With another spring of endless mock drafts, prospect workouts and all-star games fading in the rearview mirror, the NFL draft is finally upon us and after a solid 2021 class, the New England Patriots will be looking to add another group of talented picks that can help form a new championship foundation in Foxborough. Once again there are plenty of great fits that could make a difference for the Pats.
2022's free agency period saw New England balance their usual veteran value signings with two trades, while seeing some notable long-time starters depart. Leading into draft weekend, it's apparent there will be some significant changes this fall, notably at guard, cornerback and linebacker. All of those spots could be ripe for a high-round selection where a rookie would have a chance to immediately contribute.
After fielding the oldest snap-adjusted defense and special teams in the NFL, a youth movement should be underway in New England, and this year's draft picks will play a critical part in that transition.
Here are the five burning questions heading into the draft!
1. How will the need for speed materialize?
It was apparent at the end of the 2021 season that the Patriots needed to get faster at a number of positions and the 2022 offseason has only reinforced this idea as the AFC has only gotten faster and more explosive around them. New Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh confirmed as much during his conference call with the media two weeks ago.
"Without a doubt, we're looking to get faster everywhere. It's not just defense, it's offense, it's special teams. It's not just linebacker. I think there's multiple ways to do that. I think we did some of that last year, have worked on doing that here in free agency," said Groh.
But how will that need materialize? Would a speed burner wide receiver instantly bring that element to a complicated offense that often takes some time for rookies to learn? Or could there be a more philosophical shift from bigger linebackers to smaller ones who might run sideline to sideline a little better? Or will an infusion of youth, along with opportunities for those already on the roster who have been buried on the depth chart, simply bring young fresh legs that can make a difference?
Almost any new rookie should at least bring an element of timed speed to the team, but translating that to speed on the game field will be the challenge for the coaches.
2. Can they fill the immediate holes?
The snaps played by J.C. Jackson, Ted Karras, Shaq Mason and Kyle Van Noy will have to be replaced in 2022, while Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower also remain unsigned and could join this group of departures as well. Right there are starter-level needs at three important positions and while the Patriots did make some acquisitions to soften the blow of losing those players, the need for high-end contributions at those spots is critical.
That trio of linebackers were all versatile to play along the line of scrimmage and on the edge, which means bigger questions than just finding new off-the-ball linebackers as they added with Mack Wilson and the re-signing of Ja'Whaun Bentley. The only spot the Patriots have not made an addition this offseason is along the defensive line, including edge, and that might be the sneakiest major need of the entire draft.
Add it all up and there are more positions that qualify as needs than those that do not. How big those needs are also relates heavily to how the team feels about their second and third-year players already on the roster. Repeating 2021's success, when they found three immediate impact players over draft weekend is key, especially at the spots where there is little young depth.
"Hopefully your first-round pick is coming in and providing something for you right away and similarly with the second and third-round picks," said Groh. "But I think every year it's pretty easy to say, 'Okay, well here's a group of players in that second and third round, there's just more of those players than there is to say those guys at the very top of the board.
3. Can they fill the long-term needs?
While the immediate needs at edge, guard and cornerback should get plenty of attention, a case can be made for there being significant long-term needs at offensive tackle, wide receiver and running back, all of which have important starters entering the final years of their deals like Isaiah Wynn, Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor, as well as Damien Harris.
For that reason, these positions cannot be ignored as significant areas of need as well. Many times over the past 20 years the Patriots had an obvious succession plan in place. Nate Solder was taken in the first round a year before he was truly needed as a starter, though he was thrust immediately into the fire. The same with James White, who apprenticed under Shane Vereen before he became a focal part of the offense.
Putting a plan in place at tackle, receiver and running back makes a lot of sense at this point as well when viewed from the perspective of maximizing continuity around Mac Jones. Providing Mac with a collection of weapons and protectors who are guaranteed to be under contract for the next four years makes a ton of sense.
4. Where must the young veteran jumps come?
After the draft is over and the collection of rookie free agents is signed there will certainly be needs that don't appear to have been met. But those could be spots where the team is hoping one of their young unproven veterans emerges. There are quite a few of those players, including Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins, Cameron McGrone and Anfernee Jennings at the linebacker position, J.J. Taylor at the running back spot, along with tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.
Linebacker/edge is an especially interesting spot, with 11 players under contract, but just two, Matthew Judon and Ja'Whaun Bentley, who have played significant snaps for New England. Even with more additions in the draft, the position figures to be hugely competitive in training camp, with questions revolving around how versatile the group truly is.
After stockpiling these players in recent drafts, the Patriots don't truly know what they have in any of them and 2022 could be the time for some of them to finally get their chance to emerge.
5. An infusion of attitude?
When the Patriots went 10 years in between Super Bowl championships, they were able to strike gold in the drafts from 2010-2012. Those drafts not only provided some outstanding football players who immediately arrived and contributed but also helped form a new version of attitude that was lost as the old dynasty players faded away. Rodney Harrison's leadership became Devin McCourty's, Wes Welker became Julian Edelman, while Rob Gronkowski's unbridled youthful enthusiasm was just what the team needed coming off a disappointing and demoralizing home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
It's not hard to draw similar parallels to 2022, with the Pats coming off another surprisingly flat playoff loss to a close rival. Whether it was Gronk rocking the Patriots helmet on stage immediately after getting drafted, or the way that the team's first-round aggressiveness in 2012 paid off with defense-altering additions Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, the Pats need a similar kind of infusion of attitude this spring.