New England Patriots

Patriots Draft Preview: Plenty of Holes to Fill After an Offseason of Big Name Departures

The Patriots haven't drafted a player who's gone on to make a Pro Bowl since 2013

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Even in the age of social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, it's debatable whether or not the Pro Bowl would be worth watching for a sports-starved nation.

The game itself has morphed into a running punchline, the worst of the all-star exhibitions put on by any North American professional sports league exacerbated by the fact that football players have the least to gain by taking to the field in Honolulu or Orlando or wherever else it's been held of late. The injury risk is simply too great.

In New England, the game is even more meaningless. With the Patriots seemingly playing for a title every year, you'll seldom see anyone from Foxboro take part in the contest held in between conference championships and the Super Bowl. Matthew Slater and Stephon Gilmore became the first Patriots players to cleat up for the Pro Bowl this January since 2014, as players from each conference champion are exempt.

Of course, there's a difference between actually playing in the Pro Bowl and being selected for it. The Patriots averaged five Pro Bowl selections per season from 2013-17, while two players earned berths in 2018 (Tom Brady and Gilmore) along with three in 2019 (Slater, Gilmore and Dont'a Hightower).

That's all well and good, as a veteran-heavy roster has been to four Super Bowls in said time frame, winning three of them. But 2013 also marks the last season in which the Patriots drafted a player who's gone on to make a Pro Bowl, in Jamie Collins.

There are caveats. Malcolm Butler, an undrafted free agent in 2014, earned Pro Bowl honors for the Patriots in 2015. And who's to quibble with the contributions of players such as James White, Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason or Joe Thuney, all drafted by the team since 2013 that haven't made a Pro Bowl roster.

No matter how you slice it, New England sorely needs an infusion of young talent in this week's draft more than ever before. This was true prior to Brady's defection to Tampa Bay; it's even more so the case now.

The team has needs at virtually every position, save for perhaps the defensive secondary and punter. We'll narrow it down to the five largest needs for the Patriots ahead of the first round on Thursday, in which they currently own the 23rd overall pick.

In all, New England holds 12 selections in the draft, which runs through Saturday.

Defensive Line

Tackle, in particular, is where the Patriots need some help, but we'll extend it to the entire line since Lawrence Guy is entering the final year of his contract.

New England is well-stocked with fully capable players up front on defense between Guy, Adam Butler, Chase Winovich and free agent signing Beau Allen, but who's the true game-changer out of that group? Anyone?

Some of Belichick's finest strokes in the first round of the draft have come along the defensive line in Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, but he's also struck out on Dominique Easley and didn't get much from the underwhelming Malcom Brown.

Yetur Gross-Matos (Penn State) and A.J. Epenesa (Iowa) are two edge players who should be available when the Patriots are on the clock No. 23, while Alabama's Raekwon Davis (6-foot-6, 311 pounds) is a player worth taking a look at on Day 2 of the draft.

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Bit of a good news, bad news situation here. The good news is that kicker is the one position on the roster where Belichick has a truly perfect track record: he's only drafted a kicker once since taking over in 2000, and it was Stephen Gostkowski, who is now the franchise's all-time leading scorer.

The bad news is that the team now needs to find Gostkowski's replacement, as the Patriots moved on from the 36-year-old last month.

It's no lock New England drafts Gostkowski's replacement, but Gostkowski himself was drafted in the fourth round in 2006 following Adam Vinatieri's departure in free agency. The Patriots could run it back with veteran Nick Folk, who took over for an injured Gostkowski last season to rave reviews (14-17 FGAs, 12-12 PATs)...or they could take a look at Rodrigo Blankenship, who's widely expected to be the first kicker off the board but not until at least the fourth round.

Blankenship, a former walk-on at Georgia, made 82.5% of his field goal attempts in his career, including an impressive 6-for-9 from beyond 50 yards.

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Offensive Tackle

This is an interesting one, as the Patriots currently have players on either side of the line in Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon who are fully capable of starting in 2020.

However, a closer look reveals a bit more uncertainty. Cannon turns 32 next month -- a concern in and of itself -- and declined in 2019. The Patriots could save roughly $6 million against the salary cap by releasing Cannon, who's spent his entire nine-year career in New England. Wynn, a first-round pick in 2018, has played in just eight of a possible 32 regular season games thus far in his career due to various injuries.

Wynn undoubtedly helped shore up the offensive line for the Patriots upon his return last season from injured reserve, when he took over for Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. He has the versatility to play guard as well, which could come into play depending on the status of Joe Thuney, who is currently signed on the franchise tag at $14.78 million.

With Korey Cunningham and Yondy Cajuste as the lone backups, the Patriots have to address tackle at some point during the draft. Should it be early -- Belichick has taken a tackle in the first-round just once, the solid-if-unspectacular Nate Solder in 2011 -- Mekhi Becton, a 6-foot-7, 360-pound behemoth from Louisville, could anchor the line for the next decade.

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New England's depth chart at linebacker after Dont'a Hightower right now is simply appalling. Ja'Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun and free agent-signing Brandon Copeland are all nice depth pieces, but all would currently be starters in a 3-4 defense.

Plus, Hightower, 30, won't last forever. He's stayed remarkably healthy in each of the last two seasons, missing just one game in each campaign, but the time has come to at least start thinking about finding his replacement.

Should the Patriots look linebacker Thursday, it would be the third time under Belichick they've taken a player at the position in the first round, following Hightower (2012) and Jerod Mayo (2008). Both home runs.

Kenneth Murray, a junior out of Oklahoma, could fit the bill. At 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, he's a bit smaller than the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Hightower, but possesses blazing speed for the position (4.52 seconds 40-yard dash time).

The Patriots are going to take multiple linebackers with their arsenal of picks. If they want a potential game-changer who can contribute right away, Murray feels like the best bet.

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Barring a change of heart when it comes to signing an available veteran, the Patriots are going to take a quarterback in the draft. It's a lock.

But where? If the team feels confident in Jarrett Stidham, there's no need to use its first-round pick on a passer such as Justin Herbert (Oregon), Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) or Jordan Love (Utah State) -- the majority of whom will likely be gone by the time the 23rd pick rolls around.

If that's the case, who's the best of the rest? Jacob Eason (Washington), Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma) and Jake Fromm (Georgia) are all intriguing Day 2 prospects.

Hurts, remember, transferred from Alabama to Oklahoma following the emergence of Tagovailoa and proceeded to lead the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in 2019 and finished second in Heisman voting behind LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick.

Since landing Brady 199th overall in 2000, Belichick has drafted 10 quarterbacks. To date, only one (Matt Cassel) has gone on to make a Pro Bowl elsewhere, though that could soon change with Jimmy Garoppolo. Either way: call it a 20% hit rate on non-Brady quarterbacks. That figure matters less the later in the draft the Patriots wait on a passer, but the team needs to provide Stidham -- and Brian Hoyer, for that matter -- with some legitimate competition.

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