#Patriots Roster Breakdown, Possible 2017 Draft Targets

Who the hell knows what Bill Belichick and the Patriots have planned for us in the 2017 NFL Draft?

As it stands right now, for the first time in the Belichick era the Patriots don’t have a pick in the top 60, but with trade chips galore in Malcolm Butler and Jimmy Garoppolo that can all change.

Here’s another fun game to play for all you depth chart nerds out there. Go find a spot on the Patriots roster that has a glaring hole. You can’t.

At almost every position the Patriots are already loaded for 2017. It is going to be impossible for a rookie from this draft class that’s selected on day 2 or 3 to start for the Patriots in 2017. Heck, it’s going to be tough for some of those rookies to even make final cuts.

With that in mind, here’s an outlook of each position heading into the draft in order of perceived draft need. The possible draft targets listed assume that the Patriots don’t make any major trades to move up into the first two rounds.

(The prospects are made up of players linked to the Patriots in the pre-draft process and few personal favorites.)

Edge Rusher: The consensus top need for the Patriots entering the 2017 draft. The Kony Ealy trade is an intriguing move, but it doesn’t change the fact that in two consecutive offseasons the Patriots have lost a considerable amount of their pass rush (departures of Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, and Chris Long). Outside of Trey Flowers, who’s a bonafide stud, there isn’t much when looking for the next great sack master in New England. Flowers could be one of the best Patriots defenders in 2017, but he logs a considerable amount of snaps as a three technique defensive lineman, and isn’t necessarily a true edge. Rob Ninkovich turned 33 years old this past February, and is only signed through the 2017 season. Grissom is a solid special teams contributor, but doesn’t play a lot on defense. It also remains to be seen what the Patriots will get out of Kony Ealy. Ealy has shown some flashes but hasn’t put it together consistently, and is a free agent after 2017. With Trey Flowers as the only known commodity at this point beyond next season it is highly likely the Patriots will be looking to load up on pass rushers in the draft.

Current Depth Chart: Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Rob Ninkovich, Geneo Grissom

Possible Draft Targets: DeMarcus Walker (Florida St.), Derek Rivers (Youngstown St.), Carl Lawson (Auburn), Jordan Willis (Kansas St.), Chris Wormley (Michigan), Trey Hendrickson (Florida Atlantic), Dawuan Smoot (Illinois), Tarell Basham (Ohio), Bryan Cox Jr. (Florida)

Offensive Tackle: The Patriots have two incmbents for 2017 at left and right tackle in Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, but Solder’s future is the wild card here. Solder had a very good 2016 regular season, grading out as the tenth-best offensive tackle in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Solder will be a free agent next offseason, and will turn 30 prior to the 2018 season. There’s also the chance that Solder could demand a lucrative contract next offseason if he plays at the same level in 2017 as he did in 2016. In the Belichick era, the Patriots have always had a plan at left tackle. In fact, Matt Light and Nate Solder have accounted for 86% of the regular season starts at left tackle for the Patriots since 2001. Nick Caserio even hinted at it as well, when he recalled the Patriots drafting Solder in 2010 despite having both Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer on the roster. Marcus Cannon seems to be Vollmer in this scenario and Solder could be Matt Light. Cannon is under contract through the 2021 season after signing a five-year extension in November, but it’s in the best interest of the team to keep him at right tackle. Fleming and Waddle are nothing more than practice squad depth, and definitely aren’t ideal fits on the left side. The Patriots don’t have a pick in the first two rounds currently that could land them an immediate replacement for Solder, but the need is there to take a tackle that could develop into a starting left tackle. If anything, the Pats could also use a swing tackle that could provide better depth than Fleming and Waddle.

Current Depth Chart: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle

Possible Draft Targets: Aviante Collins (TCU), Zach Banner (USC), Connor McDermott (UCLA), Antonio Garcia (Troy), Will Holden (Vanderbilt), Brad Seaton (Villanova), Julie’n Davenport (Bucknell), Roderick Johnson (Florida St.)

