After giving up 41 points in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s clear the New England Patriots need an infusion of talent on defense. While the secondary should return key veterans Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore and Patrick Chung, there’s no doubt that the front seven needs some serious upgrades.
With Dont’a Hightower shelved for most of the season, the linebacker group got exposed by Philadelphia’s diverse set of running backs and tight ends. Up front, the defensive line got bullied by a more physical and athletic offensive line that kept Nick Foles upright for nearly the entire game.
Even with key building blocks such as Hightower, Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown returning, the Patriots will have to use their arsenal of draft capital to add several starter-caliber prospects who can complement the few pieces already in place. Though the Patriots traded away a few late-round picks, they’re still armed with three of the top 63, including two second-rounders. It will now be up to Bill Belichick and the rest of the personnel staff to hit the scouting trail hard in preparation for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Ultimately, the NFL Scouting Combine and pre-draft process will cause prospects to move up and down draft boards. For now, here’s an early mock draft for the Patriots.
Round 1, 31st: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Anyone watching the Super Bowl realized how overmatched New England’s linebackers looked against Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. Without Hightower, the Patriots lacked a physical force in the middle of the defense. Even with their defensive captain back, that won’t be enough.
With the second-to-last selection in the first round, the Patriots should be ecstatic if Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans is still available. After all, the Patriots hit big with Hightower. Adding another Nick Saban-coached linebacker would be a big coup for a defense in desperate need of athletic playmakers.
Tipping the scales at 6-foot-3, 234 pounds, Evans may lack a little bulk, but he more than makes up for it with excellent speed and agility. A true sideline-to-sideline force, the former 5-star recruit earned first-team All-SEC honors as a senior after racking up 74 tackles (13 for loss), six sacks, three passes defended, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Alabama has churned out a number of quality inside linebackers in recent years, including Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Reuben Foster. Adding a player of Evans’ caliber with the 31st pick would be a home-run selection for the defending AFC champions.
Round 2, 41st or 43rd: Taven Bryan, DL, Florida
Getting more athletic along the defensive line should be priority No. 1 for the Patriots. Among freak athletes, there may not be a better one than Florida defensive lineman Taven Bryan. The 6-foot-4, 291-pounder is the son of a former Navy Seal who is just scratching the surface of his potential.
The Wyoming native started two games as a redshirt sophomore before emerging as a full-time player for the Gators last fall. Though his production does not jump off the charts—he totaled just 62 tackles (10.5 for loss) and 5.5 sacks in 30 career games—Bryan is expected to test out as an elite athlete at the combine.
Capable of lining up inside or on the edge, Bryan is exactly the type of athlete the Patriots need up front. While Brown and Lawrence Guy are solid run defenders, New England needs to add an interior pass rusher who can also be stout against the run on early downs. Far from a finished product, Bryan could prove to be an excellent Day 2 pick with incredible upside.
Round 2, 63rd: Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond
Remember when the Patriots sent shockwaves through the NFL by taking Jimmy Garoppolo at the end of the second round in the 2014 draft? We could be looking at a repeat situation in April. New England obviously needs to find a successor to Tom Brady, and this could be the sweet spot for Josh McDaniels to find his future quarterback.
If there’s one prospect who seems to fit most of the criteria the Patriots look for at the quarterback position, it’s Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta. A recent riser due to a strong Senior Bowl performance, Lauletta boasts three years of starting experience that included a strong 2017 campaign (64.9 completion percentage, 3,737 yards, 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions).
Regarded as a prospect with excellent intangibles and leadership skills, Lauletta’s father and uncle both played at the Naval Academy. Throw in the fact that he was a two-time team captain and it’s hard not to imagine Belichick having a fond eye for this small-school signal-caller who could ultimately emerge as Brady’s replacement before all is said and done.
Round 3, 95th: Jaylen Samuels, RB, North Carolina State
With Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead both set to hit free agency, running back is quietly one of New England’s top needs. Finding a primary ballcarrier with some versatility will become even more critical if Lewis ultimately walks away for a better contract as many are projecting.
For a team that is so successful on offense, it’s interesting to note that New England has drafted just one running back since 2012: James White. The Super Bowl hero has proven to be a sound selection, but it’s time to add some more youth to the backfield.
Instead of opting for a strict downhill runner like Alabama’s Bo Scarborough, the Patriots could find a potential star in North Carolina State’s Jaylen Samuels. The 5-foot-11, 223-pounder lined up all over the field for the Wolfpack and simply kept producing. In four years, he totaled 181 carries for 1,103 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and 28 rushing touchdowns while adding 202 receptions for 1,855 yards (9.2 yards per catch) and 19 touchdowns as a receiver. Samuels is exactly the type of do-it-all weapon who could help ease the loss of Lewis at a fraction of the cost.
Round 4, 119th (projected compensatory pick): Isaac Yiadom, CB, Boston College
Though it is not official yet, it is fully expected that the Patriots will receive a fourth-round compensatory pick for losing Jabaal Sheard in free agency last offseason. If that’s the case, this is the perfect spot for the Patriots to find a potential replacement for Malcolm Butler. It happens that Butler’s potential replacement is right in New England’s back yard.
Born in Worcester, Mass., Isaac Yiadom started 33 games at Boston College and emerged as one of the better defensive backs in the ACC. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder recorded three interceptions and 26 pass breakups for the Eagles and brings excellent length (32 1/4-inch arms) and good speed. In fact, his overall build and strong press coverage skills could remind some fans of Gilmore.
Yiadom’s stock is rising after a competitive Senior Bowl week, so he may not last until the end of the fourth round. But if he is available, he would be a solid selection who could ease the loss of Butler, who is a lock to leave in free agency after the mysterious Super Bowl benching.
Round 6, TBA (based on compensatory picks): David Bright, OT, Stanford
We do not know the exact pick yet, but barring any trades, the Patriots’ last pick will come late in the sixth round. Given the fact that three of their top four tackles are slated to hit free agency, it seems logical to add a developmental offensive line prospect at this spot.
Given Dante Scarnecchia’s impressive track record of coaching up late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents, this pick should not be treated as a throwaway. Even if Nate Solder re-signs, the Patriots should still try to add an upside piece at left tackle, especially with the uncertainty surrounding 2017 third-round pick Tony Garcia.
Scarnecchia successfully coached one Stanford tackle in Cameron Fleming, so the Patriots would be smart to dip back into the David Shaw pool again with Cardinal tackle David Bright. The biomechanical engineering major boasts many of the qualities the Patriots value. He started at every position except center throughout his five-year career and is regarded as intelligent and tough as a team captain. Though he needs to add more size and strength, the 6-foot-5, 299-pounder has excellent length and would be a worthwhile Day 3 pick who could eventually develop into a versatile sixth offensive lineman or spot starter.