Linebacker is not among the Patriots’ most pressing needs heading into Round 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft.
However, Mel Kiper Jr. believes New England will target that position group with its first pick Thursday night in Kansas City.
Kiper released his final mock draft — which includes projected trades — roughly 12 hours before the Carolina Panthers are scheduled to go on the clock to make the first overall selection. The longtime ESPN draft guru had the Patriots staying put and using the 14th pick on Nolan Smith, an outside linebacker out of Georgia.
“Smith strikes me as exactly the type of edge defender the Patriots would love to have,” Kiper wrote. “He could rack up 10 sacks per season for Bill Belichick and company. I love this fit.”
Kiper’s projection counters our final Patriots mock draft, which had New England trading down to No. 20 overall and drafting offensive tackle Darnell Wright. Kiper doesn’t believe the Tennessee product will be around at 20 — or 14th overall, for that matter — as he sees the Green Bay Packers selecting the 6-foot-5, 333-pounder with the No. 13 pick.
During a recent appearance on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, Kiper’s ESPN colleague, Jeremy Fowler, reported Smith won’t make it past the 17th overall pick in the draft. So if the Patriots truly love the prospect and abide by a “best player available”-type mentality, Smith could be New England’s newest draftee by Thursday night’s end.