With the NFL Draft just a few weeks away and the initial rush of free agency over, it's a good time to really lock in on the potential prospects that could be drafted by the Patriots at 23rd overall. Patriots.com's mock draft tracker is a great way to keep track of who the experts think are the best fits for New England and a select few seem to continually pop up.
Of course a trade down is always possible, especially in a year when there's a large second-round gap between 23rd overall and 87th. New England could use an injection of youth at multiple spots, so if ever there was a draft to flip their first round pick for multiple lower-rounders this could be it.
Assuming they stay put, let's break down the most popular players being mocked to New England and give our impression of how well they fit the Patriots needs.
AJ Epenesa - Defensive End - Iowa
Epenesa is arguably the most popular player to be mocked to the Patriots at 23rd overall. His combination of size (6'5", 275 pounds) and power, along with Bill Belichick's connection to the Iowa coaching staff, make it obvious why. Epenesa has drawn comparisons to Trey Flowers, though the Hawkeye is bigger and less athletic than Flowers.
Epenesa requires some imagination how exactly his arrival would affect the Patriots defense. While the team is a fluid defensive front that could surely find a spot for him, it's not an easy plug-and-play, with his fit on passing downs being the biggest question. The Patriots have tried to improve their athleticism in recent seasons, an ideal tactic to deal with the slate of athletic quarterbacks that dominate the AFC these days. Epenesa's athleticism is not his strength, and while he could likely find a role as an interior pocket pusher in sub packages, his addition does not immediately make the Patriots better equipped against forward-thinking offenses like Baltimore and Kansas City.
Games are largely won in the trenches and Epenesa has the tools to do win there, but his three-down value is likely the determining factor whether he's worth a first-round pick or not.
Xavier McKinney - Safety - Alabama
McKinney is one of the best safeties in this class and for a Patriots team that has already been trying to get younger at the position, he'd be the perfect back-end piece to be groomed under Devin McCourty. After the trade of Duron Harmon to the Lions, the Patriots could have an even bigger need for a safety with range.
McKinney's fit is clear. He played under Nick Saban at Alabama and can play any role necessary of a safety -- on the back end, in the slot, in the box -- he can do it all. Like all rookies there would be a learning curve and the presence of McCourty and Patrick Chung would keep him from being thrust into the fire.
The reported free agency addition of Adrian Phillips does lessen the need at the safety spot, but he's more in the mold of Chung and is already 28. McKinney would give an even bigger jolt of youth, while also bringing the requisite smarts and toughness that the Patriots gravitate towards.
For McKinney, or LSU safety Grant Delpit, another common mock Patriots draft pick, the needs at other spots could outweigh their first-round value. An extremely deep safety class could also lead the Patriots to wait until later to fill their need for a young, developmental fourth safety.
Kenneth Murray - Linebacker - Oklahoma
After the departures of Elandon Roberts, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, the need for off-the-ball linebackers is sizable. Murray is the ideal inside 'backer for the modern NFL, with sideline-to-sideline range, and some inside/outside versatility. At 6'2" and 241 pounds, Murray is slightly smaller than the Patriots traditionally look for at linebacker, but he has enough speed to offset what he might lack in size.
Let's face it, the biggest element the Patriots defense is going to have to deal with going forward is speed. While it's nice to have physical linebackers who can lay the hurt like Dont'a Hightower, the need for linebackers who can run at the second-level gets more and more vital by the season.
A mid-round option like Malik Harrison is a personal favorite and more in the mold of what the Patriots look for. He might have less rangy speed, but added size and aggressiveness and still with excellent quickness. But Murray's speed is special and will warrant significant consideration.
Zach Baun - Edge - Wisconsin
If the Patriots are willing to depart from their usual measurables even further, Wisconsin's Zack Baun could give them an uber-athletic presence off the edge of their defense. Twitchy with a great get-off, Baun could make an instant impact as a pass rusher with good range, but at 6'2", 238 pounds he's a departure from the players who have traditionally stood up and manned the edges of the Patriots defense. He's drawn comparisons to Kyle Van Noy but is a good 15-20 pounds lighter and lacks the length to lock out offensive tackles.
Still, Baun plays with great energy and makes up for his lack of sand with superior quickness and would only improve with more technique work. How well the Patriots feel about his potential in coverage could play a big part in where he falls on their draft board, especially if he's athletic enough to overcome his shortcomings. The need for standing edge players is undeniable and that's why Baun must be considered. He'd immediately boost the speed of the defense.
Jordan Love - Quarterback - Utah
While the Patriots seem likely to give Jarrett Stidham the chance to earn the starting job, you can never rule out a quarterback selection in this draft. Will Love fall all the way to 23? It might be unlikely, still he's a popular mock draft choice, with some considering the Patriots even trading up for him. Love's athleticism is undeniable, he's a modern NFL quarterback as far as making plays with his feet. His progress was sidetracked by a change in offensive coordinator in his final season and that tempered his throwing numbers a bit, though inconsistency with his arm has been an issue through his time at Utah.
Love throws a pretty ball though and it will be tempting for an NFL team that thinks they can get him to find some steadiness as a passer. Do the Patriots think they can? Good decision making has been paramount for Bill Belichick since his early days and that could eliminate Love, at least as a first-round pick. It's likely the Patriots will be more content to pick up a developmental quarterback in later rounds, unless they think Love can be a slam dunk almost immediately.