Pats' first four picks: Perry's predictions, Giardi's reactions

Pats' first four picks: Perry's predictions, Giardi's reactions

The Patriots have four picks in the first and second rounds of the NFL Draft, and there's all sorts of speculation as to who they'll take. Phil Perry takes a shot at choosing who they'll take, and Mike Giardi reacts to Phil's selections.

TURNING THE TABLESGiardi selects, Perry reacts


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State. At 6-4, 256 pounds with 34-inch arms, Vander Esch has all the size he needs to play at the next level, and he tested extremely well (4.65-second 40, 39.5-inch vertical, 10-4 broad jump, 6.88 three-cone). After just one year as a starter at Boise, he should be an ascending player.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: I don’t hate this pick, Phil. The Pats have a need for an off-the-ball linebacker and Vander Esch certainly has the athleticism to make you think he’d be a good fit. He was a pretty good high school basketball player and you can see some of that pay dividends with the way Vander Esch moves on the football field, a certain fluidity and an ability to sink the hips, turn and run. However, the more I watch him the more I wonder about his playing strength and his overall football IQ. He started just one year at Boise and his high school background involved 8-man football. Yes, that is a thing and no, I don’t think it’s a plus. There’s also medical concerns with his neck (he wears the collar for a reason).


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Connor Williams, OL, Texas. Notice that's an "OL" next to Williams' name, not an "OT." He can play tackle. And I think after Mike McGlinchey, he might be the most NFL-ready tackle in the class. Maybe he helps the Patriots there as a rookie. Williams could also play guard, which would be useful if Shaq Mason (who's in a contract year) ends up elsewhere for 2019.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: I seem to recall Phil yelling at me when I suggested Williams may be the best direction for the Pats to go. “He’s not a tackle,” Phil said. Hmmm. What changed? I think Williams could still be a tackle despite his shorter arms. Two years ago at Texas, he was arguably the best tackle in college football. Injuries cost him in his junior season but you at least know the foundation is there. Williams is a sound technician, has good feet and can play with an edge. I like that. My concern here is are you projecting him as a left tackle or to be a guard. Because if it’s the latter, I’m not pulling the trigger with a first-round pick. I’ll wait until one of my seconds to possibly tab a player who can play inside and maybe end up as the eventual successor to Shaq Mason (should his salary demands skyrocket based on the recent market for guards).


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland. Receiver is one of those sneaky Patriots needs. Not because they require a playmaker in 2018, but because it looks like there's a need coming in 2019. Moore is dynamic with the football in his hands, he's one of the best athletes in the class, and he provides some punt-return ability to boot.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: If Moore were to fall to this spot, it would be a hell of a pick for the Pats. Moore is one of my favorite playmakers in the draft. A terrific run-after-catch guy who can line up both inside and outside. When you look at the age of the Pats' wide receiving group, he’d be an excellent infusion of both youth and talent for a group that needs it. Here’s the problem: Moore won’t be there, Phil. He’s getting first-round buzz and there’s always going to be a couple teams that just want a shiny new object. Moore will be that and get overdrafted.


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond. Lauletta meets all the physical measurements the Patriots have drafted in the past under Belichick, he's one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the short-to-intermediate range in this class, and he's a true student of the game with solid intangibles. If he's available late in the second round, he's worth the pick.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: Really going out on a limb here, huh? Lauletta has been linked to the Pats for months, at least by us media types. There’s no question he’s smart -- he's played for four offensive coordinators in four years -- and his work at the Senior Bowl drew praise from his coach down there, former Pats OC and current Texans head Bill O’Brien. Lauletta has good feet and spins it pretty well. I like his work on the short to intermediate stuff but that arm doesn’t allow him to push the ball down the seams like I’d like. I also think those feet are sometimes a detriment because there’s plenty of examples on tape where Lauletta has his eyes squarely on the rush and will duck out of the pocket at the first hint of trouble. To me, if this was pick 95, I’d feel a lot better about the selection.



Prototypical Patriots: Vander Esch, Evans offer different strengths

Prototypical Patriots: Vander Esch, Evans offer different strengths

The Patriots have a need smack dab in the middle of their defense and they might be able to address it with one of their first selections in this year's draft. 

The linebacker level could use an upgrade, and based on some of the players the Patriots have been watching closely during the pre-draft process, they feel the same way. 

