After enduring their worst season in two decades, the New England Patriots head into the 2021 NFL Draft with a rare asset at their disposal: a top-15 pick.
Rare for them, at least.
Having competed for Super Bowls on a near-annual basis throughout Tom Brady’s tenure, the Patriots have not received a selection in the top 20 (not including ones they acquired in trades) since 2001, when they drafted Richard Seymour sixth overall after going 5-11 in Bill Belichick’s debut season.
Seymour is one of just three players the Patriots have drafted in the top half of the first round during Belichick’s tenure, along with Ty Warren (No. 13, 2003) and Jerod Mayo (No. 10, 2008).
Following a 7-9 finish in 2020, New England currently owns the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft, which is set to kick off Thursday, April 29.
How should they use it? Here are five positions we could see them targeting:
The Patriots’ biggest remaining need. Cam Newton (back on a team-friendly one-year deal) can hold down the fort in 2021 if necessary, but New England must — as team owner Robert Kraft stressed last week — find its long-term answer behind center. This would be an ideal time to do so. With an unusually high first-round pick and no other glaring roster holes, the Patriots should strongly consider trading up for Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, either of whom would have the opportunity to learn behind Newton until he is ready to start. Alabama’s Mac Jones also would be in the conversation if San Francisco subverts the prevailing sentiment and chooses a different quarterback at No. 3. The Atlanta Falcons reportedly are open to dealing the fourth overall pick, which likely would cost New England a future first-rounder plus additional picks to acquire. Would they be willing to pay the price to move up that high (or, say, into the 5-to-8 range, which could land them a top QB but would be a riskier strategy)? That’s the No. 1 question as draft weekend approaches.
Nearly a month into free agency, we still don’t know whether any of the Patriots’ top three cornerbacks will be with the team this season. Will Stephon Gilmore sign an extension or be traded? Will another team sign restricted free agent J.C. Jackson to an offer sheet (and if they do, would the Patriots choose to match or take the second-round pick)? Will Jason McCourty ultimately re-sign? If New England loses either Gilmore or Jackson, replenishing this position group with a first-round pick could be a smart move. South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn is a draft-process riser who would fit in well in the Patriots’ secondary. Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II is another candidate if he slides on draft night. The Patriots have drafted just one first-round cornerback in the Belichick era: Devin McCourty, who later moved to safety.
The recently re-acquired Trent Brown is entering a contract year, and the oft-injured Isaiah Wynn could be, as well, if the Patriots decline his fifth-year option. Rookie Mike Onwenu played very well at right tackle last season, but he’s expected to shift to left guard to replace the departed Joe Thuney. In other words, we have no idea who the Patriots’ starting tackles will be in 2022. If they stick at No. 15, using that pick on a future starter would be a sensible move, similar to their decision to draft Nate Solder 17th overall ahead of Matt Light’s final season. Top prospects Oregon’s Penei Sewell and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater are likely to be gone by then, but Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw or Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins could be options for New England.
Getting Dont’a Hightower back from his COVID-19 opt-out should be a major boost for the Patriots’ defense, but they still have some long-term questions at linebacker. An early run on offensive players could push a top-ranked ‘backer Micah Parsons into New England’s range. Parsons enters the draft with character concerns stemming from alleged hazing incidents at Penn State, but he was an athletic and productive force for the Nittany Lions before opting out of the 2020 season. Tulsa’s Zaven Collins also has the look of a Patriots target, though he could be a slight reach at No. 15.
In all likelihood, the Patriots will wait until Day 2 or 3 to nab a wideout. This is an especially deep class at the position. New England traditionally hasn’t used premier picks on receivers, drafting just one in the first round (N’Keal Harry) during the Belichick era. If Alabama’s DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle would be worth considering, though, if either falls to No. 15. The Patriots signed Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency but still could benefit from adding a talented rookie to their receiving corps, especially with Julian Edelman’s injury situation still unsettled and Harry reportedly on the trade block.