For the first time in 20 years, Patriots fans are looking forward to something different than a Super Bowl run this time of year: the NFL Draft. Typically, Draft day or night tends to see the Patriots trade back from their late 1st round pick slot in an attempt to stockpile selections for Days 2 and 3. However, as you may have seen or heard, the Patriots have taken a major step back over the past year with Tom Brady leaving for (and thriving in) Tampa Bay. Their offense is a mess, with no clear direction at QB and a lack of talent at the WR position; as such, New England could look to draft one of the many talented QB's and/or WR's early in the draft. However, staying put in their current spot (the 15th overall pick) won't net the Patriots players like Heisman winner WR DeVonta Smith, QB's Zach Wilson or Trey Lance or WR Jaylen Waddle, all of whom will all but certainly be selected in the top 10-12 range. New England will have to get creative and look at other positions to fill, or otherwise resort to taking the next available talents at QB and WR. Today, I'll break down some early realistic possibilities for the team to target with the 15th overall pick on Draft night.
1) Gregory Rousseau - EDGE, University of Miami
A projected top-15 pick in this year's draft and considered one of the best EDGE rushers in the 1st round, Rousseau would fill a huge need on New England's defense. The Pats ranked 25th in Sack Percentage this past season and the pass rush was almost nonexistent at times. To put this in perspective, Chase Winovich was the team's sack leader with just 5.5 to his credit. Two of those sacks actually came in the team's season finale against the New York Jets, which means that they could have theoretically finished the 2020 season with their sack leader netting only 3.5 overall. Players like Lawrence Guy and John Simon, who are both 30 years old and were defensive starters last season, could be on their way out as impending free agents. While Guy is a serviceable player, Simon was simply not good this past season. Regardless, their status leaves a potential gaping hole for the Patriots to fill as they look to build their defense back similar to the group that was the best in the league a year ago.
Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season (along with many of his peers amidst the pandemic), but as a Sophomore in 2019, he recorded 15.5 Sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. There's a lot of rawness to his game and only having one year of film to work with means the Patriots would likely need to be patient with his development. However, the 6'7", 265 pound EDGE rusher has a lot of future upside and can play multiple fronts on defense. Given his size, Rousseau is an extremely physical and athletic EDGE rusher who can be an impact player at the next level. He may be the best available player on the board if he's there at 15; the Patriots will definitely get a better understanding of Rousseau at the combine, as well as at Miami's Pro Day.
2) Kwity Paye - DL, Michigan
If Rousseau isn't available when the Patriots pick at 15, Michigan DL Kwity Paye could wind up falling into their lap. Paye is slowly climbing up draft boards and a good combine and pro day could elevate him into the star-studded top 10 conversation. I've followed Paye's career since high school, as we're both from Rhode Island; he absolutely destroyed our high school Football team and single-handedly outran our entire track team. Listed at 6'4" and 272 pounds, Paye battled a lower body injury his senior year, but made up for it in his final 3 games, totaling 25 pressures and 2 sacks. The season before, Paye recorded 6.5 sacks and 50 total tackles. What stands out about Paye is his ability to stop the run -- he has the frame and bull rush technique needed to be both a great edge setter and run defender. Much like Rousseau, Paye can play in multiple fronts and instantly fits any defensive scheme. Both players may no longer be available when the Patriots are on the clock, but I think one of the two could fall to them based on all the offensive talent on the board this year. New England should feel comfortable drafting either of these players if they fall to pick 15.
3) Kyle Pitts - TE, Florida
You may be asking yourself right now, "why would the Patriots draft another TE after selecting both Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the 3rd round just last year?" You may also think that Bill Belichick would never draft a TE in the first round; he drafted Gronk in the 2nd round and Aaron Hernandez in the 4th. Let's dig into this: Asiasi and Keene were essentially redshirt rookies this season, seeing minimal playing time, so we'll probably see more of them both next season. Keene is more of a blocking TE as opposed to a receiving threat like Asiasi. Ryan Izzo still has one more year remaining on his contract, but has shown time and time again that you can't rely on him to be your starting TE. Let's say that the Patriots do, in fact, select Pitts 15th overall; he instantly becomes your #1 option at the position and you've added a solid weapon to an offense that desperately needs receiving. Pitts is the best TE in this class, even being compared to the Raiders' Darren Waller. You'd now have Pitts and Asiasi as your 2 TE set that the team has missed since Gronk and Hernandez -- you can also cut ties with Izzo. Pitts is 6'6" and 240 pounds, so he'll have to put on more muscle in the NFL.
This season, Pitts totaled 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. Florida had Pitts line up as a true receiver and also used him in the slot at times -- he still torched some of the best DB's in the nation. Pitts is a versatile player who has a blend of athleticism, route running and blocking ability when needed. His athleticism creates mismatches for defenses, especially corners and safeties, when he's lined up as a true TE. When watching film on Pitts, I came to the realization that he could become a Mike Evans type of player if he doesn't put on the necessary weight for an NFL TE. Either way, though, he'll likely be available when the Patriots are on the clock; they could use him in a variety of ways to bring life back to their offense.
