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Patriots Draft Preview: Defensive Tackles

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With NFL free agency finally out of interesting story lines, baseball just barely underway and hockey and hoops regular seasons dragging themselves across the finish line, it’s time once again for a Barstool tradition unlike any other: The Patriots Draft Previews. As always I’ll remind you there are plenty of so-called “experts” out there. Draft pros and national pundits and local media types who claim to know what the Patriots are going to do. And you can buy the snake oil those charlatans are trying to sell you or you can stay here and find out exactly what is going on underneath The Gray Hood from me. Because when it comes to deciphering the Patriots draft strategy, I’m the Belichick Whisperer.

I don’t pass myself off as one of these national pundit know-it-alls.  I don’t pretend to know who, say, Washington or San Diego is going to take. I do not not have inside sources.  But I do have a certain set of skills.  Skills I have developed over a long career.  Skills that make me a nightmare for people like Kiper and Mayock.  Who told you they’d take Darius Butler in 2009? I did. Who in 2010 called the picks of both Brandon Spikes and a certain tight end teammate of his from Florida with some “character” concerns? That would be me. Who told you in 2011 they’d grab Nate Solder with the plan to keep Matt Light around one more season and groom Solder to be his replacement? Yours truly. And who’s got two thumbs and nailed the Dont’a Hightower pick in 2012? This guy. Granted last year I said their top priority would be a cover linebacker, but I didn’t specifically name Jamie Collins, so I won’t chalk that up as a win. Right pew, wrong church.

But this year, I’m ready to cap my losing streak at one with the best, most accurate Patriots Draft Previews I’ve ever done. Which by default would automatically make them the best ever done by anybody. Starting with: Defensive Tackle

Current Roster: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Sealver Siliga, and the mythical figure known as Armond Armstead.

Positional Overview: Even with Vince re-signed, this remains the biggest area of need going into the draft. The Pats went into 2013 paper thin at the position, and when VW and Kelly went down it cost them. While Jones, Vellano and Siliga were pleasant surprises given the fact they were mid-season street free agents, they were still vulnerable to power run games. And by the end of the year, the push they were getting on pass plays earlier on was non-existent. Not only did they get no pass rush in the AFC Championship Game, I’m fairly certain Peyton Manning didn’t even throw his uniform in the hamper after the game. I believe he just spritzed it with Fabreze and wore it in the Super Bowl. Now Vince is a 32 year old fat guy coming off a blown out ankle so you can’t be sure he’ll bounce back this year. And if he can’t, it’ll cost them big time. I can’t think of an expression where an Achilles Heel injury turns out to be someone’s major weakness. But let’s just say they need immediate help at the defensive tackle spot. Someone to be to Wilfork what he was to Ted Washington when he was drafted in ’04.

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2014 Draft Priority: Top

Certain 1st Rounders Who’ll Be Gone by the Time the Pats Pick, by Body Type

The Wilforky Guys:

Louis Nix, Notre Dame. 6-2, 331, 5.42

Nix had a huge 2012 season in the Irish run to the National Championship game. He was a powerful, space-eating presence that ate up double teams so the linebackers could spill to the ballcarrier. So much so that Manti Te’o owes Nix half of his Heisman votes, signing bonus money and most of his phone sex orgasms. He’s quick for a fat guy. Has good instincts to find the ball, shed blocks and pursue. And he’s shown a polished arm-over move to penetrate. The drawback with him is he’s a known associate of the most dreaded name in all of sports: Dr. James Andrews. Nix had surgery to repair a torn meniscus, which I believe is a thingy in your knee. He also didn’t blow anyone away at the Combine, winning zero ribbons at the Indianapolis Kennel Club Show. Nevertheless, he’s a Top 10-15 pick at the very least. As a non-football note, he’s done a series of YouTube videos called “Chocolate News,” which are not to be confused with David Alan Grier’s “Chocolate News” videos, insofar as they are surprisingly even less funny.

Timmy Jernigan, Florida St. 6-2, 299, 5.06

Not the massive, 2-gap behemoth Nix is. But he is more agile. Jernigan is more of a combination penetrator/ lateral quickness guy. He was considered a potential 1st rounder going into last year and did nothing but help himself. He played his ass off in the National Championship game, holding the point of attack against Auburn’s run game. He followed that up with stellar showings at the Combine and his Pro Day until now he flip-flops with Nix for the top DT spot on about half of all draft boards.

The Ford Fusionish Hybrid Guys:

Aaron Donald, Pitt. 6-1, 285, 4.68

Like Jernigan, Donald played his way up everyone’s draft boards as 2013 went on. He started out the season coming up huge in the opener against Florida State’s O-line and took off from there. Not since Tracy Jordan got his EGOT has any man won so many awards: Outlaw, Bednarik, Lombardi, Nagurksi and an Irving J. Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Oscar. He then went to the Senior Bowl and was the consensus most dominating player there. He then blew everyone’s stopwatches away with his 40 time in Indy. One drawback is he projects to being limited to playing 3-technique only in the pros. The good news is he’s small enough to use his sudden burst to beat interior blockers and penetrate. The bad news is he’s still small. He could be the next step along the evolutionary scale as D-lines adapt to the NFL’s Climate Change toward an all-passing league. Or he could spend his whole career sitting in the Concussion Protocall dark room.

