The New England Patriots defense has been hit hard by departures in NFL free agency, and one of the best places to replenish talent on that side of the ball is the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Patriots, over the last few weeks, have lost the following defensive players in free agency or the trade market:
Danny Shelton, DT, free agency (Detroit Lions)
Kyle Van Noy, LB, free agency (Miami Dolphins)
Elandon Roberts, LB, free agency (Dolphins)
Jamie Collins, LB, free agency (Lions)
Duron Harmon, S, trade (Lions)
Nate Ebner, S, free agency (New York Giants)
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With the Patriots losing their two sack leaders from last season in Collins (seven sacks) and Van Noy (six), it only makes sense to target a pass rusher with the No. 23 pick in the first round. And that's exactly where the Patriots go in ESPN expert Todd McShay's latest 2020 mock draft.
Here is McShay's explanation for slotting Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa to New England at 23rd overall:
These aren't the Patriots we are accustomed to seeing. They could use upgrades in a bunch of areas, including quarterback, wide receiver and a handful of spots on defense. I don't expect coach Bill Belichick to reach for a QB here, and while wide receiver is in play, it seems unlikely two years in a row on Day 1. So how about an edge rusher? LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson is the better player, but Belichick has a strong relationship with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, and Epenesa fits nicely with the Patriots' 3-4 system as a 5-technique.
Epenesa was a force for the Hawkeyes last season. He set or tied career highs with 11.5 sacks, 47 total tackles, three passes defensed and four forced fumbles in 2019. Epenesa spent a lot of time in the opponent's backfield over the last two years with a combined 22 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss during that span.
The Iowa star and 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich could form a young, athletic pass-rushing duo that could serve the Patriots quite well for the next three to five years.