Linebacker: The Patriots avoided a crisis at the linebacker spot by re-signing Dont’a Hightower this offseason, but the depth chart behind Hightower is still thin and full of players with limitations. Roberts showed promise in his rookie season especially against the run, showing off great instincts and tackling ability, but put him in space against the pass and he gets exposed. Shea McClellin was an up and down player in 2016, and it still seems like he’s trying to figure out if he’s an edge rusher or a traditional linebacker. Van Noy and Freeny are nice depth players to have on the back end of the roster, but neither has a particularly high ceiling. The Patriots will be looking in this draft for an athletic linebacker that can play in space in man or zone coverage alla Jamie Collins. The team can fill the roster with useful depth players like Roberts, McClellin, and Van Noy, but are in search for another impact player to pair with Hightower.

Current Depth Chart: Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Freeny, Trevor Bates

Possible Draft Targets: Ryan Anderson (Alabama), Raekwon McMillan (Ohio St.), Alex Anzalone (Florida), Duke Riley (LSU), Kendell Beckwith (LSU), Samson Ebukam (Eastern Washington), Ben Boulware (Clemson), Marquel Lee (Wake Forest)

Tight End: The tight end position is never an easy one to discuss for Patriots fans. On paper, the team should be set with Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, but Gronk’s injury concerns always have to come into play here. You also have to consider that the 2017 draft class at tight end is one of the best classes in a long, long time. The draft is loaded at the position, and it’s dealers choice in terms of style as well. The Patriots ought to have a plan B in terms of their future if Rob Gronkowski can’t stay on the field, and the guess is here that one of the many talented tight end prospects in this draft will be too good to pass up.

Current Depth Chart: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel, Rob Housler

Possible Draft Targets: Jordan Leggett (Clemson), Jake Butt (Michigan), George Kittle (Iowa), Jeremy Sprinkle (Arkansas), Michael Roberts (Toledo), Adam Shaheen (Ashland)

Interior Offensive Lineman: Both offensive guard and center are a sneaky need for the Patriots in this draft. Much like offensive tackle it’s more of a question about depth and long term future than immediate need. All three starters from the Super Bowl champs will be returning to the Patriots in 2017 (Thuney, Andrews, Mason), but the depth behind those three is a concern. There’s also the long term future of David Andrews as the Pats starting center. Andrews is well liked by his teammates and coaches, but may have reached his ceiling as a player, and there’s definitely the possibility of an upgrade at that position. Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason are locked in starters hopefully for a long time in New England, but if an injury were to occur to either the Pats don’t have great depth at the position. Ted Karras is a fan favorite of sorts for the nastiness that he brings to the offensive line, and could play in a pinch, but a once deep position is starting to thin out.

Current Depth Chart: Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, David Andrews (center), Ted Karras, Chris Barker, Chase Farris, Jamil Douglas

Possible Draft Targets (center): Pat Elflein (Ohio St.), Ethan Pocic (LSU), Tyler Orlosky (West Virginia), Chad Wheeler (USC), Michael Coe (North Dakota)

Possible Draft Targets (guard): Isaac Asiata (Utah), Dan Feeney (Indiana), Jermaine Eluemunor (Texas A&M), Nico Siragusa (San Diego St.), Jordan Morgan (Kutztown)

Cornerback: In terms of immediate needs for 2017 the slot corner position will be up for grabs in training camp. Malcolm Butler (assuming he’s a Patriot) and Stephon Gilmore will hold down the left and right cornerback spots, and Eric Rowe will back them up as a third boundary corner, but the Patriots could have a need inside. Cyrus Jones should have the inside track to start in the slot, as one would expect the Patriots to give him every opportunity to succeed in training camp. Where things get interesting is when factoring in what could happen beyond 2017 with Malcolm Butler. It feels like Butler will be leaving the Pats for a bigger contract after this season, which would leave a huge void in the Patriots secondary. The Patriots drafted Jones in preparation for the possible departures of Logan Ryan (now a Titan) and Malcolm Butler, but Jones has a lot to prove before that’s a formality after his rookie season. The Pats have Gilmore locked up long term as their #1 corner, but could be looking to replace Malcolm Butler in this draft. Ideally, any corner the Patriots take in this draft would have the flexibility to play in the slot as well.