4) Rondale Moore - WR, Purdue
It's all but certain that Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle will be off the board by the time Patriots are on the clock. As of right now, the next best available receiver is thought to be Rondale Moore out of Purdue. Moore is projected to be selected anywhere from the middle to the end of the first round, despite his lack of size. Listed at 5'9", 181 lbs., Patriots fans would probably bash this pick, due largely to the fact that the team doesn't have a true deep threat receiver and Moore doesn't fit this mold. He originally opted out of the 2020 season, but later reversed course (probably due to the fact that there's so much talent at the WR position in this year's draft). Moore specializes in working out of the slot, has energetic speed and threw together a lot of highlight plays, including some jet sweeps. Sounds like a familiar Patriots player of years past, no? Moore's spacing and change of direction make him a dangerous threat on the field, something the Patriots have missed the past two seasons. To put this in perspective, 77% of Moore's catches were made just nine or fewer yards downfield -- from there, he puts together some impressive YAC. The Patriots don't throw too many deep balls in their offense, so Moore would be an ideal fit within it.
Moore's biggest red flag may be his injury history, which is fairly notable. After a 2018 season where he posted 114 receptions, 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns, Moore missed most of the 2019 campaign with a knee injury. Moore battled through a hamstring injury for most of this past NCAA season, posting just 35 receptions for 270 yds and no touchdowns. Not exactly what you want your final audition to be for scouts at the next level. When you remove the injury factor, however, Moore has sold those scouts on the concept that he's a first round talent. The fact that he's not just a receiver, but also a return specialist, has helped greatly boost Moore's stock. And, while Gunner Olszewski was a solid return specialist for the Patriots this season, Bill Belichick loves to add depth to his special teams unit. Overall, scouts believe that, if put in the right scheme, Moore could be the biggest steal of the draft and even become Tyreek Hill 2.0. If the Patriots do end up selecting Moore, I wouldn't be disappointed.
5) Nick Bolton - LB, Missouri
This selection isn't as far fetched as it might seem at face value. After all, there is still uncertainty regarding whether or not Dont'a Hightower will be back for the 2021 season or if he'll retire after having opted out this past season. The lack of clarity regarding Hightower's status has to be a growing concern for New England. Even if Hightower does return, there's some work to do contractually, as his cap figure will be over $12 million in 2021 and he was reportedly unwilling to take a pay cut before opting out last August. If Hightower departs in any way, shape or form, there will be a major hole to fill at the ILB position and, just as importantly, the Patriots will miss his leadership both on and off the field. Ja'Whaun Bentley filled in at ILB this season and was, to say the least, not very good. Insert Nick Bolton out of Missouri. Listed at 6'0" and 232 pounds, Bolton is regarded as one of the top linebacker prospects in the entire draft. Scouts have said that Bolton possesses one of the highest IQ's in the game among defenders and will be an instant spark plug any defense he's added to. Finally, both Missouri staff and scouts alike rave about Bolton's exceptional leadership traits. He was also named to the SEC's Community Service Team earlier this season.
In 2020, Bolton recorded 95 total tackles, 8 tackles for loss and two sacks in just 10 games played. Bolton isn't as athletic as players like Micah Parsons or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but he still possesses a lot of speed at ILB nevertheless. He's one of the best tacklers at the linebacker position and is a powerful force on defense. Bolton has also proven himself to be reliable dropping into coverage and displays excellent timing in getting through the line to pressure the quarterback. Bolton is most likely a late 1st to early 2nd round draft choice at the moment, but a good combine and pro day could catapult him up draft boards. 15 is probably too early in the draft for the Patriots to select him, unless they trade down (groan). But, he could be the steal of the draft and a great replacement for Hightower in the future.
Could the Patriots possibly trade down?
As much as you don't want to hear this, there's a chance the Patriots trade back from pick 15. Last time the Patriots were picking in the top 15 was back in 2008, when they held the 7th overall selection. They subsequently traded with the New Orleans Saints, moving down three spots to draft Pro Bowl LB Jerod Mayo. Based on their history, trading down has worked in the Patriots' favor, but this was when Tom Brady was around. In years past, the Patriots' hopes didn't really hinge on the draft because they had a lot of strength at different positions built around Tom Brady and the offense. Now, though, the Patriots need to find new building blocks for the team's future and it begins with this year's draft. If the Patriots do end up trading down, though, I can't see them trading out of the 1st round altogether like they have in years past. At 15, they could conceivably move down 3-5 spots and still select a great player. I'm not in favor of trading down after this past season, but if there's a good offer on the table and you can stockpile more picks this year and next, I wouldn't be too disappointed.
Despite this exercise, it's obviously too early to tell what exactly the Patriots will do in the 2021 NFL Draft. While I'm not in favor of tanking, I do wish the Patriots had a top 10-12 pick to increase their odds of landing a player like Waddle or Paye. At 15, it's now a matter of hoping that one of those guys falls to you. New England likely won't be in the running for one of the top QB's or WR's, unless someone like Waddle or Lance falls down the board, which I don't see happening. The Patriots will have to get creative and find players who fly under the radar, such as Moore or Bolton. Will they draft Kyle Pitts in the first round? We've seen weirder things happen before in the Belichick era. What's certain is that this draft will prove crucial for the Patriots over these next several years. The combine and pro days can't come fast enough!
- Corey (@celticshive)