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The New England Patriots allowed 41 points in a disappointing Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles – so they used their top two picks on offense. Starting quarterback Tom Brady turns 41 in August and they traded away his heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo – so they didn’t take a QB until the seventh round. The pass rush failed to register a sack on Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles – so they eschewed pass rush entirely in the draft. Head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick didn’t build five Super Bowl champions doing what everyone else would do and what anyone would expect, and the 2018 draft was no exception. Still, the Patriots walked away with a class that should contribute to the 2018 team and beyond.
Round 1, Pick 23: Isaiah Wynn, OT, Georgia
It wasn’t surprising that the Patriots took an offensive tackle with their first pick. They’ve used high picks on offensive linemen in the past, and with longtime left tackle Nate Solder chasing big free agency dollars in the offseason, they had a hole on the blind side. Filling that hole with Wynn was somewhat surprising, however- at under 6’3”, he’d be among the shortest tackles in recent memory. Wynn’s 33 ⅜” arms are long for his height but still short relative to most tackles.
Still, there is plenty to like about Wynn’s game. He played left tackle at a high level in the SEC, prompting Scouting Academy Director Dan Hatman to remark, “Wynn is still my favorite LT in college football.” He was ranked as ITP’s sixth overall prospect, though we largely evaluated him as a guard. The Patriots have options if they decide Wynn’s size is a problem at tackle, but he figures to start at guard at the very least. The Patriots can roll out their best five linemen and use Wynn’s versatility to their advantage. Undersized left tackles are a common theme in building out bargain offensive lines, and if Wynn can play in the NFL like he did in college, the Patriots will have a steal.
Round 1, Pick 31: Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
Fantasy football aficionados will tell you not to trust Patriots running backs; they’re famous for rotating backs rather than leaning heavily on one workhorse. They’ve also tended to avoid rookie ball carriers; J.R. Redmond (2000) and Laurence Maroney (2006) are the only rookie backs to exceed 100 carries.
However, Michel is a special case. Maroney is the only other first round pick they’ve used on a back, and people forget how big a role (175 carries for 745 yards and six touchdowns) he played in his first season, even though four-time Pro Bowler Corey Dillon was established as a starter. Michel is arguably an even better prospect, and he faces no such competition. James White is a terrific third-down back who has never even had 50 carries in a season. Rex Burkhead, probably the best all-around back in the group, has never had over 75. That just leaves Mike Gillislee (inactive seven weeks in 2017) and offseason signee Jeremy Hill (3.6 YPC since 2015) for Michel to beat out. Expect him to get the lion’s share of carries in 2018, though he probably won’t eat into White’s passing game work much this year.
The one element in Michel’s game that can hold him back is his propensity to fumble; lead scout Paul Guaragna described his ball security as only “adequate.” If he can curb that, he brings tremendous dynamism to the RB role. He’s run out of shotgun and under center, in both zone and power schemes. He’s got home run speed but at 214 pounds, he’s heavy enough to pound the rock between the tackles. He can contribute in the passing game and in pass protection. He isn’t as explosive as Saquon Barkley or as violent as Derrius Guice or Nick Chubb, but he might be the most scheme-diverse back in the class. For a team that changes its game plan week-to-week, that’s highly appealing – and will let him make an impact as a rookie.
Immediate Role Player
Round 2, Pick 56: Duke Dawson, CB, Florida
The Patriots lost starting corner and Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler in free agency, but Dawson doesn’t figure to be a Butler replacement. The second-round pick did a lot of his work for the Gators in the slot, though he did play outside at times. In 2017, the Patriots slot position was split between veteran Eric Rowe and second-year speedster Jonathan Jones, with disappointing 2016 second round pick Cyrus Jones on injured reserve. Dawson will factor into that mix. Safety Jordan Richards played 25% of snaps in 2017, largely as a dimeback, and with no safeties added in the draft, Dawson has the opportunity to steal some of those snaps as well.
Dawson played a lot of press at Florida, which will serve him well in New England’s press-heavy scheme. The Patriots value tackling ability in their defensive backs, and Dawson fits the bill; ITP Draft Guide lead scout Jalun Morris cited his “good physical toughness/willingness to stick his body in run action when aligned as a force player.” One issue of concern is communication around rub routes, which can cause problems for a player who figures to line up inside. He’ll also have to prove his effectiveness when he’s not aligned in press. Despite these areas for improvement, Dawson figures to get significant snaps early in his career as a fifth or sixth defensive back.
Round 7, Pick 250: Ryan Izzo, TE, Florida State
As a seventh-round pick, Izzo might not even make the squad. He’ll be competing with veteran tight ends Dwayne Allen and Troy Niklas. But Izzo comes with a cheap four-year contract, giving him a leg up on the pricier veterans. Like them, Izzo isn’t going to be much of a receiving weapon; he tallied 20 catches for 317 yards and three touchdowns for the Seminoles in 2017. But lead scout Tom Mead praised Izzo’s blocking, calling him “a very good, aggressive and consistent blocker in the run game” while noting his good pass protection as well. That blocking prowess could get him on the field sooner rather than later.
Round 5, Pick 143: Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue
The Patriots linebacking corps needed fortification this offseason; only one team allowed more yards through the air to opposing running backs than NE’s 844, and that doesn’t count the 100 yards Corey Clement slashed them for in the Super Bowl. Fans hoping for a 220-pound coverage LB are not going to find what they’re looking for in Bentley. He weighs in at 246 pounds and his 4.75 Pro Day 40 time isn’t going to remind anyone of Myles Jack. He wins with the smarts to snuff out run plays, the aggressiveness to shoot gaps, and the play strength to stalemate fullbacks and force fumbles.
