Five biggest draft needs for the Patriots
The Patriots roster is in pretty good shape as the 2016 NFL Draft approaches. With the majority of last year's team intact, and after making a handful of free-agent signings, they aren't exactly desperate for plug-and-play contributors on either side of the ball. That means that when draft weekend arrives, coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio can look at their board, take the player that they believe is the best available -- almost regardless of position -- and feel confident.
While it seems their needs aren't exactly the type that will make or break a championship run, the Patriots do have needs nonetheless. Certain pockets of their roster could use upgrades, and with an eye to the future, it would be no surprise if the Patriots opted to infuse some youth into position groups that are well-stocked for the upcoming season but not long thereafter.
We'll have a better idea of how the Patriots judge the depth of certain positions in this year's draft when we hear from Caserio during his annual pre-draft press conference on April 19. Until then, here are five spots the Patriots could augment when the draft comes around at the end of next month.
1. Running back
The Patriots have shown in recent years an unwillingness to spend big dollars at this position, and that approach appears to have continued into this offseason. They signed veteran free-agent back Donald Brown, who will compete for a roster spot in training camp, but let more expensive options -- Matt Forte, Lamar Miller -- try their luck elsewhere. In the draft, however, the Patriots have proven that they're willing to stock up on ball-carriers. Back in 2011, they took Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in the second and third rounds, respectively. With Dion Lewis (coming off of an ACL tear), James White and Brown in the mix for the team's "sub back" role, there remains a void at its "big back" role. Second-year player Joey Iosefa, who spent time on the Patriots practice squad last season, could be an option here, as could LeGarrette Blount, who remains a free agent. Either way, they could afford to add someone who can pound it between the tackles.
2. Offensive tackle
The lasting image of New England's 2015 season was quarterback Tom Brady picking himself up off the turf over and over again during the AFC title game in Denver. The Patriots could not block the Broncos defensive front -- particularly their edge rushers. That was due in large part to the fact that Nate Solder was on injured reserve and that Sebastian Vollmer was dealing with a bad ankle. Still, adding reliable depth at this spot in case of injury could be a priority in the draft. The Patriots have Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming on the roster, but another tackle could provide the group with some competition as the team's primary swing tackle in 2016. Plus, taking a tackle relatively high -- the Patriots have four selections in the top 100 and could package a few to move up -- would also give the team a potential starter for 2017 and beyond. Both Vollmer (32 years old when the season begins) and Cannon (28) are in headed into the final year of their contracts.
3. Defensive tackle
The Patriots are still kicking the tires on signing a veteran at this position -- they reportedly met with Terrance Knighton on Monday -- so perhaps by the time the draft arrives they'll have plenty of depth here. But at the moment, it's a spot that looks as though it could use one more quality player. Malcom Brown had a very strong rookie season and figures to be a pillar on the interior of the line for years to come. Dominique Easley was one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in the league last season when healthy, but he has finished each of the last two years on injured reserve. Alan Branch, who had an impressive 2015, is 31 years old and going into the final year of his contract. Frank Kearse earned a free-agent deal this offseason but had trouble making the game-day roster for Washington on a regular basis last year. Chris Jones (who spent last season on the physically unable to perform list), Joe Vellano and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen round out the roster at that spot. This particular draft class is projected to be very strong when it comes to interior defensive linemen so even if Belichick and Caserio don't get the player they covet in free agency, they could potentially land a reliable rookie.
With both Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan back in the fold, the Patriots appear to have both starting corner spots locked up for 2016. They also have two second-year corners -- Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts -- who could grow into larger roles. But because both Butler and Ryan are eligible to hit free agency after this season (Butler will be a restricted free agent), it may prove beneficial to go grab another in the draft. As the Patriots found out last season, capable, cost-effective, veteran corners can be hard to find. Continuing to draft and develop at this position may be Belichick's best bet for the long-term health of his defense.
The Patriots picked up former first-round pick Shea McClellin this offseason on a free-agent deal that is scheduled to keep him in New England through 2018. When grouped together with Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, McClellin gives the Patriots a third linebacker who -- like the two players ahead of him on the depth chart -- can play both off the line and rush the passer. While the picture at this position looks well-set for the upcoming year, it's another spot that would benefit from an influx of young talent. At the moment, neither Hightower nor Collins is under contract beyond 2016. Some young depth here would help protect against the possibility of losing one (or both) to free agency.
Others receiving votes...
Chris Hogan's signing filled an obvious hole on the Patriots roster after Brandon LaFell's release, but that doesn't necessarily mean the team has stopped adding pass-catchers. There are a handful of talented slot receivers in this year's draft, and Belichick may be enticed to nab one. While Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are still more than talented enough to handle those duties, both will be 30 when the season begins.
We know the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski under contract through 2019. And we know they added Martellus Bennett in a trade, giving them what is in all likelihood the most talented tight-end duo in the league. However, Bennett is in the final year of his deal and could be a rental if he's seeking a top-of-the-market contract after the season. This year's draft isn't loaded with true dual-threat blocking and receiving tight ends, which the Patriots like. But there are some "move" tight ends that could pique their interest as developmental prospects.