Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus improved his draft stock last season as much as any player in the country. After serving as a role player for two years, Mercilus ripped the pages out of the Illinois record books and replaced them with photos of himself, figuratively speaking anyway.
Mercilus also holds down a position the Patriots need to address, and he’s projected to be taken in the bottom third of the first round, which puts him square in their sights.
Mercilus is the focus of the fifth installment of a 26-day series that will highlight draft prospects who could land with the Patriots at the end of April. Maybe the prospect fits perfectly in the range of their 27th and 31st picks. Maybe he’s intriguing enough for them to make a rare move up the board. Or maybe it’s a player who could be available in the mid-30s, causing the Patriots to, gasp, trade down.
The 6-foot-4, 261-pounder led the country last season as a junior with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles. He also had 22.5 tackles for loss and 57 tackles.
Why the Patriots Would Want Him
Mercilus fits an obvious need, regardless of whether or not Andre Carter returns. The Illinois product has a merciless (bad pun intended) drive to get to the quarterback, and he could fill Mark Anderson‘s role as a situational pass rusher. And since Mercilus has only been a full-time player for one season, it’s only natural to think he’ll keep developing as a player.
Why the Patriots Might Stay Away
The flip side to the last notion is Mercilus needs to prove he can do it consistently over the course of multiple seasons, and teams might be uncomfortable making such a projection in the first round. Mercilus also has to develop against the run before becoming a three-down player. And lastly, the Patriots might avoid him because they don’t spend first-round picks on edge rushers.
Potential Impact in 2012
Mercilus would figure to take over Anderson’s reps as a pass-rushing specialist, though Anderson’s role significantly increased after Carter’s injury. If the Patriots keep with their 4-3 scheme, Mercilus could make an exciting impact coming off the edge.
Likelihood Mercilus Is Available at No. 27
Analysts seem to believe Mercilus is a low first-round talent, and by that notion, he’s got a pretty good chance to be around when the Patriots are on the clock. However, the ever-present need for pass rushers could cause Mercilus to fly off the board in the top 20. With that said, the Patriots would probably have to make a move to nab Mercilus.
Each day in April, NESN.com will spotlight a player the Patriots could take with one of their first-round picks.
Wednesday: North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins
Friday: Alabama inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower