Analyzing the Patriots' First Round Pick
Tom Brady paired with a healthy Rob Gronkowski seems like an unstoppable force especially under the guiding hand of Bill Belichick. But, as Patriots fans and Gronkowski fantasy owners know all too well, the star tight end's health is always a concern, a concern that can potentially dictate the overall success of the team.
This is why an elite defense is crucial for the repeated success of the New England Patriots. If the defense can keep enough pressure off of Brady, the defending champs should remain on top of the division for most of the foreseeable future.
The only problem: Vince Wilfork, Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Browner will all be in different uniforms in 2015. These big name defenders played a huge role in last season's super bowl run and will not be easy to replace. That being said, let's take a look at a few options the Patriots have with their 32nd overall pick.
The Patriots went out and got veteran corners Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher, but surely neither of the two can provide the complete shut down coverage Revis provided, nor the physical run support Browner gave. This makes corner the biggest hole to fill. This draft class is full of physical corners with aggressive man-to-man styles but with plenty of other squads weak on the outside, the three likely candidates to be available at the end of round 1 are LSU's Jalen Collins, Florida State's Ronald Darby, and Connecticut's Byron Jones. Of the three, Jones seems most likely to end up in New England given his standout performance during the combine and his displayed versatility that Belichick targets.
Interior Defensive Line
It won't be easy for Patriots fans to see Vince Wilfork in a Texans jersey after an 11-run career in New England. It also won't be easy for the defense to replicate his big presence against the run. Veteran Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga performed well in a rotation with Wilfork last year but adding a first round talent to the defensive line could take a bit more pressure off the secondary. My top ranked nose tackle Danny Shelton will likely be taken 10-20 but Jordan Phillips is likely to be available for the Patriots to take and plug in right away. Phillips, like Wilfork, only adds occasional pass rushing pressure but provides exceptional run stoppage. It would also be extremely difficult to pass up Eddie Goldman or Malcolm Brown if they were to fall this far.
With emerging superstars Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower (whose recovery is on schedule to have him at training camp) solidifying the outside linebacker position, the inside duties have fallen exclusively on the shoudlers of Jerod Mayo. Akeem Ayers signed with the Rams last month while rotation man Johnathan Casillas found work with the Giants leaving room for Darius Fleming room to step up, but more likely putting pressure on the Patriots to secure another inside linebacker. Miami's hard hitting Denzel Perryman could very well fall to them with Eric Kendricks projected to land with Green Bay a few spots before. Both players could function extremely well in New England's hybrid defense. However this is the least likely defensive scenario for the Pats' 1st round pick given the talent of the starters. Coliins, Hightower, and Mayo give the team the luxury of waiting a few rounds for a depth selection.
Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, and Ryan Wendell should anchor an offensive line that has endured trades and injuries with a few young replacements. Marcus Cannon underperformed in a replacement role lst year while rookie Bryan Stork proved worthy of a starting job. The left guard position remains vulnerable with only Jordan Dewey and Chris Barker currently on the roster. Both are young developing players but the best guard in the draft, South Carolina's AJ Cann might be available to take for the Pats. This would provide a year-too-late replacement for Logan Mankins who was shipped to Tampa Bay for Tim Wright last year.
Even without the size of a prototypical number one receiver, Julian Edelman has certainly functioned as one both with and without a healthy Gronkowski. He and Danny Amendola are fighters in space for players under 6 feet tall but Tom Brady would certainly benefit from a big framed pass catcher to provide an outside target. With a deep receiving class, the task of providing another weapon will most likely wait until the second or third round but the Patriots may take a chance on Dorial Green-Beckham, Sammie Coates, or Devin Funchess.