New England Patriots Draft Fits

Coming off their fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance, the New England Patriots entered the draft looking to continue stacking the roster to make another Super Bowl run as the Tom Brady window closes.  They lacked a 1st round draft pick – due to DeflateGate – and had no major holes to fill, which was good for a draft filled with depth players. Aidan Curran breaks down the New England Patriots draft fits to see how the new players will contribute.

Projected Starter

Cyrus Jones, Cornerback, Alabama, 2nd Round pick (#60)

Many pundits had Jones going to the Patriots in their mock drafts, and for good reason. While he is undersized at 5’10” 197 lbs, Jones played under Nick Saban – a trusted friend of New England head coach Bill Belichick – at Alabama, and is an experienced cornerback who can play in both man and zone coverage. Jones also brings added value with his special teams experience, having been Alabama’s primary punt returner. In 2015, Jones averaged 12.6 yards per return and led the nation with four returns for a touchdown, including a 57-yarder against Michigan State in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Because of his lack of size, Jones projects to be a nickel corner in the NFL, a position the Patriots were thin at last season with undrafted free agent Justin Coleman taking most of the snaps.

Jones needs to refine his man coverage technique to become a dependable nickel corner. On multiple occasions last season, Jones committed defensive pass interference because he did not turn his head to locate the ball and ran into the receiver as he slowed to track the ball. He did, however, show a knack for high-pointing the ball when he could locate it, which helps to make up for his lack of height.

Jones is a good run defender, showing a willingness to mix it up and be physical against blocking wide receivers and running backs, a trait that Belichick looks for in defensive backs.

Jones will compete with Coleman to be the team’s nickel corner, and with his experience in a pro-style defensive scheme at Alabama, combined with his athletic ability, he looks to be the starter when the regular season begins.

Immediate Role Player

Malcolm Mitchell, Wide Receiver, Georgia, 4th Round pick (#112)

New England has been unable to add a skilled X receiver since Randy Moss was with the team eight years ago. Failed experiments include Chad Johnson, Joey Galloway, Taylor Price, and most recently, Aaron Dobson. Mitchell, a 6’0” 198 lbs receiver from the University of Georgia is the next attempt at adding a lengthy, physical wideout who can help stretch a defense vertically and open up the middle of the field for Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Mitchell is an excellent receiver in most aspects: He has good hands which will help him gain Tom Brady’s trust, displays impressive downfield acceleration after the catch, and is very tough to bring down. It took two or more defenders to tackle Mitchell with regularity, and when he wasn’t churning his feet to gain a few extra yards, he was making defenders miss with a juke or stutter step. Mitchell attacked the ball well, and came back to get it instead of waiting for it to come to him. He showed the ability to make contested catches in tight spaces and high points the ball well. One thing he will have to work on is gaining separation from defenders on a consistent basis, but Mitchell has a shot at being New England’s primary X receiver who can help the Patriots take shots downfield.

Vincent Valentine, Defensive Tackle, Nebraska, 3rd Round pick (#96)

Valentine is incredibly quick for his size (6’4” 329 lbs) and has 33.1” arms to bolster the argument for drafting him in the third round, despite an injury-riddled past that included a sprained ankle and knee injury that he dealt with for much of the 2015 season. In addition to his injuries, Valentine’s effort level is questionable at times, which leads to mixed results on the field. With the departures of defensive linemen Dominique Easley and Sealver Siliga, Valentine fills a clear need for New England in the trenches. Valentine is a gifted athlete for his size, running a 5.19 40-yard dash and measuring at 9’2” in the broad jump.

He showed an impressive burst off the snap, but failed to consistently win one-on-one matchups because of poor technique. Valentine drew double teams at Nebraska mainly because of his size and not his skill. He will need to develop a counter move when rushing the quarterback, and needs to work on using his length and developing proper hand placement to win those one-on-one matchups. Valentine was ranked last among defensive tackles by Pro Football Focus in run stop percentage last season, and can improve his run-stopping by both utilizing his lower half and driving his feet more. Valentine flashed on plays where he was able to overpower linemen with his burst off the line, but was stood up at the line of scrimmage too often. If he can improve his technique and use his athletic ability more, Valentine will help fill the void left by Easley and Siliga’s departures.

Good Depth

Joe Thuney, Offensive Lineman, North Carolina State, 3rd Round pick (#78)

Thuney is the type of versatile offensive linemen Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia crave. Thuney played offensive tackle during his collegiate career but projects to be a guard in the NFL because of his short arms (32 ¼”). Thuney is an athletic, mobile guard who was asked to pull block a lot at N.C. State. His feet in both pass protection and run blocking are solid, and with some improved hand placement in pass protection, Thuney could even challenge for a starting position on New England’s offensive line, with last year’s rookie guards Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson both struggling at times.

