Does the fact that the Patriots didn’t draft a running back mean they feel good about the health of Dion Lewis? (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)
1. At this point on the calendar, it’s clear they feel good about their running back position.
The Patriots have always viewed running backs as mostly fungible assets, and with the decision not to draft a back this year, you have to believe they feel satisfied with the depth chart as it stands: LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, James White, Donald Brown, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney and James Develin. It’s also worth wondering about the health of Blount, Lewis and Develin, three key figures who ended their years on injured reserve. Does the fact that New England chose not to go after a back in the draft mean that the Pats feel pretty good about their health? Regardless, those rehabbing backs will certainly bear watching in the coming weeks as the spring sessions kick into high gear.
2. That being said, they deviated from their usual draft script slightly when it came to running back.
With the exception of Laurence Maroney in 2006, the Patriots have never utilized high-value draft capital at the running back position, and this year was no exception. The thing was, from the outside, this appeared to be the sort of year where they might push the envelope and go after a Day 2 guy with an eye toward easing him into the system in 2017 and beyond. But that didn’t happen. Asked about it after the draft concluded on Friday, Bill Belichick simply shrugged and said, “You can’t control what you can’t control.”
3. The Patriots sort of followed their usual draft template when it came to drafting a quarterback.
New England always finds a way to add a quarterback in the draft — despite the fact that the Patriots have great stability at the position, since 1999, only one other team had selected more quarterbacks in the draft than New England. That pretty much held to form this time around, as the Patriots selected quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the late stages of the third round. (The only difference? More often than not, they wait until Day 3 to go get their QB.) According to Bill Parcells — who has worked with Brissett — the North Carolina State product appears to be a developmental type who could use a year of seasoning. However, it’ll be interesting to see how the backup spot shakes out going forward, particularly if Tom Brady is out for the first four games of the season. Could Brissett be a legit backup to Jimmy Garoppolo for the first quarter of the season? Or is he a camp arm who might ultimately land on the practice squad if everything works out, and New England could find another quarterback for depth purposes? Only time will tell. One thing that was interesting was hearing Belichick talk about how the drafting of Brissett impacts Garoppolo’s contract situation. “There’s always an element of team planning, especially at that position,” Belichick said. “If you can you try to look ahead a little bit. If you can’t then take it as it comes. Things change but there’s an element of planning at all positions on your team, certainly that one.”
4. The two rookies who have the best chance to contribute in 2016 are Cyrus Jones and Malcolm Mitchell.
The two areas of immediate need that could be filled in the draft were nickel corner and third receiver, and so it was no surprise that the Patriots did go after Jones at No. 60 and Mitchell at No. 112. Jones has several aspects to his game that appear to make him the most pro ready of the entire draft class, including his Alabama pedigree, his experience as a slot/nickel corner at a high level in college and his special teams skills (he worked as a punt and kick returner). It would be easy to see him as a third corner in 2016 alongside Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan and potentially battling the likes of Darryl Roberts and Justin Coleman for playing time. As for Mitchell, the Patriots are without a legitimate intermediate/deep threat in the passing game. As a result, the Georgia product could be a part of the conversation with Nate Washington, Aaron Dobson and Keshawn Martin. Fellow rookie Devin Lucien, a seventh-rounder out of Arizona State who was a highly touted sleeper according to Pro Football Focus could be a part of that discussion as well.
5. The rest of the draftees probably won’t be serious contributors in 2016.
There are pluses and minuses with the rest of the draft class when you’re talking about the seven other picks the Patriots made over the course of the weekend. But as we mentioned here prior to the draft, the rest of the selections were made with an eye toward 2017 and beyond. The bottom line? Barring injury or some sort of other catastrophic situation, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for first-year players to make an impact on this team. That’s not to say there would be possibilities for them down the road. Only to suggest that most of this draft class falls under the developmental umbrella, at least as it relates to 2016.
