Whether 11 out 12 footballs were actually deflated during the 2015 AFC Championship Game or not, the Patriots lost out on their 2016 first-round draft pick thanks to DeflateGate. By the time they were on the clock, they used the 60th overall pick on Cyrus Jones.
Flash forward to 2017, and the Patriots once again didn’t have a first-round pick after trading it to the New Orleans Saints for Brandin Cooks. A string of other roster moves left New England with just four draft picks in ’17…only two of whom are still on the roster.
The 2018 draft yielded Sony Michel at No. 31 overall, but the 23rd overall pick, Isaiah Wynn, has yet to take an NFL snap. Ditto for Duke Dawson, New England’s second-round pick in ’18.
Needless to say, the Patriots lack young, high-end talent across many positions on their roster.
Fortunately, they’re well-stocked for the 2019 NFL Draft that begins on Thursday night. New England is currently scheduled to make 12 picks over the three-day event, tied for most in the league. Barring any trades, six of their selections fall within the first 101 picks.
Not every position group is in dire straits – the Patriots did, after all, win Super Bowl LIII – but the road back to another championship will be a lot easier if they can knock multiple picks out of the park for the first time in recent memory.
Here are the five positions New England needs to invest in the most during the draft, with one honorable mention.
Honorable mention: Quarterback
If only to see how it may affect Tom Brady’s plans to stay away from organized team activities this off-season. Not that we’re advocating for Danny Etling, a seventh-round pick in 2018, to be the future at the position, but he clearly stuck around on the practice squad and traveled with the team to away games last year for a reason. The Patriots should certainly grab another passer in the later rounds, but there’s no need to use one of their premium picks at the position.
5. Defensive Tackle
The Patriots were a respectable 11th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2018, yielding 112.7 yards per game, but gave up an abysmal 4.9 yards per rush – 29th in the league. Malcom Brown, somewhat of a disappointment after being taken with the No. 32 overall pick in 2015, has since moved on to the Saints, leaving Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and free agent signing Mike Pennell as the lone big bodies in the middle of the defensive line.
New England has been to three more Super Bowls, winning two of them, since Vince Wilfork left following Super Bowl XLIX, but the Patriots have never adequately replaced the future Hall of Fame candidate. It’s time to find another force to make opposing coaches throw the ball on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Deficiencies in personnel at linebacker wound up being overblown in 2018 given the emergence of Kyle Van Noy as a steady jack-of-all-trades and the return to health of Dont’a Hightower, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots should stand pat at the position.
Van Noy is a free agent following the season and Hightower, while he did play in 15 of 16 regular season games last year, missed 22 games over the previous four seasons due to various injuries.
The only intriguing young player currently on the depth chart is Ja’Whaun Bentley, a fifth-round pick of the team in 2018, who had a strong preseason but lasted only three weeks in the regular season before a torn biceps landed him on injured reserve.
This is hardly the five-alarm inferno it seemed during last off-season, but it’s position group that needs to have an eye on the 2020s as much as this season.
3. Offensive Tackle
Trent Brown’s departure in free agency created a humongous gap at left tackle, only the most important position on the offensive line when it comes to protecting Tom Brady’s blindside.
Conventional wisdom says that Isaiah Wynn will be able to slide in and replace Brown, but he missed all of what would have been his rookie season with a torn Achilles suffered in the pre-season. He’s also listed at only 6-foot-2, which would make him a much more suitable candidate for the interior of the offensive line (left guard Joe Thuney hits free agency next off-season).
While right tackle Marcus Cannon is signed for three more years, he also turns 31 in May and has missed 12 games over the last two seasons. He’s signed at reasonable money (just under $17 million through 2021), but if nothing else, the Patriots need depth at the position following the departure of swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle in free agency.
New England doesn’t need to use its first round pick on the outside of its line, but at least one selection before the third round is out feels optimal.
2. Wide Receiver
Despite the presence of the greatest quarterback of all-time, drafting wide receivers has been more problematic than any other position on the field for the Patriots since the turn of the century.
Julian Edelman is the only player to earn a second contract from the team – Deion Branch should have, of course – but given that Edelman was a quarterback in college taken with a seventh-round flier, that’s been more a case of hitting on 17 and somehow getting a 4 in blackjack.
Since drafting Branch and David Givens in 2002, it’s been almost nothing but swings and misses with the likes of Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Aaron Dobson and Malcolm Mitchell – the last of whom played an integral role in New England’s Super Bowl LI victory, but whose knee condition prevented him from ever playing again.
One thing all of those picks have in common? None of them were taken in the first round. With Edelman set to turn 33 prior to next season, there’s never been a better time to turn around nearly two decades of misery when it comes to drafting receivers. If the Patriots don’t trade up, Deebo Samuel from South Carolina and A.J. Brown from Ole Miss could very well be there for the taking at 32.
1. Tight End
For as poor as the Patriots have drafted at wide receiver under Bill Belichick, they’ve been that good at tight end. Rob Gronkowski will be a Hall of Famer in 2024 (unless he unretires), Ben Watson had a very productive 15 (possibly 16?) year career and you can do worse than Daniel Graham. Aaron Hernandez is another story for another day but he was, of course, a star in the making.
With that pedigree in mind, the Patriots need to go big game hunting at tight end with Jacob Hollister the only player currently on the depth chart to catch a pass (eight, to be exact) from Tom Brady. The Iowa tandem – Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson – are both projected to be taken well before the Patriots are on the clock at No. 32.
So it’s time to trade up the draft board. It’s been awhile since Belichick traded up in the first round on draft day; you’ve got to go back to 2012, when he made the very worthwhile move of jumping up and taking Hightower with the 25th pick – just four picks after taking Chandler Jones, making the 2012 draft one of his finest in Foxboro.
Super Bowl LIV won’t be won or lost during the draft later this week. But foundational pieces for both the present and the future are there for the taking for the Patriots, and with Brady set to turn 42 in August, they can’t afford to punt on either.