly be the same players? Can Michael Buchanan elevate to fill the third defensive end role? And where will they find linebacker depth behind their three starters?
If the Patriots want to get their defense to the next level they must complement their secondary with some pass rush specialists, both inside and outside. Whether it's a defensive end like Kony Ealy or a defensive tackle like Dominique Easley, the Pats must add players who can get after the quarterback, even if they are not "three-down players".
As the Seahawks proved, there's a place for specialization on a defense, especially if you have a talented secondary. The Pats can no longer rely on a front seven that are jacks of all trades but masters of none—especially the most important element on defense in the NFL, pass rush.
Whether it's in the first round or in rookie free agency the Pats must focus on their front seven and find players who can make an impact on passing downs.