Andy Benoit and I are tag-teaming the Patriots’ unique draft-weekend opportunity in our columns Wednesday. New England, for the first time in Bill Belichick’s 19 drafts, has two picks in the first round and two picks in the second round … just at the time when an infusion of new talent is needed to rebuild the team’s core. Benoit is writing what he thinks the Patriots should do, particularly at quarterback with Tom Brady prepping to play this year at 41. (His column will post at The MMQB on Wednesday morning.) My column below is about what I think the Patriots will do. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. I plan to use a few of your emails in my column on Monday.
This is (probably) terrifically phony, but follow the plot line:
Let’s fast-forward two years, and walk into the New England Patriots’ draft room. It’s two weeks before the 2020 NFL Draft in Green Bay, and head coach Josh McDaniels and GM Nick Caserio are tweaking the draft board, trying to get everything just right for their first draft together. After 20 years with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady on the team as coach and quarterback, they’ve both retired, and now McDaniels and Caserio have to find a way forward. Franchise cornerstone Rob Gronkowski is retired too, and defensive leader Devin McCourty is likely headed into his last season, playing 2020 at age 33.
McDaniels and Caserio look at their board, and consider who they have as their nucleus players entering years four through 10 of their careers. It’s a thin group.
On offense, it’s guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, who will each play 2020 at 27; right tackle Marcus Cannon (32), center David Andrews (28), and running back James White (28). On defense: tackle Malcom Brown (26), pass-rusher Trey Flowers (27), cornerback Stephon Gilmore (29) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower (30). And Hightower is no sure thing.
As McDaniels and Caserio have said to each other, it’s a good thing the franchise had those four high picks in 2018.
“Thank God for that 2018 draft,” McDaniels says to Caserio. “Where would we be without that draft?”
Back to reality.
Once you realize the Patriots, as of today, are in the bottom half of the league (and probably the bottom third) in cornerstone players for the next three to six seasons, you realize what a huge draft this is for the franchise. If McDaniels indeed succeeds Belichick when the legendary coach decides to retire—I’m betting Belichick has two or three years left—it’s the kind of draft McDaniels will appreciate the day he takes the job. Certainly, some of McDaniels’ success or failure in the coach’s chair depends on what happens with this year’s picks. New England has the 23rd and 31st picks in round one, and the 43rd and 63 picks overall in round two. Then they have but one choice in the next three rounds.
I would be surprised if the Patriots packaged some of the draft choices, or a high one this year and next, to move up for a quarterback. First: They don’t have the ammo to move up for one of the top ones; the top four will likely be gone in the top 10 picks, and maybe in the top five. Second: Their needs elsewhere are too acute to go all-in for a quarterback this year. So, barring a big surprise, the Patriots won’t mortgage these picks to move up for a passer.
New England’s draft prep is always shrouded in secrecy, but let’s think about their last couple of months. They come back from a crushing Super Bowl loss, and Belichick and owner Robert Kraft are able to talk McDaniels out of taking the Indianapolis head-coaching job. In so doing, Belichick, according to multiple reports, agrees to take McDaniels behind the curtain and give him the inside story of what it takes to build and care and feed a great team. We have to assume that’s happening now. If so, McDaniels is likely playing a role in draft prep, particularly at the quarterback position. The only way—in my opinion—that the Patriots will go outside the box and trade a cadre of picks to move up for a quarterback is if McDaniels and Caserio and Belichick feel one of the top five (including Louisville’s Lamar Jackson) has championship potential. Then and only then would the Patriots mortgage the future to get Brady’s successor. I still think it’s a long shot. Not impossible, but a long shot.
The Patriots shouldn’t be that picky. They have needs all over the roster, except perhaps for the interior offensive line. The biggest need is at left tackle, with the free-agent loss of Nate Solder to the Giants. But there isn’t a position outside of guard or center that would be a mistake to target in the first two rounds. The Patriots almost certainly will let the draft come to them, not reaching for any position except perhaps left tackle in round one.
Here’s what I think they will do:
1. (23rd overall) Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa, or Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State. With the pick obtained from the Rams in the Brandin Cooks trade, New England can target a sideline-to-sideline linebacker with speed in the 4.6s to key a needy unit, or take Malcolm Butler’s successor. Also a chance neither would be around by pick 23.
