The New England Patriots don’t need to find a high-impact starter in the 2014 NFL draft — at least not right away.
The Patriots can focus on acquiring the best available players to fill out the depth chart with their starters mostly set. Anyone who attended training camp last season with at least 20/200 vision and a cracked pair of glasses could see the Patriots lacked depth along their defensive line after Armond Armstead was placed on the non-football illness list. That lack of depth haunted the Patriots after Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork were lost for the season with injuries, and they haven’t addressed the position this offseason.
Wilfork and Kelly likely still will be limited during training camp, and there’s no telling when either player will return to the field. It would be far from ideal for the Patriots to start the season depending on Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Sealver Siliga and Armstead, aka “The Sasquatch.”
Check out who the Patriots could draft to fill out that depth.
Round 1, Pick No. 29: Dominique Easley, defensive tackle, Florida
Easley is seven months removed from a torn right ACL, and the 6-foot-2, 288-pound defender was at 80 percent when he held an individual pro day for teams in April — the Patriots were present. Easley received a clean bill of health at last week’s NFL Scouting Combine medical recheck, according to a source.
Easley has the upside of a top-10 pick, and the Patriots can take a risk on his health with Wilfork and Kelly primed to return this season — eventually. There’s been speculation that Easley could begin the season on the physically unable to perform list, but he has four months to fully recover, and he already is ahead of schedule.
Round 2, Pick No. 62: Troy Niklas, tight end, Notre Dame
The Patriots might be hesitant to draft players with medical concerns with their first two picks, but if Niklas is available, the value is too good to pass up. Tight end Zach Sudfeld received the nickname “Baby Gronk” from The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin last season, but Niklas is far more deserving.
He’s 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, and after beginning his career as a linebacker, he’s still learning the tight end position. He’s a great pass blocker with upside as a receiver and run blocker. Oh, and T-shirts might be forbidden among tight ends in the Patriots’ locker room if he’s paired with Gronk.
Round 3, Pick No. 93: Jordan Tripp, linebacker, Montana
It’s time for the Patriots to select a safer player after taking two players with injury histories. Tripp shined against FCS talent at Montana, and he has the speed and agility to help in coverage.
The Patriots have three solid starting linebackers, but the position is filled with special-teamers after Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Tripp could play in sub packages and provide valuable depth.
Round 4, Pick No. 130: Dezmen Southward, safety, Wisconsin
It’s difficult to predict the Patriots and their potential safeties. Nearly any player could be projected to the Patriots at the position after they took unknowns on the second day of the draft like Tavon Wilson in 2012 and Duron Harmon in 2013.
Southward was red flagged at the combine in February with a back injury, but he has strong film, and his 4.38-second 40-yard dash and 6.50-second three-cone drill impressed scouts at his pro day. He also is an explosive athlete with a 42-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-4 broad jump.
Southward has experience at both safety positions and at cornerback.
Round 4, Pick No. 140: Storm Johnson, running back, Central Florida
Johnson has the speed, size and pass-catching ability that the Patriots need. He wouldn’t begin the season as the Patriots’ starter, but if Stevan Ridley’s fumbling issues pop up again, he potentially could step into that role.
Round 6, Pick No. 198: Zach Fulton, guard, Tennessee
Belichick went out of his way to point out during his availability with the media at the combine that four members of Tennessee’s offensive line were invited to the event. Fulton has the athleticism needed for the Patriots’ offensive line, and he could serve as important depth behind Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins at guard. He also has the potential to play center.
Round 6, Pick No. 206: Trey Burton, wide receiver/tight end, Florida
Burton played quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end during his time at Florida. The Patriots could project him as a “move” tight end, where he competed at the combine, at the next level. At 6-foot-2, 224 pounds, Burton ran a 4.50-second 40-yard dash with a 7.01-second three-cone drill and 4.31-second short shuttle during the pre-draft process.
Burton caught 107 passes for 976 yards and four touchdowns during his four-year career at Florida, and he also had 153 carries for 720 yards and 14 scores.
Round 7, Pick No. 244: Kenny Guiton, quarterback, Ohio State
The Patriots tend to get a little wacky in the later rounds of the draft (hello Nate Ebner!). Guiton was Braxton Miller’s backup with the Buckeyes, and he was very impressive when he had a chance to play, completing 66.4 percent of his passes for 893 yards and 16 touchdowns with four interceptions. He also rushed for 383 yards on 53 carries.