The New England Patriots have spent big money and draft capital to improve their pass rush over the last year, but don’t be surprised if they use a high pick on an edge defender again in next week’s 2021 NFL Draft.
The Patriots selected Josh Uche in the second round and Anfernee Jennings in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft one year after using a third-round pick on Chase Winovich. They then signed Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy in free agency this offseason.
All of those players have versatility, however. The Patriots primarily used Jennings as an off-ball linebacker in his rookie season, and it’s possible they see Uche filling a similar role. Winovich played some off-ball linebacker in 2020 because of his undersized frame. Van Noy played both on the edge and as a more traditional linebacker in his first stint in New England. Judon has the versatility to rush the passer or drop back into coverage, as well.
The Patriots pick 15th overall in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and it’s possible they could use that pick on a premier position like defensive end. The Patriots traded up for Chandler Jones at No. 21 overall in 2012. They haven’t picked that high since that draft.
Here’s the Patriots’ entire draft history at edge defender:
New England definitely values athleticism when it comes to the position, typically drafting players with above average speed, explosion, quickness and agility. The Patriots don’t mind undersized players at the position.
We devised a metric to rate each 2021 NFL Draft prospect?s fit in New England. Here are the top edge defender prospects by their draft ranking (via The Athletic’s Arif Hasan). We included linebacker Zaven Collins because of his size and length.
Now let’s rank the Patriots’ top fits by that metric which standardizes and weights pre-draft testing measurables:
Here are the Patriots’ top fits in each round of the draft:
First Round: Jaelan Phillips, Miami
We asked a source for two names the Patriots could target 15th overall, and Phillips was one of them. We’ll see if that comes to fruition, but Phillips has the potential to be the best defender in the 2021 NFL Draft. He has some injury concerns, but his combination of size and all-around athleticism is nearly unmatched.
Second Round: Joseph Ossai, Texas
Ossai is a little undersized for an edge defender at 256 pounds, but the Patriots could like his versatility. He mostly played as an off-ball linebacker in 2019 before moving back to the edge in 2020. He’s one of the better run defenders in this group.
Third Round: Payton Turner, Houston
Turner has freaky length at 6-foot-6, 268 pounds with 35 3/8-inch arms. He played as both an edge defender and five-technique defensive end at Houston. He had a breakout in 2020 but it was just in a four-game sample size.
Fourth Round: Shaka Toney, Penn State
Look back at that spreadsheet of 2021 draft prospects. There might have been something up with the Penn State pro day. Toney was a productive player with the Nittany Lions, and if someone can harness his athleticism, then he could be a player with some untapped potential.
Fifth Round: Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa
At 6-foot-6 with a 41.5-inch vertical leap, Smith could have a specialized role blocking field goals and extra points. We kid. Smith packed on 50 pounds at Northern Iowa but could still afford to add more mass onto his 252-pound frame.
Sixth Round: Joshua Kaindoh, Florida State
Similar to Patriots 2019 fifth-round pick Byron Cowart, Kaindoh never lived up to his billing as a five-star recruit in college. He has some intriguing attributes at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds with speed and explosion.
Seventh Round: William Bradley-King, Baylor
Bradley-King was more productive at Arkansas State before transferring to Baylor as a senior. He’d be a worthy project as a seventh-rounder.