Patriots mock draft 2.0: Searching for Gronk's replacement
Let's get this out of the way: It's not a great time to need a tight end in the draft. Relative to other years, at least.
Last spring there were two surefire first-rounders, both out of Iowa: T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. In 2018, only one tight end went in the first (Hayden Hurst), but two taken in later rounds (Dallas Goedert, Mark Andrews) are among the game's best young players at the position. O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku all went in the first in 2017.
This year there's a "massive drop" in terms of tight end talent available, one league source told me this week. Not ideal for the Patriots, who could use an infusion of tight end talent perhaps more so than any other team in the NFL. And yet we have them selecting two in this year's class. Reach much? How does that make sense?
Well, just because this class doesn't have multiple high-end talents at that spot, that doesn't mean it's completely devoid of players who fit the New England mold. You'll see how it all comes together in our latest seven-round Patriots-specific mock ...
No. 27 overall: Josh Jones, OT, Houston
We laid out this trade-down scenario in last week's first-round mock. If the Patriots are faced with a handful of prospects they value similarly at No. 23 overall, they won't be afraid to trade down to add draft capital. Here they get No. 27 from the Seahawks as well as No. 101. That'll give them four picks at the bottom of the third round. Enough to get them into the second round, where they're currently lacking a selection? Won't hurt. In the meantime, the Patriots add a physically gifted if technically raw tackle who could end up a franchise cornerstone as the team fortifies its young core. Jones was a four-year starter at Houston but dealt with a handful of offensive line coaches there. Some consistency in how he's being taught should bring out the best in him. Even while lacking some polish, he dominated in the 1-on-1 pass-protection drills at the Senior Bowl.
2020 NFL Draft Highlights: Josh Jones
No. 57 overall: Cole Kmet, TE, Notre Dame
Here's the scouting report on Kmet, from league sources: A smart, professional, good-sized (6-foot-6, 262 pounds) true "Y" tight end who is the safest player at the position in this year's class. His speed (4.7 40-yard dash) and explosiveness (37-inch vertical, 123-inch broad) impressed clubs at the combine. Is he dynamic as a receiver? Is he a game-changing weapon in the passing game? No. Probably not. But if he's Kyle Rudolph, which was the comp one AFC coach suggested for Kmet — another true "Y" from Notre Dame — and he ends up being a 10-year pro who's a sure-handed receiver, a red-zone target and a capable blocker? That's worth a second-round choice, if not a first.
How'd the Patriots get Kmet in this scenario? They used one of their late thirds — the No. 101 choice they got from Seattle — and added a 2021 second-rounder to land Houston's second-rounder. That's kicking the can down the road, to a degree. The trade will leave the Patriots without a second-rounder next year, but with comp picks headed Bill Belichick's way after losing Tom Brady, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins to free agency, he should be able to figure out a deal or two to get back into the second round 12 months from now.
2020 NFL Draft Highlights: Cole Kmet
No. 87 overall: Malik Harrison, LB, Ohio State
If the way in which the Patriots lost to Baltimore and Tennessee last year has left a bad taste in their mouths, a "thumper" like Harrison would make all kinds of sense at this point in the draft. In terms of his ability to defend the run, he might be an upgrade over Collins, and he moves well enough to get after the quarterback from the second level.
Perhaps the best fit at the position for the Patriots in this year's class from a traits perspective, Harrison has more than enough size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds) to do what Belichick asks of his linebackers. Harrison is an explosive athlete packaged in that frame (122-inch broad jump, 36-inch vertical) who won't hesitate to pop blockers when heading downhill. He's also surprisingly agile for his size with a 4.66-second 40 and an impressive 6.83-second three-cone drill (94th percentile).
