Sunday, March 13, 2016

Reloading The Musket - Initial Mock Draft Addresses Perceived Glaring Needs

The National Football Leagues' annual petting zoo known as Free Agency is well under way and, as usual, the New England Patriots are hanging back in the shadows, allowing the market to set players' values in order for head ball coach Bill Belichick to get the best value for Bob Kraft's money.

Belichick and his scouting staff have hosted many players, but signed a precious few, most notably picking off wide receiver Chris Hogan from Buffalo, signing the restricted free agent to a three year deal after the Bills refused to match their offer.

Hogan fills a perceived need of an all-purpose pass catcher with some speed to get over the top, and with decent size to challenge the intermediate zone and the seam, but that's about it for free agency, meaning that the Patriots' team building strategy will be top-heavy with draft selections and, thankfully, the 2016 draft class is chock full of skill at positions of need for the Patriots.

Perhaps the greatest need of all is at running back, where New England is currently void of a powerful Bell-cow back who can eat turf all day long, as last season's version of a lead back, LeGarrette Blount is still languishing in free agent limbo, awaiting word from Belichick as to whether he will be returning to the team this season or not.

He is a good fall back option, and since New England either lost out on the prime meat at running back in free agency or just didn't care to compete for their services, he will likely return - but he's going to have a rookie to contend with - and if it were up to us, we would be making deals to get up to the top of the second round to draft Alabama Bell-cow Derrick Henry...

...and that still may be an option that the team is working toward, but a more likely scenario is for them to concentrate on using their draft picks to select the best players available at a position of need and then get down to the process of winning another division title, taking another trip the AFC title game and hopefully making it back to the Super Bowl.

With that in mind, Foxborough Free Press introduces their initial mock draft of the 2016 team building season:

2. Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
    5' 10", 195
If ever there was a receiver born to play for Bill Belichick, this is the guy. Like incumbent receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, Shepard has slot receiver size and separation ability, but possesses deep speed to take the top off of a defense, unlike the aforementioned Patriots. At the Senior Bowl, he routinely abused the top cornerbacks in the draft class.

Usually, you see things like the above gushing tribute and think "First Rounder", but his size and perceived system fit limit him to a projected second or third round player - exactly the kind of value Belichick enjoys receiving from his draft capital.

3. Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas
    5' 11", 220

Williams suffered a foot injury last August that required surgery and robbed him of his Senior season. But before the injury, he was considered a better all-around  back than his more well known contemporary, Alex Collins.

At full health and full speed, Williams is a slasher in the body of a power back. Instinctive with good patience and excellent vision, Williams seeks to punish defenders, with the ability to run through arm tackles and will finish runs on his own terms rather than taking the big shot. He has soft hands in the pattern and is a willing blocker in blitz pickup. If his foot is 100%, Williams represents great value in the third round.

3. Phillip Wright, ILB, Arizona
    6' 0", 239

Known by the nickname "Scooby", Wright missed all but three games last season with a meniscus tear, but the previous season he put up numbers never seen on a college gridiron before: 163 tackles - an insane 29 for loss - forced six fumbles and notched 14 sacks, and this from an inside linebacker.

Wright played in a defense that aligned 3-3-5 Big Nickle, which makes him farther ahead of the game as far as being prepared to step into New England's Big Nickle than any other pure linebacker in the draft class. He has elite instincts and always seems to know where the play is going. His one drawback is in man coverage, where he has to angles and toughness to hang with a running back in the pattern, but not the requisite speed.

Combine that with the fact that he is coming out after his injury-marred Junior season, and Wright is still available in the 4th round, and what a steal he would be.

4. Tyler Higbee, TE, Western Kentucky
    6'6", 250

If Rob Gronkowski is to realize the potential of his likely Hall of Fame career, he is going to need a sturdy, reliable presence in the move tight end capacity to compliment his skill. That's where Higbee comes in.

At 6'6" and 250 pounds, Higbee is comparable in size to Gronkowski, and has the speed to threaten all three levels of the field. He has the run-after-the-catch mentality from his days as a wide receiver - yes, his acceleration and straight line speed is that impressive. Flying a bit under the radar due to a knee sprain that kept him out of Western Kentucky's bowl game and the Senior Bowl, not to mention that he's making the leap from a small school.

6. Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU  
    6' 1", 171

Robinson's draft grade is all over the place, which is to be expected with as many red flags and character concerns he carries in his baggage - but there is no denying the kid's skill.

Multiple suspensions, including a permanent ban from the LSU football team and an arrest for illegal entry into a teammate's apartment overshadow Robinson's shut-down quality athleticism and intuition. Has not played organized ball since early in 2014 - and that, plus his spindly frame and aforementioned baggage lowers his 1st or 2nd round talent into the third day of the draft.

Had an impressive Freshman year where he locked onto the opposition's best receiver and pinned him against the sideline, taking some gambles though his makeup speed and explosion to the ball in the air are first class. In other words, he can put on an island and will likely survive anything an opposing quarterback can throw his way. Belichick has had some luck with troubled corners in the past, and if Robinson does fall to the sixth round, he would come as a tremendous value.

6. Willie Beavers, OT, Western Michigan
    6' 5", 321

Carries a 5th to 6th round draft grade because of coming from a small school and because he is still raw in his technique - but there is no denying that Beavers has all the tools to become a solid left tackle in the NFL, with proper coaching and a little patience.

Mirrors speed rushers on the outside and physically manhandles them, pushing them around the pocket or simply stymieing them. His issue is moving to his right, where he will lose his balance against strong interior moves by the pass rushers. It is a technique issue, but one that will prevent him from coming in and becoming a force right away. He is excellent in the running game and could help a team as a swing tackle while perfecting his game.

6. Thomas Duarte, TE/WR, UCLA
    6' 2", 231

Is he a receiver or a tight end? On one hand, he has great size to be a receiver, but lacks the straight line speed expected over the top of the defense. On the other hand, his size is also appropriate for a move tight end, and frequently wins on crossing routes and up the seam, but is not as physical as you would want your tight end to be.

Reliable hands and being a touchdown maker are his calling card, but he is a it soft on the takedown, as he will go down like a sack of potatoes with a solid hit from a corner or safety, and isn't much for dragging folks - generally, he catches the ball and looks for a place to sit down, but his separation ability and speed up the seam dictates that if he is in the clear, he will aim for the end zone.

7. Antwione Williams, OLB, Georgia Southern
    6' 3", 247

Intimidating sideline to sideline hitter who lacks burst and straight line speed, but has learned to use attack angles to become a draftable linebacker. Stout and violent against the run with some edge-setting properties - may be a better interior gap-plugging linebacker at the pro level.

7. Devon Johnson, RB, Marshall
    6' 0", 238

Nicknamed "Rockhead" due to his no-nonsense, downhill running style, Johnson doesn't try to avoid contact with linebackers - rather, he takes pride in driving through their attempt to tackle him. Recruited to Marshall as a tight end, so he shows soft hands in the pattern, though he is not a threat to run away from defenders and has limited run-after-catch ability. Could be a convert to H-Back and would have some competition in camp to gain a roster spot.

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