The New England Patriots were dead in the water after just four weeks in 2014. Then they went on a torrid run and won the Super Bowl. Now many think they’re in trouble again. This time they actually might be right. As smart as Bill Belichick and co. seem to be, they are going to have an awfully difficult time making up for all of the key losses on the defensive side of the ball. The Pats appear to still be the cream of the crop in the AFC East, but with that division getting better and there being so many holes to fill, things could get a lot tougher in 2015. Let’s see exactly what New England needs to address in the 2015 NFL Draft to make sure they don’t regress significantly:
Offensive Needs: OG, WR, RB
New England’s main issue has to be their offensive line, if only because this has always been a team that is built well from the trenches, out. Their offensive line has been the driving force behind a usually strong power run game and has also given a fairly immobile Tom Brady time to throw. It’s lost some of it’s edge in recent years, though, while guard is specifically a problem. Dan Connolly could answer the problem if he returns at the right price, but he’s currently a free agent and the Pats have a lot of raw youth to step up in his absence. They might not be too excited about the guys they have, so grabbing a versatile o-lineman that can either compete to start at guard or slide across the line may be in order. Someone like Florida State’s Cameron Erving could be had late in the first round and would be an excellent pick. It may be more likely that the Pats trade out of round one and target a solid guard in round two or three, though.
Wide receiver would be a splash move in round one, and some are predicting Belichick and co. finally do it. If that’s the case, we could see someone like Jaelen Strong, Dorial Green-Beckham or Breshad Perriman taken late in the first round. All three of those guys could easily be taken in the top-20, too, but you get the idea. The Pats lack a true deep threat that can consistently take the top off of defenses, or even a consistent red-zone presence that isn’t Rob Gronkowski. I can see them going after that in the first round if the right prospect is hanging around.
The other issue is running back, where they’re stable but far from elite. New England let both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen go, but they do still have LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden, while they also brought in the versatile and elusive Travaris Cadet. Cadet could be a fiend in this offense, but he’s not a featured back and their other guys are arguably more products of a solid system. They’re also off the books after 2015, leaving only Blount on the roster heading into 2016. The Pats may warm up quick to the idea of an elite, long-term option. With Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley well out of reach, the Patriots could consider a bruiser like T.J. Yeldon or target a more explosive runner like Duke Johnson in the second or third round.
Defensive Needs: DT, CB
Even Devin McCourty isn’t sold on the Patriots being okay in the secondary after losing both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency. Those guys were huge for a top shelf pass defense all year in 2014 without them it’s anyone’s guess how effective New England’s defense will be in 2015. The Patriots still have Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and a bunch of other young talent they can coach up, but adding another corner to the mix via the draft probably isn’t a bad idea. I doubt they do so early, but if someone like Marcus Peters slides all the way down to them in round one, they might bite. If not, they could sniff around guys like Oregon State’s Steve Nelson or Central Florida’s Jacoby Glenn. Those guys are probably going to be available in the third or fourth round, although Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu continues to be my favorite middle round corner to target. He actually has loads of talent but has seen his stock dip to injury.
Defensive tackle has to be the other big need and given New England’s talent already at corner, it might be their biggest defensive need. Vince Wilfork left for Houston and Dominique Easley has yet to show he can handle the middle of the defensive line. He might be given that opportunity in 2015, but if he can’t stay healthy or proves to be ineffective, the Pats are probably going to want someone behind him to step in. That could lead to them looking at a defensive line prospect late in the first round, if they don’t trade out of that spot. Danny Shelton would be amazing but he won’t get that far. That makes Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips the top guy to watch, but there’s no guarantee he gets that far, either, considering both the Packers and Colts could really use him, as well. That could have the Pats deciding to trade out of the first round, or they could settle for Florida State’s Eddie Goldman.
The Patriots really aren’t in bad shape. They just need new talent in the middle of their defensive line and 1-2 cornerbacks that can compete to start right away. Okay, so they’re potentially screwed. Still, New England normally likes to promote from within if at all possible, so it’s possible they really only need one corner to make an impact out of this draft class. Defensive tackle is a serious concern, though, so they can be expected to make a splash at that position early, possibly even round one. Then things shift to offense, where guard is the biggest problem and upgrading at wide receiver and running back are more of luxury items. Provided Tom Brady doesn’t complete his temporary nose dive we saw through the first four weeks in 2014, however, this is still a Super Bowl contender. Whether or not the glue job they do on defense ends up working out, of course, will decide if they can actually make it back or not.