The NFL draft is creeping up on us, and with the first of nine — yes, nine — NESN.com weekly mock drafts scheduled to run Thursday, let’s take a closer look at some potential targets on the New England Patriots’ radar.
The Pats have the 22nd pick in the first round and three of the first 21 selections in the second round, so they’re more than equipped to get aggressive and make a trade or two to move up the board. In fact, according to the NFL Draft Value Chart — which can be used as a reference to forecast the trade value of draft picks, and is used as a resource throughout the league — the Patriots could theoretically trade their first four picks and land the fourth overall selection in the draft.
Granted, there are plenty of outside factors that would also dictate the likelihood of such a trade, but this at least gives you a better idea of the value the Patriots hold in this draft. The chart also says the Patriots could trade their three second-round picks and land the 11th overall selection. Just keep this in mind as we discuss players who figure to be off the board long before the Patriots draft at No. 22.
Without further ado, here’s a look at a handful of players the Patriots could be targeting at the top of the draft.
Florida cornerback Joe Haden
He’s the best cornerback in the draft and will probably be taken in the top eight. While the Patriots don’t exactly need a corner to the extent that they need some pass rushers, Haden is an exciting prospect who could dominate half the field. It’s highly unlikely he’ll wind up in a New England uniform because the Pats would have to mortgage too many draft picks to get up this high, and that’s not really Bill Belichick’s style. However, Florida coach Urban Meyer could be in Belichick’s ear about Haden, so don’t rule it out completely.
One other note: This is looking like a pretty deep draft for cornerbacks, so if the Patriots lose out on Haden, they could potentially go after Alabama’s Kareem Jackson, Boise State’s Kyle Wilson, Michigan’s Donovan Warren or Wake Forest’s Brandon Ghee.
Alabama inside linebacker Rolando McClain
Here’s the guy. McClain would be a beast playing on the inside next to Jerod Mayo, and the Crimson Tide linebacker would thrive in Belichick’s system. While the Patriots might prefer to add an outside linebacker, McClain is another can’t-miss prospect. By putting him inside, the Pats could move Gary Guyton to the outside, where his speed would be more of an asset. McClain will probably be off the board in the top 12-14 picks, so he’d require a trade.
Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap, Michigan outside linebacker/defensive end Brandon Graham, Texas defensive end/outside linebacker Sergio Kindle
Let’s lump these three together because they’re the edge rushers who will go off the board around the time of the Patriots’ allotted draft pick. Dunlap figures to be the first taken out of this group, but his stock could suffer because of an ugly DUI arrest that caused him to miss the SEC Championship in December. He draws comparisons to Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams, and the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Florida product should be a force in the NFL.
Graham has been heavily linked to the Patriots. The Michigan product can play both outside linebacker and defensive end, but he is 6-foot-1, which is short for that position. Still, Graham was the Senior Bowl MVP and was widely praised for a strong week of practice that led to his two-sack performance in the game. Graham has been compared to Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley and Denver’s Elvis Dumervil, who led the NFL with 17 sacks last season.
Kindle is another hybrid edge rusher and is the latest in a long line of high-profile linebackers to come out of Texas, although Kindle has been criticized for disappearing at times. But he did register 2.5 sacks in the Longhorns’ national championship loss to Alabama.
Florida inside linebacker Brandon Spikes
Spikes is a question mark. His stock would have been much higher if he entered the draft after his junior season, when he was on the short list among college football’s most dominant defensive players. But Spikes suffered through injuries as a senior and was bombed with criticism for an eye-gouging incident that resulted in a suspension. He is still considered to be a good leader and quiet with the media, which would make him a perfect fit in Foxboro.
Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham
Some scouting services indicate Gresham would have been the first tight end taken in the 2009 draft, but he returned for his senior year and then suffered a season-ending knee injury in September. It’s believed Gresham will be a first-round pick if he has a strong performance at the combine in the next couple of weeks.
The Patriots don’t need a tight end nearly as much as they need a couple of pass rushers, but this is considered to be a deep draft for defensive ends and outside linebackers. If Belichick thinks he can land a comparable talent in the middle of the second round, he might be more inclined to a tight end here. Since joining the Patriots, Belichick has used two of his nine first-round picks on tight ends — Daniel Graham (2002) and Ben Watson (2004) — and the head coach clearly isn’t afraid to go in that direction.
Clemson running back C.J. Spiller
The Patriots don’t need a running back badly enough to use a first-round pick on one of them, but if this is something the public wants, let’s explore New England’s options. Spiller is far and away considered the best back in the 2010 draft class, which is pretty thin at the position, and he’ll get taken in the top half of the first round.
There are a handful of other running backs who will be available if the Patriots so desire — Cal’s Jahvid Best, Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer, Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon, Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews, USC’s Joe McKnight or Oregon’s LaGarrette Blount — but none of them figure to be franchise-type backs. Blount, though, could be a fourth- or fifth-rounder due to a highly-publicized suspension. If former Ducks teammate Pat Chung signs off on Blount’s character, Blount would be a very intriguing target because his talent would far exceed his draft position.
Mississippi running back/wide receiver Dexter McCluster
Here’s the bonus pick. McCluster is a Percy Harvin clone, a guy who could take 10 handoffs and catch 10 passes per game while also returning kicks and punts. The Patriots desperately need to add some explosion to their offensive and kick return units, and McCluster would be a home-run draft pick. He could probably be had at some point between the middle of the second and third rounds, and he’d be worth a serious look. McCluster would fit the mold of Minnesota’s Harvin, Philly’s DeSean Jackson and Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs.