With the NFL draft on tap Thursday, the Patriots will be pondering what to do with their pack of picks. In particular, how will they opt to use their late first-round chip?
They currently have the final pick in the first round, as the defending Super Bowl champions sit in the No. 32 hole.
Given their run of success over the past two decades, they haven’t had many picks in prime draft position. They’re usually saddled at the bottom of the draft board.
Over the years, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has maneuvered a variety of ways, be it trading out for more picks, trading up a few spots if there’s a must-have prospect, or standing pat and making the pick.
During the 2012 draft, for instance, the Pats moved up in the first round for both defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
In this upcoming 2019 entry draft, with six picks in the first three rounds, the Pats can get up to No. 21, which is Seattle’s pick, by swapping Nos. 32, 73 and 205 for Nos. 21 and 159.
Given the bevy of Patriots needs, and the collection of picks the team holds, who are some players worth targeting for a move up the board?
Here’s five players we’d make a move for:
1. T. J. HOCKENSON, TE, IOWA: Rob Gronkowski is retired, we think, and even if he isn’t, there is a huge need to bring in the next version of Gronk. Hockenson is the closest to replicating what the all-world tight end brought to the table between an ability to be a force as a blocker in the run game, and an even bigger presence in the passing attack. He’s the top tight end on many draft boards. Even though the Pats signed free agent Austin Seferian-Jenkins to a one-year deal, there’s still a need to draft a young stud tight end to take the baton and carry it forward.
Like Gronk, he challenges coverages. He has explosiveness, and does some of his best work after the catch. Iowa moved Hockenson all around the formation. It’s no secret the Patriots’ championship offense revolves around a tight end who’s more than a blocker. It’s an essential piece of the operation. Hockensen is the perfect fit, the do-it-all tight end who is needed for their offense and someone they should consider moving up to get to work with Seferian-Jenkins.
The biggest question here is how high they’ll need to move. On many projections, Hockenson is a top 10 selection. That’s too high for a move.
2. JERRY TILLERY, DT, NOTRE DAME: We’re plugging in Tillery here, because in our view, he’s a great fit in the Patriots’ system. He might still be around at No. 32, but another team (Seattle at No. 21) might snag him. He’s been projected in the 25-to-30 range. The player in this category for the jump up could be Tillery, or whoever the Pats (Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell?) have at the top of their board, and deem as a must-have for their defensive line.
We like Tillery because he has all the traits the Patriots love. He can play either defensive end or tackle. He’s 6-foot-6, 295 pounds and has the kind of length the Pats crave. In terms of a type, he’s been compared with former Patriot Richard Seymour or current Steeler Stephon Tuitt. Tillery would work well in their two-gapping system. Last season, he had eight sacks. He also had 48 total pressures for the Irish. That ranked him third among interior defenders.
The point here is, having lost Trey Flowers, they need to reload with a young gun on the line. They brought in Michael Bennett, but he doesn’t figure to be a long-term solution. This player is someone they need to build around. He needs to be the right guy. In 2012, they moved up for Jones and Hightower.
3. JOHNATHAN ABRAM, S, MISSISSIPPI STATE: Even though the Patriots just gave Patrick Chung a one-year extension through 2021, they still need a newer version of their gritty safety. Let’s face it, the back line of their defense is getting a bit old. Chung, who turns 32 in August, is coming off the broken arm he suffered in the Super Bowl. Devin McCourty also turns 32 in August. He told reporters in a pre-Super Bowl media session he might retire if the team won. He’s returning, but he’s getting closer to hanging it up. The other member of the big three, Duron Harmon, is 28, but as NBC analyst and former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison keeps telling me, they need to get younger and more physical at this position.
Belichick loves Chung because he can do everything. He can play in the slot, in the box, and against tight ends. He has that Patriot recipe of versatility. So does Abram. He also hits like a freight train. He’s a physical box safety who can match tight ends. He’s one of the best in the draft. The Chiefs, who cut Eric Berry, might be tempted at No. 29 to take Abram. He’s been slotted there on a number of draft boards.
4. ANDRE DILLARD, OT, WASHINGTON STATE: The Patriots lost starting left tackle Trent Bown in free agency. He signed a stunning four-year, $66 million deal with the Raiders. The assumption is 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who missed last season with a torn Achilles, will just step in. As it is, it’s going to be a tall order for him to protect Brady’s blind side, and that’s without coming back from that type of injury.
Perhaps the Patriots will consider drafting one of the premier tackles as insurance. Dillard fits the profile. He also fits the Patriots prototype. He’s one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the class. He’s a four-year starter. He’s 6-foot-5, 310 pounds. He’s light on his feet. He’s a good run blocker, but even better in pass protection. With guard Joe Thuney a free agent next year, it’s possible the Patriots would eventually move Wynn to guard, and draft a tackle. Dillard certainly fits the bill.
5. DWAYNE HASKINS, QB, OHIO STATE: If he slips down the board, which is another in the wishful thinking category, this is the quarterback to move up for. There’s no way Kyler Murray is going to slide. But Haskins, the second-best quarterback in the draft, could drop a bit based on some draft projections. The Giants just might pass on him at No. 6, and the Broncos don’t seem to be his cup of tea at No. 10. John Elway and the Broncos seem to be in Drew Lock’s corner if they take a quarterback. The question is how much farther would Haskins drop. Would the Bengals (No. 11), Dolphins (No. 13) and Redskins (No. 15), other teams with quarterback needs, also pass? Might one of those teams have their quarterback question answered after a deal for Arizona’s Josh Rosen?
That being said, Haskins’ football IQ is what would and should attract the Patriots.
He has all the other tools, be it arm strength to make all the throws, accuracy which can improve over time, as well as athleticism. He’s a one-year starter, so there’s plenty of time for him to learn and develop under Tom Brady.
Also, former NFL quarterback and Elite 11 head coach Trent Dilfer told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer he sees similarities between Haskins and Brady. Dilfer had previously worked with Haskins at his Elite 11 recruiting camp.
“I thought Dwayne should’ve waited, but he’s the most like Tom Brady of anyone we’ve had,” Dilfer told Breer. “He sees it like Tom, he works at it, he plays that way. He plays on time, with his intellectual process. I don’t want to compare anyone to Brady, but he’s Tom Brady-ish.”