Typically the Patriots look for good size, sound instincts and solid production at the collegiate level when they look for rookie 'backers. If you have special teams experience or you saw time in the SEC . . . even better. 

We rolled through several linebacker names who could fit with the Patriots in our "Linebacker Lowdown" series, and we'll include many of those on this list as well. But there are a few new names worth mentioning before Thursday night so let's get to it. 




Smith is only in range if the Patriots are willing to package together multiple picks to move up into the top 10. An outstanding athlete, who diagnoses quickly and can both cover and rush? Oh, and he dominated in the SEC? Smith sounds like Bill Belichick's kind of guy. Click here for the "Linebacker Lowdown" piece on Smith. He's smaller than what Belichick typically likes, which might prevent the Patriots from trading up for him, but he's a player. 


One NFC assistant noted that Edmunds didn't flash much "nasty" on tape for the Hokies. Even at his size, he doesn't always use it to overpower opponents. But at 19 years old, and as one of the best athletes in the draft, he could be molded to perform multiple front-seven duties. He was compared by one evaluator to a more physically-impressive version of Jamie Collins. As with Smith, the Patriots would have to move up for Edmunds. 


On paper, Vander Esch is one of the best fits for the Patriots because of his size and athleticism. He tore up the combine, and in one year as a starter, he proved he could be very productive against the run as well as cover. He's a do-it-all, three-down type . . . and he should be getting better. Vander Esch reportedly visited New England late in the pre-draft process.


Another tremendous fit based on Belichick's draft history. The 'Bama connection may make Evans even better-suited for life in New England. For me, it's a simple question of what you're looking for? Evans is an explosive athlete -- even though he didn't test like one, possibly due to injury -- who is a demon in the run game. He's also an adept pass-rusher through the A-gaps or even off the edge. Before he played off the line, he was an outside linebacker for Nick Saban. If the Patriots want a smaller version of Dont'a Hightower (in terms of his position flexibility), Evans could be the guy. More on him here.


Carter was a versatile defender in the SEC who played both off the edge and in coverage. Sound like a Patriots fit yet? What if I told you he also happened to be one of the freakiest athletes in the draft class (4.5-second 40) with long arms? The only reason the Patriots may hesitate is that, despite Carter's physical gifts and impressive football IQ, he didn't dominate as a collegian. Was that an effort issue? If the Patriots are comfortable with his approach after studying up on him, they could pounce in the late first round or early second. He could be the "Will" linebacker of the future in New England.


Warner was described to me by one assistant as an ideal fit for the Patriots. His athleticism is certainly NFL-caliber, but he it's his position versatility that puts him over the edge. He was in coverage for a significant number of snaps in college, and when he went to the Senior Bowl and played more of a traditional "Will" linebacker role, he opened eyes. Special teams could also be in his future. He could be a Patriot as early as the late second round. 


Leadership? Time in the SEC, and playing for a program Belichick appreciates? Top-notch athleticism (6.82-second three-cone, 131-inch broad jump)? Varied experience on defense, having played safety and multiple linebacker roles? What part of Burks' game won't the Patriots like? He may be a bit raw in terms of the winding road his career has taken, going from one position to the next. But otherwise? He feels like a Patriots Day 3 target.


Jewell is a very different player compared to the one who precedes him on this list. Jewell is a middle linebacker. He's also relatively slow, and his special-teams value may be nil. But Jewell may be one of the smartest linebackers, if not the smartest, in the class. How far will that get him? He could be worth a third-round choice if the Patriots feel they need a ready-to-go field general


Another marginally-athletic but instinctive linebacker with what are considered strong leadership skills, Cichy could be a Patriots fit on Day 3. He'll have to be medically cleared -- he missed Wisconsin's last 20 games with injuries -- but what he does to disrupt plays in tight spaces has definite value. He also has some special-teams experience, giving him another avenue to an NFL roster. 


Jefferson's combination of size and athleticism could get him drafted early on Day 2. His tape might not suggest that he's worthy of that type of selection -- he just doesn't have that much experience in coverage to project as a seamless three-down fit in today's NFL -- but coaches will salivate over his power and movement skills (4.52-second 40, 36-inch vertical). 


In an era when the linebackers are getting smaller and more athletic, McCray is a bit of a throwback. That could mean the Patriots are interested. He's not the rangiest second-level defender, far from it, but if the Patriots are looking to play more 3-4 looks under Belichick and Brian Flores, McCray could fit the profile. He's a Day 3 choice, in all likelihood.


