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Yes, mock drafts are sometimes the object of scorn in media, but NFL front offices conduct hundreds of mock drafts leading up to the big event, to act as practice runs.
Here are the full results of my first Patriots mock draft. Keeping in mind that the results of free agency could dramatically alter the Patriots' needs one way or another, let's take a look at an early mock draft.
Note: throughout the column, I've embedded links to clips that show some of the traits I'm discussing.
Round 1, Pick 29 — Ra'Shede Hageman (DT, Minnesota)
When Hageman said he likes to emulate J.J. Watt and Ndamukong Suh in his game, he pretty much pegged himself as the kind of player the Patriots have been missing. Hageman's frame is similar at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds with 34 1⁄4-inch long arms, and like Watt, he has shown the ability to use those long arms to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage.
His ability to split gaps through the line, bull-rush his way into the backfield, and contain multiple gaps at a time, help make him one of the more scheme-versatile linemen in the draft. There are some questions about his consistency, though, as he is raw and sometimes lacks sound technique. If the Patriots want to groom an athletic lineman with a lot of upside, and get a little younger on the inside, Hageman would be a solid addition to the rotation.
Round 2, Pick 62 — Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame)
If the Patriots want to grab a tight end with a similar skill set to Rob Gronkowski, Niklas would be a good selection. At 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds with 34 1⁄4-inch long arms, he has the size of today's matchup nightmare at tight end, and he knows how to use his size to his advantage to catch the ball in traffic and in the red zone.
He may also be the most NFL-ready in terms of his ability to block in both the running and passing game. He doesn't have elite speed, but he knows how to get open downfield, and he's tough to bring down with the ball in his hands. The Patriots could get back to their two tight end offense, and this time, they'd have two two-way tight ends that can both block and catch.
Round 3, Pick 93 — Marcus Smith (DE, Louisville)
At 6-foot-3 and 251 pounds, Smith may be a little smaller than the Patriots prefer in their defensive ends, but Smith's primary role would be as a pass-rushing presence in sub packages. CBS Sports' Rob Rang compares him to Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, who entered the league with similar questions about his NFL fit.
Smith has the burst to beat blocks off the snap, and although he has 34-inch long arms to help keep blockers away, he doesn't have the strength to shed when an offensive linemen gets into his pads. Still, the Patriots need someone who can take the every-down burden off Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and Smith could provide them that rotational edge presence.
Round 4, Pick 126 — A.J. McCarron (QB, Alabama)
The Patriots have to make a decision on quarterback Ryan Mallett in the near future. They may elect to trade him, or he could walk in free agency in 2015; either way, they will have to find a new backup quarterback soon, and maybe an heir to Tom Brady.
McCarron's experience in a pro system will help him greatly if he's called upon to start as a rookie, and he's already drawn comparisons between Alabama and the Patriots — as well as himself and Brady. With time to develop in the Patriots' system, those comparisons to Brady could grow.
Round 6, Pick 182 — Phillip Gaines (CB, Rice)
The small school product popped at the combine, running the 40 in 4.38 seconds and the three-cone drill in 6.62 seconds for the second-fastest time among defensive backs in each drill. We know how much Belichick loves three-cone drill stars. He's an effective zone corner, with quick reaction time and closing speed to make a play on the ball.
The concern with Gaines, however, is that he's not physically equipped to hold his own in man coverage on a consistent basis. The Patriots run more man coverage on the back end now than in years past, but a player with this much athletic upside doesn't come available in the sixth round all that often.
Round 6, Pick 190 — Russell Bodine (C, North Carolina)
Bodine has the versatility to play both guard and center. Center Ryan Wendell is a free agent this offseason and guard Dan Connolly could be a cap casualty this year or a free agent next year. The Patriots would be wise to start loading up their depth on the inside, although Dante Scarnecchia will not be around to coach up the offensive line.
Bodine may have short arms at 32.5 inches long, and CBS Sports' scouting report indicates he overextends at times to compensate, but he isn't lacking in strength (42 225-pound bench press reps at the combine) and will blow defenders off the ball when he gets his hands on them. A tough-nosed interior lineman in the sixth round would add valuable depth to a position of need.
Round 7, Pick 221 — Zach Fulton (G, Tennessee)
Fulton doesn't have the versatility the Patriots look for, having played exclusively right guard at Tennessee, but in starting 40 games in the SEC, he earned plenty of experience against top competition. In fact, one of his best games of the 2013 season came against Alabama, where he showed sound technique in pass protection and creating lanes for his back to gain tough yards. He needs some polish blocking in space, but he has a lot of physical potential in that 6-foot-5, 316-pound frame.
This draft focuses on building the team through the trenches, with two picks each on the defensive and offensive lines. The offense dropped off considerably without Gronkowski, so the Patriots need to prioritize finding a serviceable No. 2 tight end. McCarron could be considered a luxury pick or a necessary one, depending on how you look at it, but the long-term outlook does not have Mallett in the picture.
This mock draft addresses almost all of the Patriots' biggest needs, although those beating the "Brady needs weapons" drum would probably walk away disappointed. After investing second- and fourth-round picks in receivers last year, as well as a big contract and a potential second big contract this offseason, it seems unlikely the Patriots would invest in more wide-outs. If they're going to do so, in my opinion, it wouldn't be until a much later round on a prospect who had unexpectedly fallen.
Any of you draftniks that want to get involved and make your own mock draft, go to the link here and post your results in the comments.
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