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Words With Frenz mailbag: Identifying early potential Patriots draft targets

Posted by Erik Frenz  February 28, 2014 07:00 AM

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With a few key free agents to take care of in cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman, most Patriots fans are quickly coming to terms with the likelihood that the Patriots will not be very active in free agency this year. The focus of the team building has been centered on May's NFL draft.

The Patriots hold the 29th overall selection and all seven of their original picks. As always, we'll never know whether the Patriots will move up or down until they actually do so, but are there any clues that we can gather to help give us an idea? Are there any prospects at the top of the draft that are worth moving up for? Is this draft deep enough to justify moving down? Are the needs bigger on offense or defense?

Let's get to all those questions and more.

To me, it looks like the defense is the side that needs the most attention. They could use a backup defensive end to rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich; they also have to start seriously considering life after Vince Wilfork. The Patriots may need two defensive tackles if Tommy Kelly doesn't come back at 100 percent of his old self, or if they don't see improvement from the likes of Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, and who knows what to expect from Armond Armstead at this point.

The Patriots must adequately address their Rob Gronkowski backup plan this offseason. The contrast between the offense with and without their top tight end is too stark to ignore.

I'm not so sure the weapons are the big focus on offense this offseason overall, though. Center Ryan Wendell is set to hit the open market, and guard Dan Connolly has to be considered a potential salary cap casualty; the Patriots can get back $3 million of Connolly's $4.08 million cap hit if they cut him, or they could try to restructure his contract to a more reasonable number.

If it's a choice between a top defensive lineman or a top target for Tom Brady, this offseason, I'd lean to the former.

I would temper the expectations that the Patriots are going to invest heavily on a wide receiver in this year's draft, after spending a second-round pick on Aaron Dobson last year. It's not the end of the world — I expect Dobson to make a second-year leap.

That being said, it wouldn't be the first time the Patriots have invested heavily in one position by throwing as many darts at the board as possible in an effort to fill those gaps in the roster — I call it the volume approach.

This year's draft is not loaded with big-bodied receivers bursting with long-speed and short-area quickness. It's a deep class of receivers, but they all have their warts. Clemson's Martavis Bryant doesn't have the short-area quickness the Patriots usually look for in a receiver, but he has great long speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash, 22.2 yards per catch in college) and could be a target with their second-round pick. He is a savvy deep-ball receiver, who tracks the ball well and knows how to use his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame to win matchups.

It seems to never fail that the Patriots draft a player who excelled in the three-cone drill, and this year, Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood jumped off the page. He finished fourth among receivers with a 6.68-second finish, and had a respectable 4.48-second 40-yard dash. His long speed doesn't pop off the screen on tape, but he is a savvy route-runner and the positives of his scouting report on NFL.com read like a detailed description of what the Patriots look for in a receiver:

Solid build. Good hands and concentration — extends outside his frame and makes the difficult catch. Fine route savvy — sells his routes with stems and nods. Understands how to get open. Good sideline awareness — dots the "i." Established rapport with the quarterback is noticeable (is the first receiver sought on broken plays) and keeps working to come free. Very solid personal and football character. Trustworthy, accountable and dependable.

One player to watch could be Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, who has drawn comparisons to former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch. He is not the biggest (5-foot-10, 189 pounds) but he has plenty of speed (4.33-second 40-yard dash) and quickness (6.76-second three-cone drill) and is another savvy route-runner. The Patriots would likely have to target Cooks at the end of the first round, but he makes sense as a replacement for Edelman if the Patriots are unable to re-sign him.

This is considered a deep class at wide receiver, so there could be better value options available later on in the draft.

It won't be easy, Linnea.

The Patriots could be spending a lot of money on Talib and/or Edelman, and given their current salary cap situation, they may be on a tight budget. There are some moves they could make that would help them retain both players, but even at that point, they'll still have to make more room if they want to sign anyone else, including their own draft picks.

Last year, the Patriots let Edelman hit the open market to see his value. They will probably do the same thing again, only this time, it's hard to imagine there only being one suitor as was the case last year when the Giants were the only team that showed any interested in Edelman.

It must be draft season because groupthink is starting to set in. Early mock drafts had the Patriots taking one of two tight ends: Texas Tech's Jace Amaro or Washington's Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. Both tight ends are considered H-back/"move"/"Joker" tight ends that are less of a true tight end and more of a big-bodied receiver.

The problem, however, is this: when was the last time the Patriots spent a first-round pick on someone who wasn't a three- or four-down player? With questions around the blocking abilities of both Amaro and Sefarian-Jenkins, the Patriots may look elsewhere with their top pick.

However, if they want an athletic and versatile H-back tight end who might be available in a later round, they could target Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla. He comes with some baggage, and has been deemed undraftable by at least one scout, but one scout tells me that at least one team is bound to overlook those questions. If the Patriots can rein him in, they could replenish the post left vacant by Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots would have to be willing to look past one major incident: in March 2013, Lyerla took to Twitter to show support for the idea that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a governmental conspiracy.

If they're looking for a Gronkowski backup, they could target Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz in the second round. Fiedorowicz has a very similar build to Gronkowski, at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds with 33-inch long arms and hands measuring over 10 inches. Like Gronkowski, Fiedorowicz has the big body to contribute as a pass-catcher in the red zone and seal off defenders in the running game. He has been coached by Hernandez's brother, D.J., and Bill Belichick's old friend Kirk Ferentz.

Another intriguing prospect in that regard is Notre Dame's Troy Niklas. He also has the Gronkowski-an frame at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds with 34-inch arms. He sometimes lacks sound technique as a blocker, and he doesn't have elite long speed for his position, but he has the potential to develop into a solid blocker and he knows how to use that big body to get open and make catches.

This year's tight end group is considered fairly thin, though, so the Patriots will likely have to strike early on a "Y" tight end that can serve as both a pass-catcher and in-line blocker.

It's tough to say right now, because it's unclear who would fall and why, and it's also unclear exactly where these players will all stack up in the middle of May.

I really don't see this as a trade-up kind of draft, though. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock called this the deepest draft he's seen in 10 years, and Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said it's the deepest he's seen ever in his 30 years scouting the draft. If anything, this is a prime scenario for the Patriots to do what they've done twice in the past five years — trade out of the first round entirely.

You and the rest of the draft community. There are only three things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and Belichick will do something that surprises you on draft weekend.

But if you have a little (read: a lot of) time to spare and a cup (read: a few cups) of coffee, go give a look at this big board by Bleacher Report's Sterling Xie. A heck of an in-depth look.




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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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