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Patriots 2014 Draft First Round Preview: Positions of Need

Ra'Shede Hageman (USA Today Images)

It’s been three long months since Super Bowl XLVIII, but the 2014 NFL Draft is finally upon us, and will be held Thursday through Saturday at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. The Patriots, coming off a 12-4 season and a defeat in the AFC Championship Game, will have eight picks in the Draft: two in the sixth round but none in the fifth as a result of the Isaac Sopoaga trade with Philadelphia, plus a compensatory selection at the end of the fourth round.

More than almost any other GM, Bill Belichick is the one to make experts tear up their mock drafts in frustration: there will be surprises, there will be at least one head-scratcher (see Duron Harmon in the third round last year) and there will almost certainly be trades. In fact, the Pats seem like a prime candidate to deal out of the first round like they did in 2013, to the point where many will be shocked if they actually end up making a pick in Thursday’s first round.

Last year New England had the 29th selection, just like they will this week, and traded it on Draft day to Minnesota for four later picks. This time around, the Patriots could again find plenty of takers, particularly among quarterback-needy teams if the top signal-callers find themselves dropping out of the top 10 which, given the uncertainty and lack of consensus regarding the pro potential of this year’s QBs, is a very real possibility.

The main difference between this Draft and last year’s is that in 2013 the Pats had just five picks altogether, and boosted that number to eight with the Vikings trade. On this occasion, they already have eight picks, and there’s a chance that Belichick may choose to stay put or, even more unexpectedly, actually trade up, forgoing his usual approach of accumulating roster depth to find a real impact player in the first round.

For reference’s sake, here is the complete list of Patriots Draft picks as it currently stands, taking into account that the Pats will alternate with the 12-4 49ers, meaning that New England will have the 29th pick in odd-numbered rounds and the 30th in even-numbered ones:

1. Round 1, Pick 29

2. Round 2, Pick 30 (62 overall)

3. Round 3, Pick 29 (93 overall)

4. Round 4, Pick 30 (130 overall)

5. Round 4, Pick 40 (140 overall, compensatory selection)

6. Round 6, Pick 22 (198 overall, from Eagles)

7. Round 6, Pick 30 (206 overall)

8. Round 7, Pick 29 (244 overall)

With that said, let’s look at the three main positions of need and some possible first-round targets:

Defensive end

The Patriots ranked 25th in the NFL with 371.7 yards allowed per game in 2013, but unlike in recent years, the main problems were not in the secondary, which was 18th, but up front, as the rushing defense was the fourth worst in the league at 131.7 ypg. Although they tied for sixth-best with 44 sacks on the season, the Pats are thin at defensive end behind starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and former Pro Bowler Will Smith, who was signed on Monday, is 32 and missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL.

Among this year’s DE prospects, there is a huge gap between South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, who should go in the top five, and the rest of the pack. Auburn’s Dee Ford, who made headlines at the Combine for calling himself better than Clowney, would be a great addition, although he’s somewhat undersized at 6’2″, 250 lbs. Nevertheless, he’s been praised for his aggressive play, which earned him a First-Team All-SEC nod as a senior.

With the physical edge on Ford at 6’4″, 275 lbs., Kony Ealy of Missouri decided to enter the Draft after his junior season and is all over the mock drafts. Realistically, he shouldn’t be taken in the top half of the first round, but would be a solid get at 29. If the Patriots trade out of the first day and find Ealy still available in the second round, he would be a lock.

Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame was a first-round possibility, but is seen as a raw talent who may not make a huge impact as a rookie, which has hurt his draft stock. Other notable second-round prospects the Pats could look at include Oregon State’s Scott Crichton and 2013 All-American Trent Murphy of Stanford.

Defensive tackle

New England should definitely address the defensive tackle position this week: althought the Vince Wilfork crisis was averted when the sides agreed on a new deal, both he and Tommy Kelly are on the wrong side of 30 and coming off season-ending injuries. Joe Vellano, in particular, performed surprisingly well down the stretch, but the time has come for the Patriots to start planning for the post-Wilfork era.

Like at DE, the DT class has one prospect head and shoulders above the rest, in this case Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald, but this is a deep group with as many as four other first-round talents. The Pats would be crazy not to take Notre Dame’s Louis Nix, in particular, if he’s available at 29, but it doesn’t seem likely that he will be. Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman has the potential to be a beast at 6’6″, 310 lbs., and the Patriots may hope that concerns over his occasional lack of focus keep him on the board long enough for them to take him.

Timmy Jernigan, coming off a national championship with Florida State, is another favorite, even as early as the first round, but the report on Monday that he failed a drug test at the Combine could make him drop. Dominique Easley of Florida is potentially a great talent, but is coming off season-ending ACL surgery, which makes him something of a wild card. For the second round, keep an eye on Penn State’s DaQuan Jones, Arizona State’s Will Sutton or even the aforementioned Tuitt, who could end up as a DT in his NFL career.

Tight end

While an anonymous AFC executive famously called this year’s tight end class “not good at all” back in March, that doesn’t appear to be the consensus at this point, which is good news for the Patriots. The unexpected loss of Aaron Hernandez left New England thin at the position before the 2013 season, and the continuing injury woes of Rob Gronkowski have put TE near the top of the Pats’ wish list.

North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, who the aforementioned exec called “overrated”, has risen to the top of the TE board over the past weeks, and it’s now very unlikely that he’ll be available at 29. That still leaves plenty of talent on the board, most notably Jace Amaro of Texas Tech, an All-American last year who has been compared to Hernandez for his ability to play almost as a wide receiver more than a TE.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins of Washington entered the 2013 season as the prospective top TE in 2014, but has fallen behind Ebron and Amaro in most rankings. At 6’6″, 265 lbs, he’s a better blocker than the other two, but a worse receiver; with the Patriots in need of a pass-catching TE, they may pass on a player like Seferian-Jenkins.

Finally, Troy Niklas of Notre Dame is a player with tremendous upside, but he’s raw enough that he would probably be a reach in the first round. However, his potential could make him very appealing if the Patriots trade down into the early second round, and certainly if he’s available at number 62.

About Nick García - @N_A_Garcia

Nick is the Celtics and college sports editor at Sports of Boston. He writes about basketball, football and anything else that comes his way. Follow him on Twitter @N_A_Garcia

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