Jacoby Brissett, Quarterback, North Carolina State, 3rd Round pick (#91)

With Tom Brady facing a four-game suspension for his role in DeflateGate, New England was expected to take a quarterback at some point in the draft to back up Jimmy Garoppolo during the suspension. However, most pundits were not expecting the Patriots to take a quarterback so early. Brissett has the tools to eventually become a starting quarterback in the NFL, with time to develop. His pocket awareness is elite, and he uses his mobility to deftly maneuver in the pocket to avoid pressure. He completed throws to receivers just before he was trucked by a blitzing linebacker on multiple occasions, and displayed a fearlessness in the pocket that should help him in the NFL.

He has a big arm but needs to improve his accuracy on deep passes. A lot of his throws were on defined reads but there were times when he had to run through his progressions before making a throw. His struggle will come in adapting to New England’s complex offensive scheme, but he will have plenty of time to sit behind Brady and Garoppolo – barring injury – and learn the intricacies of the playbook. Brissett is an accurate quarterback who can make all the throws. He needs to improve on staying in the pocket and not giving up on plays when he sees pressure, and throwing on the run. With Garoppolo set to be a free agent after this season, and Brady nearing the horizon of his career, it will be interesting to see the developmental arc of Brissett’s career, because the potential is definitely there.

Kamu Grugier-Hill, Linebacker/Safety, Eastern Illinois, 6th Round pick (#208)

Grugier-Hill fits the Deone Bucannon-type mold in the NFL of the safety / linebacker who can cover larger tight ends and come down into the box to defend the run. He is a ferocious run defender who closes with speed and shows great tackling technique. Grugier-Hill played linebacker at Eastern Illinois University, but is undersized for the position in the NFL at 6’2” 208 lbs, which lends credence to the theory that he will play a similar role to that of Patrick Chung for New England as a hybrid safety who plays down in the box often in nickel packages. Grugier-Hill takes great tackling angles and is a smart player who reads plays well as they happen. He will need to gain strength (15 reps of 225 lbs at the Combine) and weight before he is ready to make the jump from a small FCS school to the NFL, but he would have been a Day 2 draft pick if he played at a major FBS school, because he has all the tools to be a successful safety / linebacker hybrid. Additionally, Grugier-Hill, who ran a 4.45 40, was an excellent special teams player for the Panthers, playing the role of gunner on their punt coverage team, something that Belichick surely took into consideration when drafting him. Grugier-Hill is nice insurance in the event of an injury to Chung.

Projects

Elandon Roberts, Linebacker, Houston, 6th Round pick (#214)

Roberts is even smaller than Grugier-Hill, at 5’11” 234 lbs, but he is a thumper who played inside linebacker for Houston. He is a downhill-style player and loves to lay hits on running backs coming through his assigned gap, but doesn’t do much else. He is stiff in pass coverage, struggling to shed blocks and win one-on-one matchups. A majority of his sacks and tackles for a loss were a byproduct of his defensive linemen opening holes in the line for him to shoot through. He is much better playing in the box than playing in space, and in a time when the NFL is a passing league, it’s tough to see Roberts being more than a special teams player because of his struggles in pass coverage. Look for him to contribute on kickoff coverage with his straight-line speed.

Ted Karras, Offensive Guard, Illinois, 6th Round pick (#221)

Karras is a very raw offensive guard who doesn’t project to have much of a role on the team. He plays too tall and is very stiff in the hips. When playing with proper technique, Karras has success with his size (6’3” 307 lbs) but relies too much on strength to win matchups. He struggles in space and when asked to move laterally. Sustaining blocks is another issue for Karras, who has a strong initial punch but runs into trouble against defenders who have counter moves. Unless Scarnecchia can reform him, it’s tough to envision Karras making it through final cuts in training camp.

Devin Lucien, Wide Receiver, Arizona State, 7th Round pick (#225)

Lucien is a similar player to Mitchell at 6’2” 195 lbs, minus the toughness and ability to make contested catches. Lucien has great top-end speed that he uses to fly by defensive backs down the field. He can make defenders miss in the open field but is more averse to contact than Mitchell is. His route tree is also more limited than Mitchell’s, so he will need to work on his footwork and route-running at the next level before he is ready to compete for reps in regular season games. He will compete with Dobson, Nate Washington, and Chris Harper for a roster spot.

Follow @ARCurran_28 on Twitter. Check out his other work here, Rex Ryan’s blitzing schemes and the Patriots versatile defensive line.

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