FOXBOROUGH — If you were hoping for an immediate return on investment from the New England Patriots’ 2014 draft class, the past three days have been a complete strike-out.
However, if you’re a fan of the long view to building a roster, loading up the depth chart to continue building with an eye to the future, this class can be seen as nothing but a home run.
The Patriots selected nine players in the draft, and it’s quite possible that none of them will be full-time starters for New England until at least 2015.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming when Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio told us they were confident in their roster before the draft began.
“If you look at our team — just where we are today — if we had to go out there and play a game, we feel that we could field a competitive team,” he said. “So, you try to go through, and in the end, you try to find the players that you feel fit best for your team, regardless of their position.”
In recent years, the Patriots’ rookies have made instant contributions. Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, and Alfonzo Dennard all started at least seven games in their rookie season, and the Patriots 2012 rookie class (including undrafted free agents) played 2,775 total snaps.
Last year’s rookie class was thrust into the spotlight due to injuries; Jamie Collins, Aaron Dobson, Logan Ryan, Kenbrell Thompkins, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano were the seven-plus-game starters in the 2013 rookie class. As a whole, the Patriots’ 2013 draft crop and undrafted free agents combined for 4,425 snaps.
This year’s class may not come close to those numbers.
Defensive tackle Dominique Easley is the most likely to start Week 1, but he’ll have to beat out either Tommy Kelly or Vince Wilfork if he’s to earn starting duties as a rookie. Both men are over 32 years old and coming off season-ending injuries. Easley is a different player than both, considered more explosive in his ability to get into the backfield, and may be a situational player as a rookie.
In a perfect Patriots world, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo won’t start until after 2017, when Tom Brady’s contract expires. Garoppolo may end up being the No. 2 quarterback on the roster by the end of training camp or if Ryan Mallett leaves as a free agent next year.
“We’ll see how that all works out, but I think you’re better off being early rather than late at that position,” said Belichick after selecting Garoppolo.
Better to be early than late at any position, one could argue.
Center Bryan Stork and guard Jon Halapio could compete with the likes of Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly for starting spots on the interior of the offensive line, or they could be backups for a year as they learn the offense and wait for an opening on the starting roster.
Running back James White will be part of a rotation with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden in the backfield. He could fill the void next season on all three downs, with the ability to contribute on passing downs as a blocker and a hard-nosed between-the-tackles running style — not to mention great ball security, with only two fumbles on his 754 career touches.
Tackle Cameron Fleming will back up Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. Fleming could see time due to injuries; Solder has dealt with three concussions in the past two seasons, and Vollmer has missed 19 games in the past three seasons due to back and knee injuries. In the immediate future, Fleming will be competing for the backup spot with Marcus Cannon.
Cornerback Jemea Thomas joins a Patriots team with a logjam at cornerback, and will probably be no higher than fifth or sixth on the depth chart — unless he moves to safety, where he would be in a battle for the second or third spot. Either way, he’s not likely to factor in heavily as a rookie.
The 5-foot-7, 185-pound wide receiver Jeremy Gallon figures to back up Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the slot, but with such a deep receiving corps, it’s fair to wonder if he even makes the roster or starts out on the practice squad.
It’s a laundry list of players who may have only a marginal impact in 2014, but who could be the future of the franchise a few years down the line. Even without drafting a single player that will begin the season in the starting lineup, the Patriots still managed to address nearly every one of their needs.
Instead of reaching for the needs of now, though, the Patriots picked up players that will fill their needs of the future.