Current Depth Chart: Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, Jonathan Jones

Possible Draft Targets: Teez Tabor (Florida), Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado), Cam Sutton (Tennessee), Jourdan Lewis (Michigan), Brandon Wilson (Houston), Brendan Langley (Lamar), Akhello Witherspoon (Colorado), Shaquille Griffin (Central Florida)

Safety: The safety position has come up as a need more often than I expected, but Patrick Chung’s future seems to be the thought here. Chung’s play slipped a bit in 2017 after an extremely impressive 2016 campaign. The Patriots could plan ahead for Chung’s eventual departure if he continues to decline, and his role as a slot/in the box safety has emerged as an important one to defend offenses nowadays. There are some coverage safeties in the draft that may be intriguing to the Patriots, but the need isn’t really there with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon under contract for awhile. Also, the Patriots have a ton of depth with Richards, Ebner, and King, who also contribute on special teams. Still, Belichick loves his safeties, as he feels that good safety play can give the defense the upper hand in the pass-happy NFL, so you can never rule it out.

Current Depth Chart: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner, Brandon King

Possible Draft Targets: Josh Jones (N.C. State), Desmond King (Iowa), Marcus Williams (Utah), Delano Hill (Michigan), Marcus Maye (Florida), Nate Gerry (Nebraska), Khary Bailey-Smith (UMASS), Kai Nacua (BYU), Eddie Jackson (Alabama)

Running Back: If you looked at a Patriots mock draft prior to free agency the running back position was probably a lot higher on the list of needs. All the sudden, after adding Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots have one of the deepest and most diverse running back groups in the NFL. It appears that the Patriots, as they so often do, have zigged when the rest of the league is zagging once again. All eyes are on the running backs in the 2017 draft. The group has been labeled by draft experts as an elite class, and yet the Patriots signed two running backs via free agency that quite possible take the position off their draft board. Having said that, there’s still a need there in terms of the long term future at the position and none of the backs the Patriots currently have fit that “big-back” LeGarrette Blount-type role. With the acquisitions of Gillislee and Burkhead it was already going to be a stiff competition at the position during training camp. If the Patriots add another running back in the draft it could mean the end for both Dion Lewis and Brandon Bolden in New England.

Current Depth Chart: James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, James Develin (fullback)

Possible Draft Targets: D’Onta Foreman (Texas), James Connor (Pittsburgh), Kareem Hunt (Toledo), Wayne Gallman (Clemson), Jamaal Williams (BYU), Samaje Perine (Oklahoma), Brian Hill (Wyoming), Elijah Hood (North Carolina),

Interior Defensive Lineman: The addition of Lawrence Guy to this group in free agency really solidified the middle of the Patriots defensive line. Branch and Brown return as the starters, and Guy will certainly play a lot all along the defensive front. Valentine also played well during his rookie season, and stepped up when the team needed him. The Patriots are four or five players deep in terms of interior defensive lineman depth, and the draft isn’t exactly loaded with talent at the position. Anyone the Patriots bring in at the position will be thrown into a numbers game come training camp, and could find himself competing for a roster spot.

Current Depth Chart: Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Vince Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo

Possible Draft Targets: Dalvin Tomlinson (Alabama), D.J. Jones (Mississippi), Jarron Jones (Notre Dame), Josh Agusta (Missouri), Elijah Qualls (Washington)

Wide Receiver: The wide receiver position might be the most talented group on the roster, and it will be next to impossible for a rookie to crack the top four in 2017. With that said, although the Patriots have size at tight end, they lack size at wide receiver. There’s also a strong possibility that if the Pats do draft a receiver that player will also add value as a returner. Danny Amendola’s restructure will make it difficult for a rookie wide out to make the roster, but you can never have too many playmakers in the NFL.

Current Depth Chart: Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Matthew Slater (special teams)

Possible Draft Targets: Fred Ross (Mississippi St.), ArDarius Stewart (Alabama), Chad Hansen (CAL), Artavis Scott (Clemson), Greg Ward Jr. (Houston), Josh Reynolds (Texas A&M), Noel Thomas (Connecticut)

Quarterback: Everything can change here with one phone call, but with the GOAT and his two heirs currently on the roster the Patriots are set at the most important position for the time being. There are a few quarterbacks in this draft that may have caught the Patriots eye if they were to trade Jimmy Garoppolo.

Current Depth Chart: Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett

Possible Draft Targets: Nathan Peterman (Pittsburgh), Jerod Evans (Virginia Tech), Trevor Knight (Texas A&M)