Patriots seven-round mock draft: Pass-rush gets a lift in third
EDUCATED GUESS SEASON
By now, we should have some semblance of a clue. And we do. At least we think we do.
Bill Belichick has drafted 153 players during his time with the Patriots. Those picks are 153 indications of the traits he's looking for. They are 153 examples of what in his mind constitutes a college player with pro potential.
Patriots schemes and the rules of the game have changed since Belichick's tenure began. And what makes a good team now differs in many ways from what made a good team in the early 2000s.
Still, those 153 picks are evidence.
They are, taken together and parsed, statements made about what generally will and will not be valued inside the walls of Gillette Stadium when draft weekend arrives.
Heights. Weights. Arm lengths. Forty-yard dash and three-cone drill times. Coaches. Conferences. They all matter.
The fact that Belichick -- the league's longest-tenured head coach and front-office decision-maker -- and his trusted director of player personnel Nick Caserio have compiled so much draft-pick data is why we should be able to hypothesize with some accuracy the players they'll prefer when they're on the clock.
Every so often we'll manage hit one after a few dozen swings, but by and large it's a humbling exercise.
Now that we're two weeks away from the start of draft, it feels like a good time to set ourselves up to be humbled.
The following is the first of three seven-round, Patriots-specific mock drafts we'll churn out before the draft begins, using the Belichick 153 -- not to mention the countless others he's signed or traded for -- to help inform our choices.
THIRD ROUND, NO. 72 OVERALL (FROM CAROLINA): TARELL BASHAM, DE, OHIO
The Patriots acquired this pick in the trade that landed them defensive end Kony Ealy. Should they find Basham is available at No. 72, they'll have an opportunity to bolster their rotation on the edge with a player who resembles Ealy in many respects. Both check in at 6-foot-4 and about 270 pounds. Both have 34-inch arms. Both tested similarly at their respective combines in the 20-yard shuttle and the jumps. Basham is not yet a polished pass-rusher, but he's a max-effort guy who earned himself Defensive Player of the Year honors in the MAC. When given an opportunity to play better competition -- against Tennessee during the season and then at the Senior Bowl -- his explosive power to get into the backfield and set a strong edge continued to stand out. If Basham is available in the third round, Belichick would have to seriously consider scooping him up to join Ealy, Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich in a defensive end rotation that has seen its numbers dwindle with the departures of Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long this offseason.
THIRD ROUND, NO. 96 OVERALL: RAEKWON McMILLAN, LB, OHIO STATE
After mixing and matching at the second level of their defense following Jamie Collins' departure last season, the Patriots may be ready to find their next three-down 'backer to accompany Dont'a Hightower on a down-in, down-out basis. McMillan (6-foot-2, 240 pounds, 33-inch arms) would fit the bill in terms of what Belichick likes at the position size-wise, and his impressive 4.61-second 40-yard dash should help ease some concerns that he'll be unable to cover ground against NFL passing attacks. Why else might Belichick be interested in the second-team All-American? Last season McMillan played under former Rutgers head coach and current Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
FOURTH ROUND, NO. 131 OVERALL (FROM SEATTLE): GEORGE KITTLE, TE, IOWA
The Patriots added important depth at tight end this offseason when they traded for Dwayne Allen, but drafting another player at the position seems like a prudent move. In so doing they would help guard against the situation they ran into last year when they were forced to ride one player (Martellus Bennett) for extended periods after Rob Gronkowski went down with a season-ending back injury. If Belichick could nab Kittle in the fourth, the fit would be almost too perfect. The 6-foot-4, 247-pounder played in a pro system under Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz -- who worked under Belichick in Cleveland in the 1990s -- and under assistant Brian Ferentz, who coached tight ends in New England back in 2011. Kittle is a do-it-all player who is not only willing to block but does it very well. He would also be the most impressive athletic tester the Patriots have drafted at the position since they took Ben Watson in the first round back in 2004. Kittle ran an eye-opening 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and a blazing 6.78 three-cone drill at his pro day. (For a comparison, Devin McCourty ran a 6.70 three-cone at 193 pounds coming out of Rutgers.) Kittle also jumped 38.5 inches at his pro day and broad-jumped 11-feet. He's not the draft's most dynamic route-runner, but Kittle has dependable hands and the speed to create mismatches against linebackers.
FIFTH ROUND, NO. 163 OVERALL (FROM DENVER): SHAQUILL GRIFFIN, CB, CENTRAL FLORIDA
Like athletes at the cornerback spot? The Patriots do, and Griffin (6-feet, 194 pounds) is one of the best in the draft. There's some question as to whether or not his testing numbers -- he was a top performer at the combine in the 40-yard dash (4.38 seconds), the vertical (38.5 inches), the broad jump (11 feet) and the 60-yard shuttle (11.62 seconds) -- will translate at the NFL level and allow him to mirror pro route-runners, but what's the harm in burning a fifth-round pick to find out? If he doesn't find his way onto the field defensively in Year 1, Griffin's speed and aggressive playing style would seem to make him a natural fit on kick-coverage units.
FIFTH ROUND, NO. 183 OVERALL (COMPENSATORY): JULIE'N DAVENPORT, OT, BUCKNELL
With Nate Solder headed into a contract year and only Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle serving as New England's depth options behind Solder and Marcus Cannon, it might be time for Belichick and his staff to invest in a young moldable tackle. At 6-foot-7, 318 pounds and with 36.5-inch arms, Davenport would check off many of the physical attributes that the Patriots often look for in their protectors up front, but how will he adjust to NFL competition coming from the Patriot League? That question may be what leads teams to stay away from him until Day 3. Davenport had a workout for the Patriots -- and performed admirably during film and board work, per Tony Pauline -- last month.
SIXTH ROUND, NO. 200 OVERALL (FROM INDIANAPOLIS): TARIK COHEN, RB, NORTH CAROLINA A&T
What's that? The Patriots already have four running backs on their roster who can catch the football out of the backfield? Well, what's one more, particularly when Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis and James White are all scheduled to become free agents at the end of the season? Cohen is only 5-foot-6 but is one of the most electric players in this year's draft class. Go ahead and Google "Tarik Cohen, Kent State" to see why. The MEAC's all-time leading rusher (5,619 yards), Cohen was an All-American last year after racking up 1,588 yards and 19 scores on 212 carries. He also caught 37 passes for 339 yards and a score. Cohen's ability to get in and out of breaks in a blink could allow him to earn a roster spot in New England, where it would make sense for him to "red shirt" for one year before seeing his responsibilities increase in 2018.
SEVENTH ROUND, NO. 239 OVERALL (FROM DETROIT): DJ JONES, DT, OLE MISS
The Patriots seem pretty well-set on the interior of their defensive line, but if one of their big three -- Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine -- is forced to miss any time, they could find themselves in a bind. Drafting Jones this late would serve as valuable insurance . . . and would be an absolute steal based on his athletic profile. At this year's combine, the 6-foot-1, 319-pounder posted numbers in the 40-yard dash, vertical, broad jump, three-cone and shuttle that compare favorably to the numbers posted by both Brown and Vince Wilfork when they were entering the league. Jones has seemingly received little buzz during the pre-draft process, but it would come as no surprise if a team fell in love with his combination of power and athleticism and selected him earlier than this.