2. (31st overall) Kolton Miller, T, UCLA, or Connor Williams, T, Texas. Gil Brandt’s Pats pet pick. After losing Nate Solder in free agency, left tackle is the biggest need on the roster. Miller’s more of a project, but also has a bigger and more athletic upside.
3. (43rd overall) Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina, or Cortland Sutton, WR, SMU. One of these ready-to-produce pass-catchers should be there at 43. Hurst is the kind of blocking-receiving tight end who would appeal to Belichick.
4. (63rd overall) A quarterback. All of these are guesses, of course, but let’s put Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State or Luke Falk of Washington State here. Excellent students, and room to grow for a year or two behind Tom Brady.
The Patriots will be smart to make four picks, or turn one of these into two players in the top three rounds. That’s what I think they’ll do.
Now onto your email for the week...
CONFUSED ABOUT FREE SPEECH
You wrote: “If San Francisco safety Eric Reid does not get signed, it sends a chilling message about free speech to every NFL player who would think about protesting anything.” I don’t understand where you and other members of the media are coming from. Why do NFL players have the “right” to: A) protest on the job, in uniform, on national TV; B) anger many Americans who take respect of our national anthem seriously and the unity it represents; and C) not have to risk any consequences for their controversial decisions.
—Adam L., Boise, Idaho
That’s a common view, Adam, and one many readers had this week. I understand it. My view is simple. I have been at baseball games before—one at Citi Field in New York last summer, for example—and seen people not stand for the national anthem. It’s not common, but it happens. Why is it such a big deal if someone does not stand for the anthem? And why must a player who does not want to stand be forced to stand?
ON “KEEPING POLITICS OUT OF FOOTBALL”
Playing the Star Spangled Banner and having uniformed military members wave the national flag before a game is a political act. When John Elway of the Broncos, Bob McNair of the Texans and others advocate “keeping politics out of football,” they clearly mean politics with which they do not agree. If the powers of the NFL are so gung-ho for the flag, why do they display the flag so disrespectfully? The U.S. flag is never supposed to be displayed horizontally like some sort of tarpaulin.
—Jonathan R., Los Angeles
I don’t know about that, but the NFL has gotten so over-the-top patriotic that the next thing you know some stadium will be called American Flag Stadium, with uniforms red, white and blue and no fans allowed in the stadium without wearing flag pins on their shirts. It’s like the league, to compensate for the 10 or 15 guys who don’t want to stand for the anthem, is becoming the National Patriotic League. It’d be nice, once in a great while at least, to see some organized league honor for firefighters or police officers or teachers or nurses or caregivers or some walk of life other than the military. Not that I’m trying to slight the military; we all owe those who serve a tremendous debt. I just think the military shouldn’t be honored at the exclusion of every other service employee who works for the greater good.
ERIC REID’S STATUS
According to PFF, Reid had the 30th highest grade in the NFL for 2017 and that was his highest graded season ever. His 2016 season was poor (50.8) and he had trended downward in PFF grades in each of his first 3 years in the league from “good” (80.6) down to “average” (75.6 and 72.6 in years 2 and 3). While I have little doubt that he has the physical abilities of a starting safety in the league, let’s not pretend he is a top 10 or top 20 player at his position in the league and that him not being signed can only be due to his political protest. I get that you lean left in your political views but not everything is a conspiracy when things don’t turn out the way you think they should.
I am looking at the safety rankings on Pro Football Focus right now. Reid was the 21st-rated safety (among 89 strong/free safeties) graded by PFF in 2017. He was ranked ahead of Devin McCourty, Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson, Jamal Adams, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Malik Hooker and Reggie Nelson in 2017. Do you believe that if any of those players were on the free-agent market right now they would not have had gotten offers four weeks into free agency?
WILL BOYCOTT IF REID DOESN’T GET SIGNED
If Eric Reid does not get signed, I’m joining the growing list of black professionals who will boycott the NFL. As a corporate executive, I recognize the importance of diverse perspectives and respectful disagreements. It’s just good business sense to get a broad perspective before making decisions. As a military veteran, I served so these players could freely enjoy their Constitutional rights—rights that came at the cost of lives so blacks could have those rights. Flying the Confederate flag bothers me more—as the South attempted to secede from the same Union that the flag represents. If it’s about respecting the American flag, I’d expect these owners to support the removal of Confederate monuments from public property. But they won’t. Please pass on to the plantation owner Bob McNair that there are two sides to this debate. And while he seems intent on crafting his response for one group, there is a growing number on the other side more than willing to speak with our dollars and viewership, too. Count me as one if Reid is not signed.
