Next Thursday will mark the beginning of the NFL’s 82nd draft. While the Patriots have made substantial acquisitions in the off-season through free agency, they don’t have a draft selection until #72 overall, in the third round. Here are two moves New England could make to improve ahead of the draft:
Convince the Jets to Trade Sheldon Richardson
Despite swapping a 2nd and 3rd round pick in exchange for the Panthers’ Kony Ealy, the Patriots are still woefully thin at the defensive end position. Considering their first pick in the draft does not come until the third round, it’s unlikely they will find starting talent this season from a rookie. The Patriots have already made several moves to load up for a Super Bowl run in 2017 (although for the Pats, every year is a legitimate Super Bowl run). Bringing in another veteran pass rusher would fill an immediate need.
Last year Trey Flowers emerged as the Patriots most dominant defensive end with 7.0 regular season sacks and 2.5 more in the playoffs—all of which were during the Super Bowl. However, he is still an unproven talent. There’s a good chance Flowers will make the leap to stardom in his junior season (for what it’s worth, I think he’ll meet expectations), but we have yet to see a full season of him in the starting role. Jabaal Sheard had an 8.0 sack season in 2015 as a rotational EDGE player, which led many to think he would make a serviceable replacement for the departed Chandler Jones. Despite starting half the season, Sheard’s sack total dropped to 5.0 and his play was largely pedestrian. A lot can happen when a player switches from rotational back-up to starter.
Recently acquired Kony Ealy provides another conundrum at the pass-rush position. Ealy had an MVP-caliber performance against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50, but never took off during the Panther’s abysmal 2016 season the way most people expected. Ealy started 6 games in 2016 with 5.0 sacks, but only 19 tackles. Like Flowers, Ealy is primed to have a stellar year and has the added motivation of going into a contract year. But again, the body of work is just not there to know for certain. Lawrence Guy, acquired from Baltimore, is also listed in the defensive end position but functions more as an interior defensive lineman. Which leaves only Geneo Grissom on the depth chart, a player drafted a full round ahead of Trey Flowers, but who has yet to see meaningful snaps outside of special teams play. The Patriots need depth at the EDGE position going into the 2017 season and could look to make another splash in free agency with the acquisition of New York Jets DE Sheldon Richardson.
There are two primary barriers to a trade happening with the Jets. The first, and most obvious, is the divisional rivalry between the teams. Rarely does a trade occur between two teams in the same division. If Richardson were to go to the Patriots and have any kind of success, Jets fans would be up in arms and GM Mike Maccagnan would find his butt on a hot seat. However, the divisional factor could be mitigated in this specific situation for several reasons:
- There is no way the Jets are keeping Richardson past this season. With Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson on the roster, Richardson becomes a redundant player for the Jets to hold onto. Couple that with locker-room strife he caused last season, multiple suspensions and an 1-year/$8 million price tag and the Jets would do well to get some value out of Richardson ahead of the draft.
- The Jets are in a complete rebuild. Richardson is the exact type of player that gets jettisoned in a rebuild: under-performing, over-paid and causing conflict. These are all three great reasons for the why the Patriots, and most teams would shy away from such a trade, but they also help drive the asking-price down.
The current market for Sheldon Richardson appears abysmal , meaning the Jets could get desperate in the days leading up to the draft. If—somehow—the Jets could be compelled to trade Richardson for a fourth or fifth round pick, the Patriots should take it. In a comparable trade, Timmy Jernigan was shipped from Baltimore to the Eagles for a 4th round pick. Given their need at the position, I think Richardson would be worth a Patriots’ 4th rounder, although character issues could drive that price down to a 5th or lower. The Patriots are almost assured to draft a defensive end this year and the odds of finding a talent like Richardson past the third round (where they hold their first pick) are slim. Granted, Richardson comes with a hefty price tag of $8 million. But consider this: the Pats are paying Ealy, Flowers and Guy a combined $4.2 million this season. They are getting a bargain at one of the highest paid positions in the league and could do with over-paying one player if the upside is high. The greatest caveat is that Richardson is on the final year of his contract, meaning 2018 would see the departure of both Ealy and Richardson. But, assuming the play of both greatly increases, it could create an interesting situation where the Patriots re-sign whichever player proves his worth. While it’s unlikely the Jets would ever trade a former first-rounder to a Super Bowl-favorite divisional rival, it’s fun to speculate on how a trade like this would go down. Either way, the Patriots need to do more at the defensive end position ahead of next week’s draft.
Sign a Veteran Running-Back
James White just signed a 3-year/$12 million extension. Rex Burkhead was brought in a one-year contract. Brandon Bolden was re-signed for depth. Add to that the 2-year/$6 million offer-sheet extended to Mike Gillislee and all signs are pointing to the Patriots parting ways with free agent LeGarrette Blount.
I like the Gillislee signing. While Buffalo could still match the offer—Gillislee is a restricted free-agent meaning the Bills hold first-refusal to any outside contract—it seems unlikely at this point given the price-tag and regime change. Signing Gillislee would mean the Patriots send a fifth-round pick to Buffalo, which is a perfectly acceptable trade. The Patriots are almost guaranteed to draft a running back this year. In Gillislee they are getting a proven, known-quantity at the position in exchange for a late round pick. Last season Gillislee only started one game but rushed for 577 yards and averaged 5.7(!) yards-per-carry. In the second game against New England, he carved up a very good run-defense for 85 yards and averaged 7.1 per carry. While the guy has yet to prove himself as a work-horse back, he clearly has talent and a set of skills the Patriots are hoping to take to the next level. He also caught the ball on limited snaps for 50 yards, giving him slightly more versatility than a between the tackles back like Blount or Adrian Peterson.
It’s possible the Bills will feel the pressure of a divisional rival poaching another player (remember Stephon Gilmore), and decide to match the Patriots offer. If they are unable to lock-up Gillislee, I would still like to see the Patriots bring in a veteran back ahead of the draft, even if that means signing LeGarrette Blount. I like known quantities and it makes the job of drafting easier when certain roster spots are locked down. The Patriots first two picks don’t come until the third round. Much of their selection process will be in reaction to the picks made by other teams around the league. Even your best mock draft could not predict every player available by the 72nd pick. The more certainty the Patriots hold going into the draft, the better their selections will be among the players who fall to them.