As cooler heads seemingly prevail in Foxboro, the New England Patriots can fully shift their focus to this weekend's NFL draft.
Barring any further pre-draft trades, New England is armed with a pair of first round picks (Nos. 23 and 31 overall) for just the third time in the Bill Belichick era. The team also picked twice in the first round in 2004 and 2012.
The commitments earlier this week of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski for the upcoming season lessens the threat level midnight situation the Patriots were approaching, but there's still no reason to think New England couldn't find itself in a similar situation this time next year. Not until the exact contractual situations of Brady and Gronkowski become known, at least.
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Either way, Brady will be 41 years old during training camp. Drafting and developing the next quarterback remains priority No. 1 for the long-term, especially considering the only other option on the current roster is 32-year-old journeyman Brian Hoyer.
Brady buying in for the coming season, if nothing else, means the Patriots can be patient.
What good can patience be for New England? Plenty, considering that in addition to the pair of first rounders, the team currently has three more draft picks within the first 95 slots of this weekend’s draft.
Patience would be ideal for New England, because finding "the next guy" under center is hardly the only need for the Patriots at this moment. Belichick said in his pre-draft presser a few weeks ago that he doesn’t believe in drafting for need, but certainly he believes in replenishing his roster with young talent.
New England currently has only one of its own first-round picks on the roster from the 2013-2017 drafts, defensive tackle Malcom Brown (No. 32 overall, 2015). Brown is a nice player, and the Patriots have uncovered some other gems in later rounds during that timeframe – Duron Harmon, James White, Shaq Mason, Trey Flowers, Joe Thuney and Deatrich Wise Jr. come to mind – but between trades, #DeflateGate and Dominique Easley, New England has missed out on some chances to draft some of the most talented prospects in several given years.
Couple the lack of recent first rounders with last year’s lack of draft picks – the team used only four, with only Wise playing a snap for the team in 2017 – hoarding those five top-100 selections this weekend just might produce the best possible outcome for the Patriots.
In addition to the pair of first-rounders it holds on Thursday night, New England is scheduled to pick at Nos. 43 and 63 in the second round and No. 95 in the third round on Friday, followed by Nos. 198 and 210 in the sixth round and No. 219 in the seventh round on Friday.
Forget about packaging a series of picks together for any of the top quarterbacks in this draft, be it USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield or UCLA’s Josh Rosen. At this point, given the number of teams across the league desperate for help at the most important position, even Louisville’s Lamar Jackson – who reportedly visited the Patriots earlier this month – might not be around when New England first steps to the podium.
If for some reason Rosen or Jackson slide to No. 23, it will certainly be tempting for Belichick to pull the trigger. A far more likely scenario, however, is the Patriots targeting Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph at either No. 31, or better yet, No. 43.
Rudolph played in a spread offense at Oklahoma State known for its “air-raid” stylings. A three-year starter, he improved statistically every season in terms of his completing percentage, passing yardage, yards per attempt and touchdown passes. For his career in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Rudolph completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 13,618 yards and a 92-26 touchdown-interception ratio.
If the Patriots are going to take a quarterback without having to move up at all, this is the guy.
The exterior of the offensive line and the defensive front seven, particularly linebacker, are other top priorities for New England this weekend.
In light of losing 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder to the New York Giants, picking a left tackle to protect Brady’s blindside should be a formality in the first round. Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, UCLA’s Kolton Miller and Texas’s Connor Williams appear to be the safest bets to go in round one at tackle, and it’s possible all three could be there for New England at No. 23.
Miller and McGlinchey are built similarly to Solder, who was 6-foot-8, 319 pounds when he was drafted seven years ago. Miller stands 6-foot-9 and weighs in at 309 pounds, while McGlinchey is an inch shorter and the same weight. Williams is 6-foot-5, 295 pounds.
For what it’s worth, Williams was a Consensus All-American in 2016, but not in 2017; McGlinchey, on the other hand, ended his college career with an All-American nod last fall. Anyone of these three players could potentially start right away for the Patriots, depending on the progress of Antonio Garcia, the 2017 third-round draft pick who missed his entire rookie season due to injury.
Speaking of 2017 third-round picks who missed their entire rookie seasons to injury, New England should have Derek Rivers in the equation along the edge of the defensive line this fall. It would be great if he could join the young core of Flowers and Wise in getting after the passer, but even so, another high-end threat is needed.
N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb could go off the board in the top-five, leaving a player like Boston College’s Harold Landry or Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter are more realistic targets for the Patriots at defensive end/outside linebacker. If the team wants to look for depth at inside linebacker instead early on, where New England is razor thin beyond the oft-injured Dont’a Hightower, Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State has a well-rounded skill set and has a chance to make it to the mid-20s.