The NFL Draft is just beyond a week away, something that many NFL fans (and teams obviously) have been waiting for ever since the Super Bowl ended in early February. With so much dissection of prospects, what teams will trade up/down, what teams like who, etc., it's time to focus just on what the New England Patriots need heading into Draft weekend. They do have a solid if not great roster heading into the 2016 season, but there are definitely some areas the team can address for this year and beyond in the draft. Let's take a closer look at them:
1. Defensive Tackle: Even before the shocking release of Dominique Easley last week, the Patriots did have a need at defensive tackle. They are set at one spot with Malcom Brown coming off a solid rookie season, but their other starting spot and overall depth is very concerning. The team certainly did address fixing the problem short term with the signings of Terrance Knighton and Markus Kuhn along with picking up Alan Branch's 2016 contract option. But the problem is that all three of those players will be free agents after 2016 and are getting up there in age (both Kuhn and Knighton will be 30 before the season starts and Branch is 31). The team needs to secure their future at the position with some long-term youth, and this is the perfect draft to do so. The 2016 NFL Draft is loaded with defensive line talent and even when the Patriots are on the board for the first time in the late 2nd round, they still have a shot at grabbing a great prospect.
2. Offensive Tackle: With multiple injuries and offensive line shifts in 2015, the Patriots had a lot of issues at the offensive tackle position. Left tackle Nate Solder went down with a major knee injury, Marcus Cannon was a nightmare, and Sebastian Vollmer played out of position at times when forced into left tackle duties. Solder is signed through 2017 and is an above-average left tackle, but Sebastian Vollmer is 31 and going into the final year of his contract. Marcus Cannon is going into the last year of his contract (if he even plays for New England in 2016) and behind him is only LaAdrian Waddle at this moment. This is a roster position that needs some attention badly. Tom Brady turns 38 this upcoming season and it would be ill-advised to keep allowing him to face constant pressure in the pocket and take a lot of hits as well. There are some names in the middle part of the draft that have caught the Patriots' eye, and I wouldn't be surprised to see multiple picks made by them at the position.
3. Cornerback: Cornerback was arguably the Patriots strongest position in 2015 as we saw Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan form one of the most formidable 1-2 duos in the league. The problem is, both Butler and Ryan are going into the last year of their respective contracts. With other players on defense (and offense for that matter) that are worthy of new contracts like Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard and Julian Edelman to name a few, it's possible the team is only able to keep one of their two great cornerbacks. If that player had to be picked today, it would most likely be Malcolm Butler (but I believe an argument could be made for making sure to keep both). Regardless, the Patriots have to prepare for the future, and with the top cornerbacks most likely gone before the team gets to pick in the late 2nd round, there are some names out there that are definitely worth looking at. Some have seen their stock drop due to injury and could help the Patriots in nabbing a solid talent when they get around to making selections. Facing wide receivers in the league like Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker make having solid cornerbacks even more of a priority.
4. Running Back: The Patriots did recently re-sign LaGarrette Blount to a one year contract after he ended last season on the injured reserve with a hip injury. Multiple reports say that Blount is 100% healthy and also did not need surgery. Blount has been the face of the Patriots running attack for the past few years, but he is a limited power runner who is getting up there in age. Behind him is Dion Lewis, who broke out last season but is coming off a major knee injury, James White, Donald Brown, and Tyler Gaffney. It's most likely the team will try to bring in a lot of veteran running backs and have them compete for roster spots during this summer (like how they found Dion Lewis last year), but the team needs some youth at the position and could be in a good position in the 2nd/3rd round to grab a back who could be a very solid piece for a long time in the high-powered Patriots offense. While the 2017 NFL Draft class at running back is loaded and will have a ton of talent, the Patriots could still use a young runner in the middle rounds to help improve their running game production.
5. Wide Receiver: The team did address the position a little by signing Chris Hogan to a three year deal, who could turn out to put up better numbers than he did in Buffalo. But outside of him and Julian Edelman, the team has some major questions at the position. Danny Amendola is under contract for both this year and 2017, but it's hard to believe he will be on the team beyond '16 if he even is kept for this upcoming season. Keshawn Martin is signed through 2017 but he is nothing more than a situational deep threat. Nate Washington was also signed for the 2016 season, but he's 32 and is only signed for one season. Even Julian Edelman is getting up there in age (29) and could use some help for the future. The team may be OK at the position for 2016, but there are some major questions for 2017 and beyond. There is a solid amount of talent available in the middle rounds of the draft because of how deep this draft is overall and would provide the Patriots with the chance to address the need early on.
6. Defensive End: The Patriots traded away arguably their best defensive end in Chandler Jones to the Cardinals this offseason and are dealing with some depth issues at the position. Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich both had good years last season, but both players are going into the last year of their contracts. Sheard could require a raise from his previous two year, 11 million dollar contract and might prove to be too costly for the Patriots. Ninkovich is also 32 and may not have many years left in him if he is with the team beyond 2016. The team did sign Chris Long this offseason, but it was for just one season and he is 29 too. The team did draft Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom last year but neither are necessarily long-term starters for the team. It may be time for the team to look at some defensive ends in the upcoming draft to make sure they are well equipped for the future.
Overall, the team is in a good position to be a Super Bowl contender again in 2016, but does face some questions beyond next season, and with 11 picks, four being in the top three rounds, this might be the perfect time for the Patriots to address some of these needs for the future.
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