Early consensus: Expert mock drafts have Patriots leaning linebacker
FILLING A NEED?
With Dont'a Hightower scheduled to hit free agency and a trio of linebackers behind him -- Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin -- with just one season in New England under their belts, draft experts are projecting the Patriots to take a linebacker in the first round. Of all the 'backers projected to head to New England with the No. 32 pick, though, all have a distinctly different look than what Hightower has brought to the position since he was selected in the first round in 2012. These aren't 265-pound thumpers who can bowl over guards or bull rush tackles from the edge as Hightower so often has. These are smaller, quicker hybrid types that have become en vogue in the NFL in recent years. Perhaps no other defender represents that kind of versatility better than the player who has been most often mocked to the Patriots in recent weeks: Michigan linebacker/safety Jabrill Peppers.
JABRILL PEPPERS, LB/DB, MICHIGAN
Expected to check in at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, Peppers has a frame that compares more favorably to Patrick Chung than that of prototypical Patriots linebacker. Peppers is thought to have the athleticism to play safety or in the slot, and like Chung, he has an aggressive style of play that would allow him to handle some linebacker duties in the box. The Big 10 Linebacker of the Year for each of the last two seasons, Peppers also played some running back and returned kicks as well as punts at Michigan. That versatility has led several draft experts to link Peppers and the Patriots, whose head coach has spent his career deploying multi-talented players in a variety of ways. Pro Football Focus has the Patriots selecting Peppers with pick No. 32, as does ESPN's Mel Kiper and NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah. "He’s at his best as an extra run defender in the box," writes PFF's Steve Palazollo where he explodes to ball carriers in the run game, and he’s capable in coverage when taking on tight ends.
ZACH CUNNINGHAM, LB, VANDERBILT
Cunningham has better size than Peppers does for full-time off-the-line linebacker duties, but he's relatively slight compared to what the Patriots typically like in players at that spot. Still, at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Cunningham's rangy athleticism makes him an interesting fit. He's thought to be a sideline-to-sideline player who will be able to compete in coverage, and the Patriots will respect the production he's recorded for the Commodores (two-time first-team All-SEC choice) in arguably college football's best conference. Rotoworld's Josh Norris thinks that if Hightower decides to continue his career elsewhere in 2017, the Patriots linebacker group can take on a very different feel with Cunningham as its headliner. "Cunningham is going to be a draft favorite in the coming months," Norris writes. "The Patriots linebackers could look quite different next year, depending on how contracts play out."
HAASON REDDICK, LB, TEMPLE
Reddick has a more compact build than Cunningham at 6-2, 235 pounds, but whatever he lacks in size he makes up for with explosiveness. A walk-on for the Owls, he finished last season with 22.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, flashing an ability to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Yet he's more than a pass-rusher and is considered to have the potential to be a well-rounded off-the-line linebacker at the next level. For ESPN's Todd McShay, the "undersized" label he'll carry with him to the NFL and his background in harassing quarterbacks makes him think of one Super Bowl-winning former Patriots 'backer. "Look for the Patriots to add a tight end early, perhaps Michigan's Jake Butt or Ole Miss' Evan Engram on Day 2. But given how the board fell, they could get better value by targeting Reddick here," McShay writes. "He opened eyes at the Senior Bowl, proving he can thrive as an off-the-line LB. Reddick has a little Tedy Bruschi in him."
OTHERS RECEIVING VOTES
McShay's inkling that the Patriots could opt for a tight end early in the draft makes sense. Should Martellus Bennett find an attractive free-agent offer elsewhere, the team will have little in the way of depth behind Rob Gronkowski. And because there's little in the way of game-changing options out there in free agency after Bennett, the draft could be where the Patriots go shopping for insurance. In earlier mocks, both Kiper and Palazzolo had the Patriots taking Alabama's OJ Howard, who's thought to be the top tight end in this year's class. If that were to happen, it'd be the second consecutive year that Bill Belichick would take one of Nick Saban's own with his first selection. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks also has the Patriots thinking tight end in the first round, but he's paired them with Miami's David Njoku. Howard is considered to be the more polished of the two, but Njoku is probably the best draft-eligible athlete at the position.