Friday, April 1, 2016

Post-Belichick Free Agent Feeding Frenzy Mock Draft Has Different Feel

Thanks, Bill.  Just thanks.

I had a perfectly good initial mock draft going a couple of weeks back, secure in the knowledge that Patriots defacto General Manager Bill Belichick had been his typically dormant self in the wee hours of free agency, waiting for the high-priced talent to weed out the suckers playing with house money to set the ceiling on veteran mercs, and the more reasonable suckers with limited incomes to set the floor before adjusting his template and joining the fracas.

But a funny thing happened. Belichick didn't just join the fracas, he jumped in and punked every other general manager in the pit, and in the process changed the offensive dynamic of the team by trading for a potential starting interior lineman, a monstrously athletic and complete tight end, then added a possession receiver and a complementary back in free agency...

...while bolstering the defense by signing a starting interior linebacker and signing both a celebrated strong-side pass rusher and a mammoth defensive tackle named after meat - and while that may not sound like a hell of a big booty, when names are put to the positions, they solve the few questions that the Patriots had coming into their team-building process.

And destroyed my mock draft.  Right, never lose sight of the primary focus.
Howard was a man among boys rushing for the Hoosiers

So, remember the past three seasons when Belichick shocked everyone by signing players that were known only to their mothers and a few college students? Patriots' fans should not be surprised to see Belichick go with the old "Best athelete available" ploy, even though that term has a different meaning in Foxborough.

In Foxborough, a free agent fits in the system if he has a skill set that Belichick can game plan with, rather than display a skill set that the team game plans around. There are no egos, just a brimming confidence that comes with being put in a position to succeed - and then actually succeeding.

Rookies, on the other hand, fit in the system if they take to coaching, have brains and flash versatile athleticism, because Belichick needs to know what he has in a player before he knows how to game plan with him - which would also explain why the Dark Master seems to prefer bringing veterans in if he needs immediate production... he does now.  In my previous mock, I had the Patriots selecting Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard in the second round, but signing Chris Hogan and Nate Washington made drafting a receiver a depth priority, not an immediate need. The trade for former Bears' tight end Martellus Bennett also shifted the philosophy of the offense, and has me wondering how many receivers Belichick is likely to keep when all he's going to ever need is two or three on the field at any given time.

Bennett also superceded the need for the Patriots to take a tight end in the draft, blowing up my fourth round selection of Western Kentucky's Tyler Higbee, and perhaps one of my sixth-round picks, UCLA's wide receiver / tight end Thomas Duarte.

Belichick also ruined my third-round choice of interior linebacker Scooby Wright out of Arizona by signing another former Bear, linebacker Shea McClellin, a versatile former first-round draft pick who was moved around all over the second level in Chicago as they tried to find a place for him to fit in the scheme, but with Belichick he will find his niche, probably as the middle linebacker.

So my precious mock is a smoldering ruin thanks to Belichick's aggressiveness in free agency, as the priorities have changed.  Where before the need for a receiver, a tight end and interior linebacking - not to mention some solid depth along the offensive line - were paramount, Belichick addressed them all in a short, intense burst of free agent lunacy...

...leaving only the pressing needs for a bell-cow running back and a number two cornerback, both of which I have addressed in the second round of my latest mock draft:

2. 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 lowered his 1st or 2nd round talent into the third day of the draft initially, but it's tough for evaluators to overlook his pure talent.

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 they all seemed to fall in line with the Patriot Way. If this kid does the same, the sky over Gillette Stadium will become a no-fly zone.

2. Jordan Howard, RB, Indiana
    6'0", 230

The question for the Patriots is not whether they need a power back, rather, the question is what flavor do they need?

In Howard, they would get a one-speed, north-south downhill runner who would just rather lower his pads and cream the linebacker or defensive back, and avoid all of that ellusiveness crap, though he does possess some lateral agility and will cut to follow blocks, but he's no Barry Sanders. He understands angles, however, and will adjust his line so as to not allow the defender to line up a clean shot.

His pass protection needs some coaching up, which makes him a bit of a project in this offense, but there is no doubt that Howard is a bell-cow, capable of carrying a heavy workload.  However, if the Patriots prefer a back with a bit more shiftiness on the second level, they could go with Arkansas' power back Jonathan Williams.

3. Matt Judon, DE, Grand Valley State
    6' 3", 275

Don't let the small school label fool you, Judon possesses an NFL quality burst to rush the quarterback and the lateral agility and balance to set the edge in the running game. The one thing that he has going against him is the small school label.
Judon at Grand Valley

A bit of a project as far as refined technique is concerned, but Judon didn't need much refinement at Grand Valley State, where he simply ran over or around helpless offensive tackles, leading the nation in sacks last season with 20. Not just Division II football, but all of college football, regardless of level.

3. Keyarris Garrett, WR, Tulsa
    6' 3", 220

A classic long-strider and immediate deep threat, Garrett is an imposing physical mismatch for most corners and, most importantly perhaps, tracks the ball well and has shown a knack for adjusting routes to settle in under wayward throws.

He is lightning off the line and understands the leverage he possesses with his tremendous length and deep speed, which corners will have to respect, giving Garrett opportunities to work back towards the quarterback in the role of a possession-type receiver.  He's a good route runner, but played in primarily spread offenses, and often as the trailer in bunch formations, perhaps inflating his stats a bit.

But as former basketball coach Frank Layden used to say, you can't teach height and you can't coach speed, and this kid has both. He will fall to the third round primarily because of his level of competition in college will make for a major jump in class to the NFL, but also he has proven to be a bit fragile.
Garrett against Zack Sanchez

5. Willie Beavers, OT, Western Michigan (trade up)
    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.

Without a fourth or a fifth round selection, the Patriots would have to use their ridiculous number of sixth round draft picks to move up to snag Beavers - and I have them giving up three of the five to move up enough to do so.

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 bit 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.

6. Nick Kwiatkoski, ILB, West Virginia
    6' 2, 245

A former safety who made the transformation to inside linebacker, becoming all Big 12 in the process, Kwiatkoski is the type of player you want to have manning the middle zones in the big nickle, as his coverage skills are top notch for a linebacker and he lives to deliver a shot to the ball carrier or pass catcher crossing into his area.

Interestingly, he compares favorably to new Patriot Shea McClellin, which could provide dividends as the rookie could be taken on by the coaching staff and worked into the equation slowly, with McClellin's manic style serving as the template for what New England would expect him to be.

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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