While Bentley won’t factor in on passing downs, he can provide thumping in run situations. Lost in the passing game woes in 2017 were the Patriots allowing 4.7 yards per carry, 31st in the NFL. When Dont’a Hightower went down, the team had to turn to undersized linebackers like Elandon Roberts and Marquis Flowers. Obviously Bentley is no replacement for Hightower’s all-around impact, but he provides more of a physical edge than Roberts, Flowers, or Kyle Van Noy. His biggest challenge will be making the team: Bentley rarely played special teams for the Boilermakers, and backup LBs usually need to play in the kicking game to stick on the roster.
Round 6, Pick 210, Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami
The Patriots’ WR room is pretty crowded these days. Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola are gone, but Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell return from injury, Kenny Britt is back for a full season, and the team added Jordan Matthews and Cordarrelle Patterson to a group that also includes Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. Berrios brings the toughness, change-of-direction, and route-running savvy the Patriots seek in slot receivers, but will that be enough?
The key for Berrios will be the return game. Amendola was not just a reliable slot option, but also the team’s primary punt returner, and they’re not likely to use Edelman extensively in this role as he returns from ACL surgery. Cornerback Cyrus Jones got plenty of looks on returns in 2016, but he struggled holding onto the football and is coming off his own injury. Berrios has a real chance to earn the punt return gig, which would make him a roster lock and give him the opportunity to earn reps on offense as the season progresses. He’ll have to fend off Patterson for the role as well, who is one of the league’s best kick/punt returners – though he won’t contribute much on offense outside of trick/gadget plays.
Round 6, Pick 178: Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State
Sam may be the nickel linebacker Patriots fans might have hoped for with the Bentley pick. Like Bentley, Sam weighs in the 240s and ran in the 4.7s, but his tape showed much better coverage skills. Lead scout Tom Mead wrote that Sam has “good range and foot speed” and “displays the ability to run with solid backs and tight ends in the short area, up the seam and middle of the field in Man.” He might also have some untapped athletic potential being another year removed from the ankle injury that cost him virtually all of 2016.
Unlike Bentley, Sam needs to improve his aggressiveness taking on blockers and his play strength at the point of attack. He’s unlikely to play much of a defensive role in the short term, so contributing on special teams will be critical to earning a roster spot.
Round 7, Pick 219: Danny Etling, QB, LSU
The Patriots haven’t carried a third quarterback since 2011 (except for two weeks at the end of 2016), but Etling is the only youthful option in a positional group that contains a 40-year-old starter in Brady and a 32-year-old backup in Brian Hoyer. Etling is a longshot to beat out Hoyer for the backup role, but he can perhaps show enough in the preseason to convince New England to carry a third signal-caller.
Etling started his career as a teammate of Bentley’s before transferring from Purdue to LSU. In his two years as starter, he threw only seven interceptions, with just two in 2017. He’s got sufficient physical tools and his leadership and toughness stand out, but he’s lacking in many of the nuances of the position. QB guru Schofield notes “Anticipation on throws is poor, very much a see-it, throw-it passer who will need to improve in this area drastically. Tends to lock onto his initial target … Play speed and processing speed need vast improvement.” He’ll need to show progress in the preseason to justify a roster spot as a third QB.
Round 7, Pick 243: Keion Crossen, CB, Western Carolina
Crossen is an interesting prospect, a physical and aggressive player despite weighing less than 180 pounds, and a long-armed press corner despite standing shorter than 5’10”. His aggressiveness and physicality should serve him well on special teams as he works to refine his zone awareness and reactive athleticism, two deficiencies which will keep him from seeing much defensive time early on. It’s a pretty crowded secondary group, so proving his mettle on punt and kick coverage will be vital to Crossen making the 53-man roster.
Trade: Trent Brown, OT acquired for Round 3, Pick 95 overall
Wynn would be among the smallest offensive tackles in recent memory, while Brown is among the largest, a behemoth at 6’8” and 360 pounds. He played largely on the right side for San Francisco, where he emerged from his seventh-round-pick background to become one of the best pass-blocking tackles in the league, allowing only one sack last year per Pro Football Focus. Once the 49ers drafted Mike McGlinchey with the ninth overall pick, Brown became expendable, and the Patriots pounced. It’s unclear how the offensive line will shake out between Wynn, Brown, incumbent right tackle Marcus Cannon (returning from injury), and the trio of young interior players, but they won’t be wanting for options.
Trade: Acquired 2019 second-round (Bears) and third-round (Lions) picks
When the Patriots made unusually big splashes in the 2017 offseason, trading for Cooks and signing Stephon Gilmore to a big money deal, some construed this as Belichick moving into “go for it now” mode to win another championship behind the aging Brady. That perception was heightened with the midseason trade of Garoppolo. But if the 2018 draft was any indication, the Patriots are doing what they always do: moving around and finding value. They traded back with the pick they got for Garoppolo, netting a fourth rounder, then traded for a 2019 second, while picking up another fourth. One fourth went to move up a few picks to get Dawson, while they traded back with the other, then out of the fourth round for Detroit’s 2019 third. It was classic Belichick wheeling-and-dealing – and a sign that, if the end is on the horizon for the five-time-Super-Bowl-winning head coach, he’s not changing up his game plan.
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