As a reminder, the New England Patriots have their first round (29), second round, third round, fourth round, their sixth round, Philly’s sixth round, and their seventh round picks.
State of the Position:
More than any other position, the losses at defensive tackle this past season took the New England Patriots’ hopes at Super Bowl glory. With Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly out for the season, opposing teams could run rough-shod through the interior of the defensive line, controlling the clock, and often forcing the Patriots to play catch-up. Seaver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano all had great seasons, especially compared to expectations, but all three are really pass-rush specialists or backup players. Jones and Vellano are both undersized for defensive tackles, and didn’t command the same double teams that Wilfork/Kelly demand (though that’s obviously no fault of their own), allowing offensive lines to focus on shutting down Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
Obviously, having Vince Wilfork alone back will swing what was one of the worst rush defenses in the league back to their usual upper echelon status in that regard. Tommy Kelly could potentially be cut, though he seems eager to prove himself after his lost season, and may restructure his final year. I hope that Siliga, Jones, and Vellano all stick with the team, as they all have good pass-rushing skills and are a spurt of youth next to Wilfork and Kelly.
What the Team is Looking For:
But, the team could do with a high-upside blue chipper to either put next to Wilfork should Kelly leave, and/or to eventually succeed him. What kind of defensive tackle the Patriots might want is a bit up in the air. The usual Patriot method is to go for a versatile lineman who can play inside or out, and there are several players in the 2014 Draft class who fit that bill. But there are some mammoth run-stuffing tackles who, when put next to Wilfork, might give offenses migraines and allow Jones and Ninkovich to beat linemen one-on-one. The Patriots might also draft a situational third down pass-rushing end, with the intent of throwing Chandler Jones on the inside, but they might be better served to look for a Wilfork understudy/linemate.
In-Case-He-Slips: Louis Nix III, Notre Dame
Speaking of Wilfork clones, holy mackerel, is Louis Nix a big dude. At 6’2, 345, Nix should really be playing nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. But there are two reasons that shouldn’t matter for the Patriots: 1) Vince Wilfork, as he enters his mid thirties, shouldn’t be forced to play the same snap counts he’s had in recent years, and Nix can easily step in to give him a breather, and 2) No one is running down the gut of a defensive line with Vince Wilfork and Louis Nix next to each other. But Nix is so much more than a big dude. He has great footwork, lateral quickness (especially for his frame), and plays with a feisty intensity every. He excels as a run-stuffer, but also regularly puts pressure on quarterbacks. He’s a high character kid, and you can bet Belichick will be checking in on Brian Kelly for notes. Nix didn’t have the same standout 2013 as he did in 2012, and he may slip down draft boards accordingly. But if he somehow makes it to #29, the Patriots will not hesitate to take him.
1st-Round: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
I’ve seen draft experts split on where Hageman has fallen on big boards, some having him above Nix, while others show him dropping him to the second. Should he still be available at the Patriots’ pick, there’s no way they won’t consider the Minnesota product. At 6’6, 318, Hageman has got almost a JJ Watt frame at defensive tackle. He’s got tremendous burst, even for a man his length, and consistently bull rushes interior lineman off their feet. There are concerns: he’s still raw in his technique, and flashes more than constantly dominates. At this point he’s more pass-rusher than run-stuffer, but should the Patriots be willing to take the time to develop him, he could potentially be in the long term what New England hope to find in Tommy Kelly. He also has the scheme versatility that the team covets so, and may have too much upside to ignore.
2nd-3rd Round: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
Jones is a beast at the line of scrimmage. At 6’3, 318, the Penn Senior consistently used his power to knock offensive linemen back and tackle the running back for a loss. He’s a natural 3-tech tackle, but could also play 1-tech in a 4-3, or a 5-tech end in a 3-4 scheme. He uses long arms and immense strength to cause havoc on every down. He does not, however, have natural pass-rushing skills (only 3 sacks in 2013), and sometimes lacks discipline in defending the option. As a 22-year old senior, this may be all we’ll see out of Jones in terms of potential, but he’d still be a solid run defender to draft in Day 2 should the Patriots go that route.
4th-5th Round: Caraun Reid, Princeton
Alright, just to get admit all bias: I’m from Princeton, NJ. I’ve seen a bunch of Tigers games. I go to a school that plays against Princeton constantly. I’ve seen Caraun Reid play in person more than any other NFL Draft Prospect. But the Senior Bowl invitee has turned scouts’ heads with his play, despite his smaller-school origins. The 6’2, 302 lb Reid has long arms and a big frame that he’s used to terrorize offensive lines in both the pass and run defense. His biggest asset is his pass-rushing abilities, using his quickness and athleticism to beat linemen and get to the quarterback. Reid will absolutely be a hit come interview time at the combine, and he was a leader for most of his college career. There are obvious concerns, namely that it’s hard to analyze his game tape knowing the weaker opposition. But with an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl, a team like the Patriots looking for a tackle could do far worse than taking a chance on the Ivy Leaguer.
6th-7th Round: Beau Allen, Wisconsin
Beau Allen may not have the most upside, but would be a great pickup and a solid nose tackle this late in the draft. The former Badger stands at 6-3, 325, and is built like a sumo wrestler. At the East-West Shrine Game, however, he impressed with his initial push and remained active and penetrating until the whistle. He may not get to the quarterback often, but Allen could flourish as a run-stuffer, which he did in his time at Wisconsin. And of course, since he played at Wisconsin, he has tremendous facial hair upside. If the Patriots feel comfortable going ahead with Kelly/Wilfork into next year, or if they are looking for a more traditional run-defender to pair with Hageman or Reid, Allen could be their man.
Be sure to check my Twitter (@isportspeters) for more of this draft preview, as well as more Red Sox/Patriots/Celtics articles. As always, if there are any players who you think should be included here, drop me a line on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org.