It’s widely assumed the New England Patriots will select an offensive tackle in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, whether they stay at No. 31 overall or trade up.
But what if they can’t swing a deal and the right player isn’t available at No. 31 to replace Nate Solder? Then what?
Would the Patriots reach for a player? Would they trust starting a second- or third-round pick as a rookie? Would they start LaAdrian Waddle at left tackle until the presumed rookie or Tony Garcia, New England’s 2017 third-round pick who missed all of last season with blood clots in his lungs, is ready to go?
There could be another option on the Patriots’ roster: second-year pro Cole Croston, whom New England signed as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa last spring.
He impressed enough in training camp and preseason that the Patriots carried him as an extra offensive lineman for the entire season. They didn’t want to expose Croston to waivers out of fear another team would claim him before he could hit their practice squad.
The Patriots liked Croston more than Conor McDermott, their sixth-round pick out of UCLA, who was waived in September and claimed by the Buffalo Bills.
A former NFL scout told NESN.com after the Patriots’ first preseason game last summer that Croston was a player the Patriots couldn’t risk losing. Croston surrendered just five quarterback pressures in 140 preseason pass-block snaps.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote Sunday “don’t sleep on (Croston) … making a legitimate push for the top spot” at left tackle.
Croston also fits what the Patriots typically look for in a left tackle from a size and athletic perspective. At 6-foot-5 1/2, 307 pounds with 34 5/8-inch arms, Croston ran a 5.29-second 40-yard had with a 1.72-second 10-yard split at his pro day last spring. He was particularly impressive in the 3-cone drill (7.61 seconds) and short shuttle (4.68 seconds). He also recorded a 32.5-inch vertical leap and 8-foot, 7-inch broad jump.
To put those numbers in perspective, recently signed Patriots running back Jeremy Hill ran a 7.64-second 3-cone and 4.59-second short shuttle at his pro day in 2014.
Croston started at left and right tackle at Iowa, and he played guard for the Patriots during the preseason and regular season. So, even if Croston can’t earn a starting spot, he could be a versatile player capable of filling in at multiple positions off the Patriots’ bench.
“He’s a developmental prospect,” Belichick said about Croston on Tuesday. “He has some position versatility. He’s been in a good program. He’s worked hard, improved. Obviously didn’t get any playing time during the season, very little, but we’ll see how it goes this year. He did enough in training camp to make the roster.”
Regardless of what the Patriots do in the draft, Croston could at the very least enter training camp in competition for a starting role. A rookie, even a first-round pick, might not be ready to start from Day 1. Garcia lost 30 pounds on the non-football illness list last season and didn’t play a single preseason or regular-season snap. Andrew Jelks, another 2017 undrafted free agent, practiced briefly last season while on the non-football injury list but didn’t play in any preseason or regular season games. Matt Tobin was a backup offensive tackle on the Seattle Seahawks, who had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, last season. And Waddle was good as a fill-in last season, but he’s primarily played right tackle during his NFL career, isn’t a tremendous athlete and came into the league undrafted himself. He also missed stretches of last season with ankle and knee injuries.
Croston is a name to keep in mind as the Patriots get ready to ramp up their offseason activity next month.