6. In that same vein, there won’t be a lot of chances for undrafted free agents.
There are various reports out there as to how many undrafted free agents the Patriots have acquired, but like most of the rest of the group of first-year players, there will be precious few chances for any rookies to make a sizable, game-day impact on the roster in 2016. Keeping in mind there’s always a UFA who comes barreling out of nowhere to crash the party (Malcolm Butler, David Andrews and Dane Fletcher all come to mind as undrafted rookies who have made a major impact the last few seasons), those guys who get fewer chances this season than those in year’s past because of the current roster makeup.
7. Versatility is always important.
New England drafted an offensive lineman in the third round in Joe Thuney who has shown an ability to play multiple spots. Jones and third-rounder Vincent Valentine (a defensive lineman), both played multiple spots at their position. Mitchell started his college career as a defensive back, and was in the slot and split wide as a receiver the last couple of years. And sixth-round pick Kamu Grugier-Hill is a safety/linebacker hybrid who lined up at multiple spots over the course of his college career at Eastern Illinois. Personnel chief Nick Caserio discussed balancing the versatility of a player against someone who does one thing really well, saying that it ultimately comes down to “the player’s skill set and then within the context of the rest of your group and how that fits. Some guys are better doing multiple things. Some guys are better playing one spot.” Belichick went in-depth on the likes of the 6-foot-2, 203-pound Grugier-Hill on Saturday. “He’s an interesting player. He is kind of built like a safety, plays like a linebacker. (He) plays a lot down in the box, as a linebacker would,” Belichick said. “I think he’s got some things going for him but maybe a little less conventional than some other players and other positions.”
8. Kevin Faulk secured his spot in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
The veteran running back, who was always really close with Brady when the two were teammates, made a sizable statement of his own on Friday when he sported a Brady jersey at the podium when it came time of the Patriots to make their third-round pick. Both Caserio and Belichick took note of Faulk’s wardrobe decision, with the coach saying after things wrapped up on Saturday, “Love Kevin. He always makes good decisions,” Belichick said with a small smile. “Looked sharp out there.” (We can imagine fellow Patriots Hall of Fame finalist Mike Vrabel running down to the nearest Sports Authority to try and find a Brady jersey in hopes of making a similar splash.)
9. The Patriots are still the best team in the AFC East.
New England’s three divisional rivals made some interesting moves. The Bills continued to load up on defense — defensive lineman Shaq Lawson and linebacker Reggie Ragland are two names that jump off the page (as long as Lawson’s shoulder isn’t a long-term problem), as well as the really intriguing selection of quarterback Cardale Jones. The Jets stuck to their traditional playbook in taking defensive players who appear to have the potential to contribute quickly (including speedy linebacker Darron Lee) and several offensive players who are sizable question marks (Christian Hackenberg?) who might never make an impact at the next level. Meanwhile, the Dolphins’ draft will be defined by the gamble they took on offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil. From a technique perspective, he might be one of three or four best players in the draft. But will his off-field issues sink his NFL career before it even gets started? Ultimately, New England’s three divisional rivals made some intriguing moves. But at this point on the calendar, with the draft and the bulk of free agency in the rear-view mirror, the Patriots have to be considered head and shoulders above the rest of the division.
10. The team-building process isn’t over.
While most of the major roster work is done, there are still veteran free agents on the market (including the likes of Anquan Boldin, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Arian Foster, Roddy White, Antonio Cromartie and Greg Hardy). In addition, there’s always the possibility of players being acquired via cuts or the waiver wire. (“I think that on Monday’s waiver wire you’re going to see a lot of players on it throughout the league because of players that were drafted or acquired or free agents,” Belichick said. “We’ll just have to see how all of that plays out.”) Ultimately, while the foundation is now in place for just about every team as spring workouts begin in earnest, there’s always the possibility of making moves between now and the start of training camp. Fundamentally, the draft marks the midway point of the offseason; training camp will come into view sooner rather than later. The real business of football is just around the corner.