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'Words With Frenz' Patriots mailbag: draft needs, wide receivers and cap space

Posted by Erik Frenz  March 29, 2013 07:00 AM

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The NFL draft is less than a month away, and you know what that means: time to get caught up on your draft research so it can all be futile when Bill Belichick picks a player you've never heard of.

Thus, we welcome you to the first Boston.com edition of the Words With Frenz mailbag, where the majority of queries related to the draft as it pertains to the Patriots.

Let's get right to the questions!

Let's start by bracing Patriots fans for the bad news that is likely to come. It's not what most Patriots fans will want to hear, but this could be a perfect year to trade down. What this draft lacks in talent, it makes up for in depth — at almost every position. The Patriots have just five picks this year, the fewest since Belichick took over as head coach.

The new draft-slotting wage scale makes it easier to gauge value based on moving around the board, and in the first year of that new system, the Patriots took a different approach by trading up, and took a wildly out-of-character approach by doing so twice.

No one can pretend to have any idea of what the Patriots are going to do in the draft, but given the Patriots' dearth of picks and the overall lack of a dropoff in that late-first-round to mid-second-round range, the Patriots should get back to moving down the board as they have in year's past.

Jonathan, a look at their post-free-agency needs reveals the need for an X-receiver, situational defensive end, backup defensive tackle, backup Y-receiver and cover linebacker. We can safely add cornerback to that list, as well, with depth concerns as well as questions about the availability of Alfonzo Dennard (more on that later).

Signing Michael Jenkins didn't provide any real answers at wide receiver, so with the team in need of two players to fill those spots, that remains their biggest need from this perspective. That doesn't mean, however, that it should necessarily be the position they target with the top pick.

The dropoff after the top prospects, Cordarrelle Patterson and Tavon Austin, is not considered that steep. There will be talent available at wide recever in the second round of the draft.

In terms of the X-receivers, three names to watch are Terrance Williams (Baylor), DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson), and Justin Hunter (Tennessee).

Check out colleague Zuri Berry's scouting report on Williams, but if there's one thing to take away from it, Williams is a bigger, slightly less fast version of Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace. He will provide a dynamic outside-the-numbers presence, but needs work on the finer points of being a wide receiver — running routes, catching with his hands and not his body, etc.

DeAndre Hopkins has been the featured receiver in Clemson's offense over the past few seasons, but he's not your typical college receiver.

He doesn't possess the long speed that Williams has, but he can make contested catches in traffic and he has great quickness in and out of his breaks to create separation on routes. His versatility at the different receiver spots and his ability to operate in all levels of a defense make him an intriguing player for the Patriots offense.

He has drawn comparisons to the likes of Greg Jennings, Roddy White and Sidney Rice. None of them are the fastest receivers, but all of them are big, sure-handed targets who run good routes and know how to get open.

Justin Hunter was overshadowed a bit playing opposite Cordarrelle Patterson, but he has loads of talent.

He entered the combine as a second- or third-round prospect, and a 4.44 40-yard dash probably helped him out a bit, as did his 39.5-inch vertical and 136-inch broad jump — both among the top five wide receivers at the combine.

He is 6'4" and possesses 33.25" long arms, making him an incredible red zone target. He is a polished route-runner, and can create big plays with the ball in his hands. He has great quickness and was considered one of the most explosive wide receivers in the nation in 2011 before a knee injury ended his season short.

The concerns with Hunter are the knee surgery, and that he had just one productive year at Tennessee. With those concerns in mind, his monster year of 73 catches, 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns came after his knee surgery.

All three of those receivers could be available in the second round, and would present good value even if the Patriots wanted to trade back to the beginning of the second round.

Matt, we can only expect contributions from Ballard relative to his opportunities. The Patriots have put a lot of value in having solid backup tight ends now that offense has been focused around tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

Ballard's microfracture surgery and ACL surgery — which were the reasons he was waived by the Giants and ended up being available to the Patriots — kept him off the field in 2012. They got enough out of Daniel Fells when he was called upon, but the Visanthe Shiancoe signing can only be described as a failure.

Ballard has proven he can play. He was on the field for 795 offensive snaps (72 percent) in the 2011 regular season. He ranked fourth on the team in targets behind Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Ballard was used more as a blocker (340 run block, 116 pass block) than as a pass-catcher (ran 339 routes) in 2011, as well.

Clearly, Ballard could contribute both as a pass-catcher and as a blocking tight end. He may not get many opportunities unless Hernandez or Gronkowski are injured, but the Patriots have been without Hernandez for 10 games over the past three seasons, and were without Gronkowski for five regular season games and the AFC Championship Game.

Having Ballard on the roster lends confidence in New England's ability to overcome injuries to either of its top tight ends.

Kevin, there's little question about Dennard's talent. He was considered a second- or third-round prospect before assault on a police officer led him to fall to the seventh round. He played very well when called upon in 2012, allowing completions on only 50.8 percent of throws into his coverage and yielding a passer rating of 75.6. Both those marks led all rookie cornerbacks in 2012.

Dennard is at his best in press coverage, which is good because he and the secondary as a whole grew together when the Patriots began running more man coverage. He has the strength to re-route receivers and the speed to keep up with them if and when they get off the jam.

The big question, though, is his availability for 2013. As a result of that assault charge, he faces a sentencing hearing on April 11, and no one really knows what to expect. While he could avoid jail time completely, the maximum sentencing is five years in prison and and a $10,00 fine.

If he's on the field in 2013, you can expect big things from Dennard.

Got room for one more.

There are several websites which have information on the salary cap, so here's a roundup of a few trusted favorites:

OverTheCap.com: $12,278,800
PatsCap.com: $12,344,775
Spotrac.com: $10,882,362

That leaves us with a pretty good idea of how much cap space the Patriots have to work with. Looks like you lowballed 'em, Murph!

Keep in mind, though, that the Patriots need to set aside $6 million with which to sign their draft picks.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. Any further questions can be directed to me on Twitter. I'll try to do one of these a week leading up to the draft as questions continue to pour in.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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