Is Baker still an ascending player who can build up his body and his feel for the game to complement his natural athleticism? Or is he what he's going to be? If it's the latter, there's a role for him on special teams and perhaps as a 4-3 "Will" linebacker. But if the Patriots are looking for more of an all-purpose option, someone who can play on first and second down, they may turn elsewhere.


Moore is one of the most instinctive linebackers in the class, and those instincts led to an extremely high level of production -- both in the running game (led the team in tackles for four years) and passing game (seven picks in the last two seasons). Injury concerns and some off-the-field issues while at South Carolina might knock him down the board, but Belichick personally spent time with Moore at the South Carolina pro day. 


Another undersized linebacker whose athleticism could catch Belichick's attention (4.61-second 40, 6.64-second three-cone), O'Daniel has extensive special-teams experience. If he's there in the later rounds, he could be worth a shot. 


If it's a stouter (albeit less athletic) linebacker the Patriots are after, there's another prospect who played for Saban who could be of interest. Hamilton was his high school's valedictorian, and he was the primary signal-caller for the Crimson Tide over the previous two years. He's projected to be a late-round pick after suffering knee injuries that ended each of his last two seasons prematurely. If he checks out medically, maybe Belichick feels like there's value there. 


Coming out of Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano's defense, Worley's transition to the NFL -- in terms of his understanding of schemes -- should be a relatively smooth one. To have a shot at getting drafted by the Patriots, they'll have to fall in love with his work in the kicking game. According to Pro Football Focus, Worley played 172 special-teams snaps in the last two seasons. 


Scales isn't an eyebrow-raising athlete (4.77 seconds), and he's a bit undersized, but he was extremely productive for the Hoosiers. He had six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as a middle-of-the-field linebacker last season, and for his career he had eight picks. Add in the fact that Scales seems like a special-teams fit at the next level, and he could be a Day 3 pick. 


Sam is a true "Mike" linebacker who came back from injury in 2016 to have a solid 2017 campaign. His 4.75-second 40 won't help him in war rooms, but he's instinctive and has plenty of size. In the middle of the field, the Patriots want someone who is physical and be able to get the people around him aligned. Sam should be able to do that. He won't be great in space because he's not a special athlete, but that's often been OK for the Patriots at that "Mike" spot.



Linebacker Lowdown: Vander Esch, Evans intriguing options late in the first

Linebacker Lowdown: Vander Esch, Evans intriguing options late in the first

The Patriots went into the new league year with a handful of obvious needs, addressing most by either re-signing their own free agents, bringing aboard new ones or making trades. Investments were made at cornerback, edge defender, defensive tackle and running back. Even at offensive tackle, where the Patriots lost Nate Solder, the team re-signed one of its own (LaAdrian Waddle) and came to terms with two others (Matt Tobin, Luke Bowanko). If you were looking for the Patriots to add a linebacker, though, you're still waiting. This week, we'll try to pin down some good fits for the second level of Bill Belichick's defense in this year's draft class, earlier we looked at top linebacker prospects Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds, and today, we're looking at Leighton Vander Esch and Rashaan Evans. 

How exactly do the Patriots value the linebacker position? Ten years ago, they spent a top-10 pick on Jerod Mayo. Six years ago, they grabbed Dont'a Hightower with the No. 25 overall selection. 

But things have changed, even since 2012. The passing game is more important than ever. Sub packages have become base packages, and linebackers have found themselves being replaced by slot corners and safeties more and more frequently.

You have to be fast. You have to be athletic. You have to be able to cover at the second level. You have to be able to run with backs and tight ends. This is the reality of the modern-day NFL. 

Some may argue that, as a result, the linebacker spot has been devalued. Why pay through the nose for a linebacker if you're going to be using a defensive back 70 percent of the time instead? 

The counter-argument to that point would be that if you can find a linebacker with the size to handle playing in the box and the ability to keep up in coverage, you've struck gold.

This year's linebacker draft class looks like a good one to mine. The top is loaded with gifted athletes, but there's also enough depth in the group that contributing players should be available in the later rounds. 

Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia's Roquan Smith represent the future of the position. After acquiring pick No. 23 in trading wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams, there's a possibility the Patriots could trade up to get one of them. What's more likely, in my opinion, is that the Patriots end up with one of two linebackers who could slip to the end of Day 1 of the draft: Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama's Rashaan Evans.