2020 NFL Draft Highlights: Malik Harrison
No. 98 overall: Van Jefferson, WR, Florida
"Has to be able to get off the [line of scrimmage]..." That's how the receiver writeup on this wish list of traits — from Belichick back in the early 1990s when he was head coach in Cleveland — begins. It's that important. And it's something Jefferson already does at a professional level. He's incredibly refined in his ability to set up routes, he's patient in attacking defensive backs, and he shows uncommon nuance in his movements to create separation. Son of former Patriots receiver (and current Jets receivers coach) Shawn Jefferson, Van is sometimes pegged as a slot-only type because of his polished routes and his explosiveness in and out of breaks. But he's an NFL-caliber athlete who can play inside or out. He didn't test at the combine because of injury, but he was clocked at 21.05 miles per hour at the Senior Bowl — where he was voted by opposing corners as one of the Practice Players of the Week — which was faster than any other wideout that week. That was faster than Denzel Mims (top speed: 20.26 mph), who ran a 4.38-second 40 at the combine. It was faster than Chase Claypool (20.17 mph), who ran a 4.42-second 40 in Indy. He'll be a steal in the third, and his presence might give the Patriots the opportunity to move on from Mohamed Sanu's $6.5 million contract.
No. 100 overall: Leki Fotu, DL, Utah
Classic nose tackle. His height (6-foot-5), weight (330 pounds), arm length (34 inches) and hand size (10.5 inches) make him an ideal fit as a "zero" or "one-technique" in New England. He's massive. Yes, the Patriots picked up another mountain of a man in veteran free agent Beau Allen to play in the middle on early downs. But if the Patriots wanted a young option there who's under contract for four years, Fotu would work at this point in the draft. For a team that looked light up front in the Wild Card round back in January, Fotu is a "don't grow on trees type" that Belichick would appreciate.
No. 125 overall: Devin Asiasi, TE, UCLA
At 6-foot-3, 257 pounds, Asiasi has enough power block in-line like a "Y" tight end, but there are times where his athleticism and fluidity as a receiver makes him look more like an "F." He has some wiggle as a route-runner to go along with dynamic run-after-catch skills and good speed (4.73-second 40). Asiasi has plenty of tools that could interest the Patriots in doubling up at the position on draft weekend, but he was suspended by Chip Kelly to start the 2018 season so a deeper dive might be required to see if he'd cut it in the Patriots program. Kelly, who's close to Belichick, should provide an accurate reference one way or the other. Ditto for new Patriots assistant Jedd Fisch, who worked under Kelly at UCLA through the 2017 season and coached Asiasi at Michigan. (Asiasi transferred to UCLA after the 2016 season.) Having a pair of capable, young tight ends on the roster should open things up for Josh McDaniels and the Patriots in ways they couldn't last season.
No. 172 overall: Geno Stone, S, Iowa
This is often where the Patriots grab a specialist. Matthew Slater, Zoltan Mesko, Joe Cardona and Jake Bailey were all fifth-rounders. (A fact even more remarkable when you realize they've only selected nine fifth-rounders in the last 12 years.) But here they get someone who can do more than contribute in the kicking game. Looks that way at least. Stone tested out as a very average athlete at the combine (4.62 40-yard dash, 33-inch vertical), but he's already proven to be an instinctive defender despite turning just 21 years old this month. According to Pro Football Focus, on over 600 free safety snaps for former Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz, Stone has allowed just 137 yards receiving, with three picks and seven forced incompletions. He could be a special-teamer early on in his career with the potential to develop into something more defensively.
No. 195 overall: Javelin Guidry, DB, Utah
Two Utes in one draft class? Why not? Especially when they have unique physical skill sets. Fotu has rare size. Guidry has rare speed. He clocked a 40 time (4.29 seconds) faster than any defensive back at this year's combine. The 5-foot-9, 191-pounder may be a little rough around the edges in terms of his technique in coverage, but he's a strong tackler who reportedly has strong football character, and he put up enough 225-pound bench reps (21) to let people know he's not afraid of the weight room. If Guidry is available here, maybe 2020 is the year the Patriots get their kicking-game specialist in the sixth round. Worked out OK with Nate Ebner back in 2012.