The Richard Seymourish Guys:

Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota. 6-6, 310, 5.02

Seymour was the prototype of the Patriots 5-tech 3-4 tackle. (Note: The guy Ron Borges said “is too small to play nose and too slow to play end.”) I wouldn’t dare claim Hageman is as strong or athletic as Sey; just that he has a similar body type. He’s got the strength you look for to control the blocker and the length to see over him to locate the ball and pursue. And he’s got a JJ Watt genius for disrupting the passing lanes, with a cornerback-like 9 passes defensed. Hageman would’ve been a perfect system fit five years ago. But with the Pats seemingly committed to a 4-3/ 4-2-5 base, he feels sort of obsolete now.

The Next Tier: Day 2 Draft Prospects Superlatives. These are guys who are all similar in how they’re graded out. They all project as 2nd or 3rd rounders, and their draft order will be determined mostly by need and scheme.

Most Intriguing for New England: Daquan Jones, Penn St. 6-4, 322, 5.35

This pick just makes sense on so many levels. For starters, the kid played under yet another feeder branch off the Belichick Coaching Tree: Bill O’Brien. He stuck around at State College after the whole Pedo State scandal, which shows character. He was also a team captain, which is huge in the Patriots thinking. He’s versatile enough to have moved around the line and in fact is listed as a DE on some sites. Plus he’s added some bulk which puts him in the conversation as a potential nose tackle. He led the Big Ten in tackles, no small feat for an interior lineman. And the recent track record of PSU tackles is pretty good with guys like Devon Still and Jordan Hill turning out to be solid pros.

Riskiest: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina. 6-4, 297, 5.03

He led SC in sacks with 9 ½ and TFL with 13 ½. But how much of that was because Jadeveon Clowney drew everyone’s attention remains to be seen. Quarles can push a pocket to be sure, but there’s a suspicion out there that he might never be more than a 3rd down situational pass rush specialist.

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Toughest Road to the NFL: Anthony Johnson, LSU. 6-3, 308, 5.24

Belichick oftentimes gravitates to guys who’ve overcome a lot of adversity in their lives and no one’s had more than Johnson. He was a refugee from Katrina before going back to finish high school and turn himself into one of the top recruits in the country. He shed 40lbs over two seasons as he prepared to take over for Michael Brockers. It earned him the highly uncreative nickname “The Freak” (Why not just “Broadway Joe” or “The Refridgerator?”) but also a fairly disappointing junior year and a Combine performance no one will be writing songs about. Still, like with Jones, Johnson will benefit from coming out of a program that’s produced solid, ready made pros like Brockers, Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Barkevious Mingo.

Best Physical Specimen: Daniel McCullers, Tennessee. 6-7, 352, 5.18

McCullers is a massive but raw long term project type who could benefit from good coaching. His production in college didn’t match his potential and there’s some question about his conditioning. His technique needs work as he tends to get high and leveraged out position by much smaller blockers. But if someone could take him late and harness his ability he could be a steal.

Best Small School Prospect: Caraun Reid, Princeton. 6-2, 302, 4.91

On the one hand, he was beating blocks by future CEOs and Hedge Fund managers. On the other, he probably faced double teams the entire time. Anyway the Senior Bowl saw enough of Reid to extend him an invite and he crushed it. He produced sacks on two consecutive downs against two different draftable O-linemen. He was a four year starter and twice a first team All-American.

Funny Namers:

Ego Ferguson, LSU. 6-3, 315, 4.98

Ego is generally rated as a bottom of the top ten prospect. Despite his size and speed, he disappeared at times. Then randomly he’d put together a stellar game against a great team, like his 7 tackle performance vs Alabama. The knock on him seems to be he came out too soon. And that he might be limited to a role as a double team-defeating run stuffer as opposed to a pass rusher in a pass happy league.

Mister Cobble, Kentucky. 6-0, 340, 5.35

It’s doubtful he’ll even get drafted. But I hope he does. The “Who’s on First?” bits will write themselves.

Khyri Thornton, Southern Miss. 6-3, 304, 4.76

I’ve found my Dothraki name.

Perfect Patriot:

Dominique Easley, Florida. 6-2, 288, 4.93

Even if you’ve been studying up on the draft you might be justified in saying “Who???” because so many sites have him ranked so low. Particularly the ones that haven’t updated in a while. A year ago he was projecting as a can’t miss 1st rounder, even being mentioned in the same breath as Clowney. The major difference being no one ever questioned Easley’s commitment like they do Clowney’s. The main problem is he fell off a lot of boards when he blew out his right ACL in Week 3 last year. Which now matches perfectly the left ACL he blew out in 2011. And while that’s a concern for sure, he bounced back from that first one to record more big plays (4 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss including 3.5 in the Sugar Bowl) in 2012 than anyone on the Gators. His knees have passed every physical, but that won’t stop teams from being scared off and make him your classic Patriots “value” pick. He’s a great fit because he has every Patriots checkmark in his favor. He comes from a Pats feeder program (Belichick’s experiences with Chad Jackson, Jermaine Cunningham, Spikes and Bristol County Inmate 41144 notwithstanding). He was a team captain at Florida,which always counts. He won the Gators team awards for tenacity and mental and toughness. He was a staple in the weight room. On the field, he’s known for an explosiveness off the line of scrimmage, with a suddenness into the gap that makes him a nightmare to block. He’s smaller than any tackle the Patriots have had for sure. But he makes up for it with leverage and a quick first step. And he’s one of those relentless, high motor guys they love.

Whom the Pats Will Draft: Easley

He’s suddenly moving up a lot of draft boards, but still I haven’t seen him projected any higher than the 57th or so best prospect overall. Which sets up perfectly for the Pats to drop down out of the 1st round, add some mid-round picks and still get the guy they want. Or they take no chances and just grab him at 29. Either way, Dominique Easley to New England. You heard it here first. @JerryThornton1