Patriots

Q&A: Previewing the Patriots’ 2022 NFL Draft with Diante Lee of The Athletic

Who will be the Patriots' first pick when the NFL Draft concludes on Thursday? And might Bill Belichick have a surprise trade in mind?

Kaiir Elam Patriots
Florida defensive back Kaiir Elam. AP Photo/John Raoux
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The week of the 2022 NFL Draft is finally here, and the wait to see who the Patriots will select in the first round will finally be over on Thursday night.

Will New England stay put at No. 21 overall, or will they move up or down for the player they want?

Will they take a receiver, focus on the defense, or grab another offensive lineman?

After that: What comes next on Friday and Saturday?

Boston.com previewed Thursday’s festivities with Diante Lee, a staff writer with The Athletic focusing on the upcoming draft, and got his take on who the first Patriots pick of the draft might be.

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This interview has been lightly edited.

What’s your overall impression of this draft with there being so much less hype around the quarterbacks compared to last year?

It’s relatively rare — particularly with how much focus in life is devoted into trying to find these franchise quarterbacks — to run into a draft where it feels like there’s a consensus that nobody’s really in love with any of these players. We’re seeing how all of the narratives and smoke screens are all being influenced by the fact that there’s not a quarterback that teams are coveting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this draft in the context of the 2011 draft. Not necessarily that I believe that there’s going to be a wide amount of Pro Bowlers or All-Pro players that are going to be taken in the first three to four rounds, but just in the fact that I think the NFL is about to get a large influx of like high-level, starter-quality talent in this draft. Maybe we’ll look back at this one when it’s time for everybody to start signing their second contracts and feel like, for as little excitement as there has been around the quarterback market, it was probably good for the sport of football and good for the NFL in general.

A few NFL insiders suggested Monday more teams might want to trade down in the first round rather than trade up. What do you make of that?

That’s where I think it really gets fascinating. A lot of the players outside of the top 10 are very good football players but maybe don’t play positions that you would typically see being coveted in the top half of the draft, between picks No. 10 and 20.

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What I would say is really interesting and kind of a subplot is just the fact that there are so many teams with multiple draft picks in the top 40. We don’t typically see that, and that does make it really interesting in terms of all the different permutations that we might get in this draft. Because there’s a high, a lot of depth, in terms of starter-quality talent between picks No. 10 and 40, there’s going to be a lot of teams trying to jump each other in line for them, especially because there are a lot of teams that have the draft cap to do so.

And then I think about teams like the Steelers who are picking at No. 20. They have some immediate needs that they want to address. They might not have the same amount of draft capital as some of the teams that are around them, but they might be feeling desperate to make a move because there are so many teams that are fluid in terms of how they can move around the draft in that area.

So I think we’ll see a lot of movement. And I think that this is going to be a prime draft for some high-level player to end up slipping four, five, six, seven, if not double-digit, pick numbers from where we might have had them projected.

The Patriots were very big on trading back or even completely out of the first round in Tom Brady’s heyday, but things have changed in the last few years. How likely is it that they could swing a trade-down again, and who would they be looking for if they did?

I’ve taken a lot of time to look at this draft through a defensive lens, and — I think that this is something I’m sure that there’s been a lot of coverage on for people in Boston — I think a metamorphosis is coming for this defense. Maybe not in terms of what they’re going to be running, but clearly some of the body types and priorities Bill Belichick has had in terms of how he wants to roster his defensive players. He seems to be adjusting for what we’re getting out of this era of football, particularly trying to compete with Buffalo within the division.

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At that range in the draft, there are going to be a lot of linebackers available. There are also going to be some defensive interior guys and safeties that are around that area of the draft as well, whether it’s Lewis Cine from Georgia or — if some of this off-the-field stuff comes back clean or if it’s manageable — Devonte Wyatt.

Then, one of the interesting things from there is just kind of sussing out whether or not it’s more prudent to take a guy like that than trading back because there’s a team like Detroit, Green Bay, or Kansas City who might have their eyes on one or two players in particular that they feel might not be available by the time they get to their pick. So that’s really what I have my eyes on. If it’s not going to be another defensive playmaker type for New England, I think that there would be a lot of interest trading back and seeing if you can kind of stockpile some picks and maybe address some of the needs they might feel they have on the offensive side as well.

There’s a ton of smoke around Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd as the pick at No. 21 overall as well as possibly Georgia LB Nakobe Dean. You wrote about those two players and how their skills would translate to the NFL. Do you see either as a viable first-round option for New England?