After some discussion with NFL evaluators who have a close eye on this year's linebacker class, here are some of the strengths and weaknesses of both players and how they might fit in New England... 

Tale of the tape: 6-4; 256 pounds; 34-inch arms

Calling on the combine: 4.65-second 40; 39.5-inch vertical; 10-foot-4 broad; 6.88-second three-cone; 4.15-second short shuttle

Strengths: Vander Esch is the kind of long, athletic prospect that has linebacker coaches giddy - especially since it looks as if he could conceivably add even more size to his frame once he gets on an NFL strength program. After just one season as a true every-down option, he's viewed as an ascending player who can play both the run and the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, he had more run stuffs (tackles for a gain of two yards or fewer) than any other defender in the country last season. His motor is very good, and his instincts flashed on tape, particularly against Oregon, where he was consistently in the right place at the right time and making plays on the football. 

Weaknesses: He looks more like a move tight end than a true downhill thumper so if he's asked to take on 320-pound guards at the next level, there could be growing pains, and his instincts as a pass-rusher don't match up with some of the other first-round options at the position this year. The other potential concern with Vander Esch is that he simply hasn't seen as much football as some of his counterparts in this class. One year as a starter -- and the relative lack of production that came in his limited opportunity -- could impact how teams view his preparedness for the NFL. 

Patriots fit: For a team like Belichick's that likes to mix up its front-seven looks so often, Vander Esch seems like an ideal prospect. At the moment, he may not be the heat-seeking, run-stuffing missile that the Patriots have invested in before, and he may be best-suited to play off the line as a "Will" linebacker in a 4-3. But as Vander Esch gets stronger he could potentially handle duties on the strong side of offensive formations. I spoke to one evaluator who believed he could potentially be a capable "Mike" linebacker from a signal-calling standpoint. And if the Patriots wanted to use any Tampa-2 looks, Vander Esch is fluid enough to be able to drop into the deep middle of the field. If the Patriots want to play out of a 3-4, Vander Esch probably isn't an ideal off-the-ball type since he'd be asked to handle guards more often, but he seems long and athletic enough to play on the edge as a "Sam" or "Jack" linebacker. That wasn't his role in college, but if he takes to the coaching he'd get at One Patriot Place, he could tap into his athletic traits to play multiple roles up front. 

Tale of the tape: 6-3, 232 pounds; 32-inch arms

Calling on the combine: 30-inch vertical; 9-foot-8 broad; 6.95-second three-cone; 4.36-second short shuttle

Strengths: Evans was very productive in arguably the nation's top conference, taking home second-team All-SEC honors last season after leading the Crimson Tide with 13 tackles for loss, and tying for the team lead with 74 tackles. He's a shade smaller than what the Patriots have traditionally sought in their linebackers, but he's exactly where the league is going at the position. His athleticism gives him good range when he's chasing backs from sideline to sideline, and he can blow up stretch run plays quickly if his closing speed isn't accounted for. His relentlessness shows up when asked to blitz -- he punishes backs in pass-protection -- and he bends well coming off the edge. Like many of the 'Bama linebackers before him, Evans is considered to be extremely tough.

Weaknesses: According to one NFC defensive coach, Evans may not be ready to take on "Mike" linebacker responsibilities right away at the NFL level. Teams looking for a ready-made field general will probably have to look elsewhere. Because playing on the inside is still relatively new to Evans -- he began his college career as a special-teamer and outside 'backer and had just two seasons inside -- his instincts improved significantly from 2016 to 2017, but they still have room to grow. His aggressiveness in his pursuit upfield, while extremely fast, can cause him to lose leverage at times. How he'll handle coverage at the next level is still a question mark. Groin injuries limited him last season.

Patriots fit: Thanks to their Nick Saban connection, the Patriots will know exactly what they're getting in Evans. The question is, how will they try to use him? Are they looking for an off-the-line player in either a 3-4 or a 4-3? A big-hitter who can fly downhill? Then the fit feels like a good one. He would provide them with an aggressive run defender, an impact A-gap blitzer, and someone who could come off the edge in obvious passing situations. But are the Patriots looking for someone who can do more in coverage and be an extension of the coaching staff on the field? Then they may have to look elsewhere unless they're confident that, as a relative neophyte to the position, Evans has the traits to improve in those areas.