FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Dean a Patriots fit? Last year, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay hit the bull’s-eye in his final mock draft, projecting quarterback Mac Jones to the Patriots at No. 15. McShay correctly paired Jones’ skill set — specifically a knack for accuracy and decision-making — with what the Patriots valued at a significant position of need.
This year, inside linebacker is one of the Patriots’ top needs, and McShay has isolated one player who intrigues him most for Bill Belichick’s team in the 2022 NFL draft, which starts April 28 on ESPN.
“The one player I would kill to see with the Patriots — just because I love him and know where he would excel the most would be in New England with Bill — would be [Georgia’s] Nakobe Dean,” he said.
“I’ve talked and met with him, and I’ve talked with multiple scouts and we all kind of agree: There isn’t a better player in this class in terms of football IQ. You match that IQ with what New England tries to do — they’re so multiple and differentiate from week to week — that would be a lot of fun to watch.”
Dean might not be available at the Patriots’ first selection at No. 21; former Jets and Dolphins GM Mike Tannenbaum slots him 17th to the Los Angeles Chargers in his ESPN mock draft.
But if Dean is available, longtime observers of Belichick’s history drafting inside linebackers note that selecting him would represent a notable shift in approach. The reason is the 5-foot-11, 229-pound Dean is dramatically undersized compared to the Patriots’ prototype (think of 6-foot-3, 260-pound Dont’a Hightower).
McShay compares Dean to former New York Jets and New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas. Those players might not have been known most for charging downhill and taking on guards — a staple for those playing the position under Belichick — but they were dynamic playmakers, especially in space.
And given how the NFL game continues to be spread out — and considering what the Patriots now face twice a year with read-option concepts from Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — perhaps Belichick is more willing to consider a player like Dean in 2022 than he would have in the past.
“Find me a faster linebacker in terms of play speed in this class,” McShay said. “You’re talking about nine guys who could get drafted on that defensive side for Georgia, and he was the best player on it. You’re talking about a player — with two linebackers next to him in [Channing] Tindall and Quay Walker that are going to be drafted on Day 2 — and he’s two steps ahead almost every snap.”
2. Belichick bytes: Belichick showed up early to answer questions from reporters at the NFL’s annual meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, last week (surprising many), and here were three things — possibly lost a bit in the shuffle — that stood out in terms of how strongly he views a few people in the organization:
WR Matthew Slater re-signed to one-year deal: “[He] will go up there, in the kicking game, with [Tom] Brady on offense and [Lawrence] Taylor on defense. So I feel very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to coach all the players, but I’d say those three in particular.”
Matt Groh, who was promoted to director of player personnel: “He really put the draft together last year. With Dave [Ziegler] leaving, I feel like he’s the best person to step into the personnel job. I think he’s as good as anybody we’ve had in that position.”
S Devin McCourty re-signed to one-year deal: “Having Devin back, that makes a difference what we can do defensively.”
3. Corner market: The Patriots will ideally draft and develop a replacement for cornerback J.C. Jackson, although the team’s first-round slot at No. 21 might not represent the best value to do so.
McShay expects top cornerbacks Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (Cincinnati), Derek Stingley Jr. (LSU) and Trent McDuffie (Washington) to be off the board at that point, which would have the Patriots focusing on the second layer. Of the group, McShay likes Kaiir Elam (Florida) and Roger McCreary (Auburn) as Day 2 considerations.
“They would be good Patriots — they tackle, can play both man and zone. They can be multiple and adjust to weekly changes in the game plan,” he said.
(In a beat-writer mock draft for NewOrleansFootball.com, your faithful scribe pounced on McDuffie when he was unexpectedly available.)
4. Schedule planning: The Patriots have no shortage of compelling road trips this season — Arizona, Cleveland, Green Bay, Las Vegas, Minnesota and Pittsburgh for non-division foes — and a league source said the NFL is planning for its schedule release for the second week of May. As for international games, a source said the Patriots aren’t expected to be chosen to play the Cardinals in Mexico or Packers in London this season. The belief among the New England brain trust is that the team is most likely to play its next international game in Germany in 2023.
5. Jonnu’s offseason: One of the most significant things to come out of the NFL’s annual meeting from a Patriots perspective was learning that tight end Jonnu Smith plans to spend the offseason as part of the team’s voluntary offseason program. Smith didn’t do that last season, in part due to the birth of his daughter and COVID-19 considerations. Some around the team believed it wasn’t a coincidence that fellow tight end Hunter Henry — who had spent the majority of last offseason in town working with Jones & Co. — had a more productive first season in New England than Smith. Henry, by the way, was back in town last week.
6. Why not Williams? The lack of speed and difference-makers on the perimeter — both offensively and defensively — stood out to McShay when watching the Patriots in their 47-17 playoff loss to the Bills. It’s why he would endorse selecting Alabama receiver Jameson Williams at No. 21 if the board fell that way. It would require some patience, with Williams recovering from a torn ACL, but McShay said he wouldn’t be surprised if Williams ultimately becomes the best receiver in this year’s draft. “I just think the speed, having a guy that can get vertical, and also catch the 5-yarder and go 35, 40, 50 yards with it, would be excellent for them to have,” he said.
7. LaFleur’s void: In 13 NFL seasons, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has never been to Gillette Stadium, which he said is the league’s only older venue he’s never visited. “I hear it’s hard to win up there,” he said, referencing the Patriots’ league-best 130-31 home record since 2002 (although New England is 9-8 at home over the past two seasons). These are the types of nuggets a reporter picks up at the NFL annual meeting, where it’s commonplace to bump into coaches and strike up a conversation. LaFleur’s Packers aren’t scheduled to visit until 2026.
8. Patriots Hall call: After a one-year COVID-19-related hiatus to allow for 2020 inductee Richard Seymour to have the player stage to himself in 2021, the Patriots Hall of Fame committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to narrow the list of finalists for induction this year. Mike Vrabel has been a five-time finalist but has yet to get over the goal line. Maybe this is finally his year. Vince Wilfork and Wes Welker are newly eligible, and if they make it through the committee as the three finalists, it will be interesting to see how the final voting by fans would shake out.
9. AFC East tax for Parker: From a Dolphins perspective, trading receiver DeVante Parker and a 2022 fifth-round pick to the Patriots in exchange for a 2023 third-round pick is excellent value. Parker was Miami’s No. 4 receiver at best — behind Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Cedrick Wilson — and it also clears his base salaries of $5.65 million in 2022 and $5.7 million in 2023 off the books. So, while some might question the wisdom of trading Parker within the division, it’s hard to believe any other NFL team was offering a deal with as rich of an asset as a 2023 third-round pick. And for the receiver-needy Patriots, the deal probably doesn’t happen if they weren’t expecting a third-round compensatory pick due to the free-agent departure of Jackson.
10. Did you know? With the Patriots acquiring Parker and agreeing to a one-year deal with safety/punt returner Jabrill Peppers last week, they become the sixth and seventh players on the roster who entered the NFL as a first-round pick (2015 and 2017, respectively). The others are McCourty (2010), receiver Nelson Agholor (2015), offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn (2018), receiver N’Keal Harry (2019) and Jones (2021).