While the San Francisco 49ers brass tries to figure out its next move with regard to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots can't afford to sit around waiting. Perhaps Garoppolo will indeed be traded, maybe even to the Patriots, but until then there's plenty to be done as the draft is approaching quickly at the end of the month.
For New England, the three-day selection process will likely take on a much different look than it appeared at the end of the season. Bill Belichick's free agent spending spree has impacted the roster on many levels, and some areas that may have deemed top priorities likely are now on the back burner.
The most obvious spot that's true is tight end. The Patriots finished the 2020 campaign with Ryan Izzo and rookies Davin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Izzo was injured late in the season while the kids did little in their first seasons to elicit much confidence.
Then Belichick signed the top two free agents on the market, grabbing Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry by giving them the largest amount of guaranteed money any tight end has ever received. Given that significant commitment, it's probably safe to rule out tight end in the draft – at least in the first round.
That's just one area where the Patriots needs have been reset. Stopping the run was a major concern a year ago, but the Patriots added Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Montravius Adams, Matt Judon as well as welcoming back Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. The added bulk up front should help the linebackers shore up that problem, while also allowing Belichick to focus on other positions in the draft.
So, given the numerous additions, where might the Patriots be setting their eyes come April 29? Not to overstate the obvious but quarterback remains the elephant in the room and until the team finds an answer that will remain the case. It's unlikely that Belichick will find a suitable option at No. 15, so unless he's able to move up to find his guy, quarterback will probably have to wait until later in the draft. (More on that later).
Beyond that, a case could be made for wide receiver, tackle, edge rusher, running back and maybe cornerback depending on the future of Stephon Gilmore. We've written many times over the past few weeks about Gilmore's status, and if he in fact is traded the need for a top corner would be even greater.
The Patriots added Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency while veteran Julian Edelman reportedly remains in rehab mode due to a knee injury. N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski are next on the depth chart, and Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would probably like to add to that stable. At 15 there could be some intriguing prospects available as at least one of the trio of Jaylen Waddle, Ja'Marr Chase and Devonta Smith could slide due to the five quarterbacks projected to come off the board early.
Up front, Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown are odds on favorites to open at the tackle spots. Second-year man Justin Herron will likely serve as the swing tackle. But Brown is on a one-year deal and Wynn's injury history might prevent the Patriots from picking up his fifth-year option, which would make 2021 the final year of his contract as well.
Adding some depth at the spot is something the Patriots have done in the past with Nate Solder going 17th overall in 2011 to eventually succeed an aging Matt Light. Oregon's Penei Sewell, Northwestern's Rashawn Slater and Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw top the list of tackles.
Teams looking for defense might benefit from the run on quarterbacks, which theoretically could have some talented defenders sliding. Athletic playmakers like Penn State's Micah Parsons and Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah might represent great value in the middle of the round. At corner there are three solid options with Alabama's Patrick Surtain, Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley and South Carolina's Jaycee Horn.
Even if the Patriots can't find a quarterback early, they should be able to find a talented player who would also fill a need.
Passing on passers
Assuming the Patriots aren't able to move up it would still be surprising if the team didn't select a quarterback at some point. The problem is, while this class of passers is strong overall, it's extremely top-heavy. Beyond the first five, the next group of Day 2/3 prospects isn't nearly as deep. Some experts believe there will only be four other quarterbacks taken – a group that includes in some order Kyle Trask, Kellen Mond, Jamie Newman and Davis Mills. With those options I'd lean toward Mond based on his experience (46 starts in the SEC) and athleticism. But in all honesty I'm not in love with his game as he's shown some indecisiveness and accuracy issues at times. But those are the kinds of faults teams deal with when looking for quarterbacks beyond the first round. There aren't many Tom Bradys, Russell Wilsons and Dak Prescotts to be found.
Speaking of first-round quarterbacks
There's a stat that has been making the rounds of late dealing with drafting quarterbacks early. Between the years 2009-16, none of the 25 quarterbacks selected in Round 1 remains with their original team. Seems pretty damning, until you examine the numbers for all first-round picks taken during that time. Of the 256 players in the first round in that span, just 33 (13 percent) is still with the team that chose him. The fact is once players get to their second contract, many change teams regardless of position. That doesn't mean teams should stop making first-round picks.
Another QB note
The Jets trade of Sam Darnold to Carolina for three picks was latest move on QB carousel. The Panthers have been looking to replace Teddy Bridgewater throughout the offseason and now it appears that Darnold will take over. But for how long?
The move has little impact on the Patriots unless the Panthers decide Darnold is their long-term answer. Carolina could choose to pick up Darnold's fifth-year option and all but ensure the team that he is the guy for the next two years. If that's the case the Panthers will likely be out of the QB market in the draft. (The Panthers reportedly plan to do just that). But if not, don't necessarily remove them from the mix at No. 8.
As for Bridgewater, injuries derailed what once looked like a promising career and it's hard to imagine the Patriots showing significant interest should Carolina deal him.
Also, the fact that Darnold garnered picks in the second, fourth and sixth rounds shouldn't really impact what if anything the Niners are looking for in a potential Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Garoppolo is far more accomplished than Darnold, who has been at or near the bottom of the QB rankings during his three seasons. So the idea that Garoppolo's price has somehow dropped as a result of this deal would seem a bit premature.
The addition of the 17th game brought a perk for Patriots season-ticket members as well. With just one home preseason game and nine regular-season home games, the Patriots chose to keep the prices the same in 2021. Fans still pay for 10 games but instead of two preseason affairs now there's just one. In 2022 that will revert back to two and eight, but there will be no additional in the charge in the meantime.
That's what Football Monday in America's Peter King wrote about this week, indicating the league is pondering a holiday of sorts to kick off training camp. King writes that July 27 would mark the earliest that most teams could open camp (47 days before the first regular-season game) and that the league is thinking of opening with a Midnight Madness theme with 28 teams beginning at the same time. (The teams playing in the opener and in the Hall of Fame Game would have started earlier). Celebrating the start of training camp together would give the NFL another way to move to the forefront of the sports calendar during a time when others normally are in the spotlight.