—Jeff B., San Antonio
Thanks for your email, Jeff.
I read your MMQB column about Jens Vinther from the Faroe Islands with great joy. It happens to be that I was one of the NFL commentators doing color for Danish television when Jens was watching. Many viewers had never experienced football before we introduced it to the viewers in October of 2000. Just wanted to tell you a little different NFL story from the other side of the pond.
Great to hear from you, Jesper. Jens is a good man and I’m sure he would echo what I’m saying here in thanking you for spreading the interest in our football.
A THANK YOU FROM YOUR NEIGHBORS TO THE NORTH
Hope these sentiments reach you. Your touching words on the Humboldt Broncos and your kind words about your neighbours to the north were all truly appreciated. Thank you.
Brett, I’m still heartsick over this, and I can only imagine what it feels like to be a Canadian. What really struck me was the raw emotion of the radio color man, Dan Ukrainetz, on the other team, Nipowin, when we spoke on Saturday. “The hockey rink is the gathering place for our people throughout Canada,” Ukrainetz said. “You want to know what’s going on in town? Go to the rink. We’ve got no movie theater in Nipawin, no casino. We’ve got a hockey rink. That’s how so much of Canada is. That’s why this hits us so hard.”
WE WILL GRIEVE FOR A LONG TIME UP HERE
Peter, on behalf of all Canadians, all hockey fans and all sports fans, thank you for telling the story. We are feeling pretty raw up here right now; there aren’t many of us who haven’t been friends with someone who either rode a bus or had relatives who rode a bus to go to away hockey games somewhere in this vast country. We are grieving hard for those 15 people and for the 14 who lived and will live with the aftermath, and the town of Humboldt and all the other towns where the young men and coaches and media people who were there came from and come from.
—John W., Edmonton
Just know you’ve got a lot of people just south of you feeling for you and thinking of you. I couldn’t take my eyes off the CBC feed of the vigil Sunday night, and I know I’m not alone. Good luck to Canada, and especially to Humboldt.
8-MAN FOOTBALL TO THE NFL
Leighton Vander Esch wasn’t the only player from a school that plays 8-man football. Rashaan Salaam also played 8-man high school football at La Jolla Country Day high in California.
Thanks, Adam. Paul, from Liberty, S.C., pointed out that the late Gaines Adams, a top 10 pick in 2007, was an 8-man football player in high school too. Appreciate you reading so closely.
As a long time Titans fan, I enjoyed the uniform unveiling. With a new coach, a young GM, and lots of quality players, we’re more excited than we’ve been in a long time about this team. I appreciate the team showing the fans some love and taking a page from the Predators’ hype-book (Go Preds!) on how to generate some enthusiasm in Nashville and Tennessee.
—Erin C., Pulaski, Tenn.
Well, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t get headlines for a uniform, and days of anticipation for the unveiling of it. But if you enjoy it, who’s to say I’m in the right?
ON THE POST-FISHER RAMS
Great podcast with Rams GM Les Snead. What are your thoughts on the dynamics of the current Rams front office? Other than some changes to the scouting department, Snead and COO Kevin Demoff are the same guys running the show as during the woeful Jeff Fisher years. More than a few Rams fans weren’t thrilled that Snead was retained when Fisher was fired and now he’s a GM all-star. The obvious answer is that Fisher had the final say and was all over Snead’s GM turf during his tenure. The change over the last two years has been dramatic.
—Guy, Silver Spring, Md.
Good question. Snead wasn’t married to his picks when Fisher was there either. I think it’s just that some of the trades (such as the RGIII deal and the one for Tavon Austin) didn’t work out well—and also, the new coach has been a breath of fresh air and a really smart quarterback mentor, play-caller and communicator for young players. But Snead realizes what so many GMs give lip-service to: the ethos that he’ll do anything and use any avenue to improve his team. We’ll see how this works out, but the Rams have worked diligently and used every avenue to make this work in 2018.
QUENTON NELSON’S POTENTIAL
Is Quenton Nelson the best guard prospect since Steve Hutchinson?
—Joe B., Kalamazoo, Mich.
That’s actually a great question. I think he’s a better pre-draft prospect. But I can tell you this: If Nelson plays in the NFL as well as Hutchinson did, his drafting team will be as happy as the Seahawks were when they picked Hutchinson in 2001.
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