No. 204 overall: Derrek Tuszka, OLB, North Dakota State
At 6-foot-4, 251 pounds, Tuszka looks like a 3-4 outside linebacker. And his 6.87 three-cone time would indicate he can bend coming off the edge. In all likelihood — as a good athlete for someone his size — he'll be another special teams option and be given a chance to develop into something defensively. He's certainly no stranger to defensive production. Tuszka was a key member of the Bison defense that just finished off its third straight FCS championship run, and he was named a first-team AP All-American as well as Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year in the process.
No. 212 overall: Cole McDonald, QB, Hawaii
The mechanics may be a little quirky. And his low moments are confounding. Still, he'd be worth a flier on Day 3 of the draft. Unless you're a Hawaii football fan, or if you're the NFL Wire's Mark Schofield, who discussed McDonald (and others) at length with us for the Next Pats Podcast, odds are you don't know much about McDonald. But at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and with hands that measured over 9.5 inches, he checks most of the boxes the Patriots have typically drafted when it comes to stature. He also came in as one of the most athletic passers at the combine (4.58-second 40, 36-inch vertical, 7.13 three-cone). Though he's not a Power Five conference player, his statistical production was very good (61.4 career completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt, 70-to-24 touchdown-to-interception ratio), and he looks like he'll end up a late-round "prototype" once we get closer to the draft.
No. 213 overall: Dante Olson, LB, Montana
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more productive player the last two years, regardless of competition level. The 6-foot-2, 237-pounder was a first-team all-conference selection and an FCS All-American in both 2018 and 2019. He was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the year last season with 179 tackles (best in the country) that included 11 for a loss, as well as 3.5 sacks and a pick. Though he hails from a smaller program, Olson is a pro-caliber athlete, posting great results in the broad jump (124 inches) and the three-cone (7.0 seconds). His vertical of 42 inches was simply . . . ridiculous (99th percentile). PFF says Olson missed just eight of his 151 tackle attempts. He may struggle in coverage, but the Patriots typically value run defenders over coverage specialists at this spot, leaving coverage duties to their safeties whenever possible. As a Day 3 choice, why not take a shot?
No. 230 overall: Essang Bassey, CB, Wake Forest
Bassey has played a lot of football. More snaps than any corner in the class over the last three seasons, per PFF. And he's had more pass breakups (35) than anyone else in the draft class. He's undersized. He might be limited to slot duties in the NFL. But he has the kind of experience and aggressive nose-for-the-ball mentality that's worth a late-round investment. He's also got plenty of athleticism to deserve a crack at a roster spot. The Patriots typically have fairly high athletic standards at the corner position in the draft, and Bassey meets all of 'em. Almost. His 6.95-second three-cone drill is a little slower than what the Patriots have drafted in the early-to-mid rounds in the past. But otherwise, his 4.46-second 40, 4.13-second short shuttle and 39.5-inch vertical should play at the next level.
No. 241 overall: Manasseh Bailey, WR, Morgan State
Didn't know much about Bailey until we were joined by Emory Hunt for this week's Next Pats Podcast. But the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder could be the next small-school prospect the Patriots take a shot on. Why? He came up with 54 catches for 996 yards and 10 scores last season, but more importantly, it looks like he has legitimate NFL athleticism. Bailey's a prospect who could be hurt by his inability to have a pro day, meaning there are no gaudy test numbers to slap next to his name. But maybe the Patriots judge his speed on tape and determine he's worthy of a late Day 3 choice. It'll help Bailey's cause at One Patriot Place that he's blocked two punts, including one he returned for a touchdown. Whether it's Keion Crossen (Western Carolina), Derek Rivers (Youngstown State), Zach Moore (Concordia St. Paul) or Kamu Grugier-Hill and Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), we know Belichick isn't afraid to dip into the pool of small school prospects in the draft. Bailey could be the next as a special teamer who has a chance to inject some speed into the Patriots receiving corps. It also can't hurt Bailey that he beat up on Army last season, catching six passes for 121 yards and two scores. Being the Navy fan that he is, maybe that stat line will catch Belichick's eye...