Beyond just the scope of those two players in particular is what kind of returns you can get in the draft outside of the top 50 or 60 picks at the linebacker position.

So I would say strictly in terms of surplus value for what you already have on your roster, a guy like Devin Lloyd would make a lot of sense for someone like Bill Belichick particularly. We know that one of the ways in which he likes to use linebackers is that they can line up anywhere at any point based on the game plan he has. Not everybody approaches building their defense that way, especially up the middle. So I can certainly see there being some intrigue there.

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But there are some other names in the high-second or maybe third round between guys like Wyoming’s Chad Muma, which is the guy that I’ve been pretty high on, and Quay Walker from Georgia, one of Nakobe Dean’s teammates. I think they try to get more athletes and guys who can play out in space at that linebacker position and help them kind of contain players like a Josh Allen.

If you have a chance to get out of to get Devin Lloyd, I would never protest grabbing a good football player for no other reason than having another good football player. But I would certainly say you can probably address that need at that position later on in the draft and get similar-level athletes who maybe you can develop long-term.

If the Patriots can’t get one of the top-flight cornerbacks in this draft, might we see them opt for a more all-around player like Michigan’s Daxton Hill and simply put him on the field at cornerback?

With Bill, I think he’s going to put whatever 11 players need to be on the field in order to stop a defense. He’s always going to value versatility first and foremost on that side of the ball, so a player like Dax Hill would make a ton of sense because he’s probably as perfect a “tweener” as you can have at defensive back. I think everybody can close their eyes and see success for him both as the safety and as a corner.

And then I think of players that Belichick’s used like an Adrian Phillips, who can line up in the box and truly play linebacker and he can play out in space as a safety, you know. Phillips has a lot of value to the defense. A player like Dax Hill in this draft, where it’s really deep with defensive backs and a player like him can “slide” or is maybe not valued as highly because of the other starter-level talent that’s in this draft — that’s another player that I would not be surprised at all to see Bill Belichick take, maybe even in a spot where people might kind of raise our eyebrows and say, “I might not have rejected him to go that high.” He could turn out to be a really valuable player for them right away given the way he likes to play defense.

Let’s examine the other side of the trade coin: Say the Patriots actually got a good enough bargain to maybe trade up in the draft instead of down. Which players might possibly make them want to do that?

If they traded up, it might be because some offensive lineman that they believe can step up and contribute right now has fallen, like Bernhard Raimann [or] Trevor Penning. I think that these are guys that, even if you feel good about your short-term future off at tackle, maybe you kick them inside for a year or swing guys around. That’s something again that we know that New England is not opposed to doing rather than just sticking guys in a spot and saying they can’t do any other roles for an offense.

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That’s another thing I think they might be interested in, especially because I do think that this offensive line draft class falls off a cliff when you get out of the top 40. It would be really hard to turn down an opportunity to go get an offensive lineman within the top-40 picks.

Who’s an under-the-radar player the Patriots might grab within the first three rounds?

I would be really interested to see if they would like a player like Logan Hall, who’s 6-foot-6, 260, and has been adding weight to his frame basically every year of his college career.

He’s a guy I think can be a really good pass-rushing interior defensive lineman and somebody who might have some potential to be able to flex out toward a perimeter and be a pure pass-rusher. That’s something that’s relatively rare in terms of skill set: to spend more time as a defensive interior lineman but to have the skill level, the hands, the athletic ability to be able to get out on the edge at some point in their careers as well.

The big question: If you had to guess right now, who will the Patriots walk away with on Thursday night?

If I absolutely had to make a pick, I would say Kaiir Elam because it addresses the most immediate need to me, which is getting a starter-level defensive back that can play out on a perimeter.

Elam is the guy that I’m very fond of. As a corner, I would say — though I don’t think that’s exact same level or player — I would say that he’s closer to the Derek Stingley/Ahmad Gardner tier of corners than to the Trent McDuffie/Kyler Gordon/Andrew Booth Jr. tier when I think about potential. When I think about the way that New England likes to use their DBs in press coverage all the time whether you’re in man or zone, that’s kind of the player that I think that would be in that range that might be a good fit.

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You start thinking about the ways that they’ve been able to develop guys into these shutdown-corner types, whether it’s Stephon Gilmore or J.C. Jackson, that is one of the things that Bill Belichick has been almost a masterful at tracing back over 20 years worth of Patriots tenure. A guy like Elam is a certainly a player that I can see being there for a long time and be in the next in a long line of Patriots defensive backs off who are near or at the top of the position in terms of being able to lock down No. 1 wide receiver types.

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