The 2022 NFL draft is eight days away. Through free agency and trades, Bill Belichick has plugged some holes, chipping away at the problem areas on the Patriots roster.
But there are still several areas in need of help. Between padding those positions and acquiring building blocks for the future, the draft will be the chief supplier of that talent.
For the record, the Patriots have added 15 players via free agency and trades since the start of the NFL’s new year March 16.
They currently have 70 players signed, with the expectation of taking 90 to training camp. They’ll add more with their eight selections in the upcoming draft.
So where are the strengths and weaknesses of the roster? Where does Belichick and personnel head Matt Groh need to add depth, not to mention, try to possibly secure plug-and-play talent?
Here’s a breakdown of the roster, outlining areas to focus on in the draft.
Mac Jones, Brian Hoyer, Jarrett Stidham
The Locks: Jones, Hoyer
Analysis: Jones beat out Cam Newton for the top job last season. There won’t be any such competition this year. The Alabama product, who had one of the best seasons for any rookie quarterback, is clearly the man in charge. After an offseason to tone his body and strengthen his throwing arm, the expectation is for him to be even better in Year 2.
Hoyer, meanwhile, was re-signed to a two-year deal as a backup/mentor and coach for Jones given his knowledge of the offense. He could be released next season without taking too much of a hit, but his presence is important now especially with a coaching staff on the offensive side that doesn’t have much experience dealing with quarterbacks.
As for Stidham, he’s still here, but could be dealt down the road if a quarterback-needy team comes into focus. That said, it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see the Patriots draft a quarterback in the later rounds, and develop him to be an eventual backup.
If Stidham is kept, he has an expiring contract next year.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
Damien Harris, Devine Ozigbo, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, James White
The Locks: Harris, Stevenson, Taylor, White
Analysis: While bringing White back was a good move on many different levels, it’s hard to know just how good he’ll be following hip surgery, or exactly when he might be ready. Taylor is poised to have a greater role, and perhaps is a fail-safe if White isn’t ready to go in his usual third-down back role.
Harris and Stevenson are a solid 1-2 punch, and should once again be a focal point of the offense, but with Harris in a contract year, and the uncertainty surrounding White, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Patriots select a running back at some point in the draft.
Ozigbo spent time on the Pats practice squad last year. He signed a futures contract, and conceivably has a chance to win a roster spot.
WIDE RECEIVERS (10)
Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Ty Montgomery, Tre Nixon, Malcolm Perry, DeVante Parker, Matthew Slater, Kristian Wilkerson
The Locks: Agholor, Bourne, Meyers, Parker, Slater
Analysis: Bringing Parker aboard should help the offense in plenty of ways, including the red zone. His arrival should also mark the end of Harry, who is entering the final year of his contract and has been a major bust as a first-round pick.
The expectations are for last year’s free-agent pick-ups Bourne and Agholor to improve, and for Meyers to continue to be a favorite target of Jones.
In terms of the draft, it’s hoped the Patriots will add on in a receiver-rich pool of prospects, but it remains to be seen if they pull the trigger.
Montgomery, who signed a two-year $4.2 million deal, will have to make the team. But with his versatility as a receiver, running back and special teams player, he’s likely to stick. Perry is another with some versatility, having played quarterback during his college career at Navy.
Slater’s primary job is special teams. The 10-time Pro Bowler will embark on his 15th season leading that group.
TIGHT ENDS (4)
Devin Asiasi, Hunter Henry, Dalton Keene, Jonnu Smith
The Locks: Henry, Smith
Analysis: Paying big-time money to sign two top tight ends in free agency last year signals just how important the position is to the offense.
Henry basically emerged as a go-to-guy for Jones, particularly in the red zone as he led the team with nine TD receptions. Smith, meanwhile, was a huge disappointment. But the Patriots are expecting the former Titan to get with the program, and show why the team gave him a four-year, $50 million deal to be a fixture in the offense.
Having lost fullback Jakob Johnson in free agency, it seems as if the Pats will go without a fullback, or simply use Smith more in the backfield. It’s also likely Keene, who was on IR all last season, could see time in the backfield in an H-back role.
A third possibility? The Patriots draft a fullback to replace Johnson.
As for Asiasi, he was on the active roster all season, but only active for one game. The 2020 third-round pick hasn’t amounted to much, and might find himself on the outside looking in.
OFFENSIVE LINE (11)
David Andrews, Trent Brown, Yodny Cajuste, Drew Desjarlais, Yasir Durant, James Ferentz, Arlington Hambright, Justin Herron, Michael Onwenu, William Sherman, Isaiah Wynn
The Locks: Andrews, Brown, Ferentz, Herron, Onwenu, Wynn
Analysis: The Patriots traded starting right guard Shaq Mason, and lost starting left guard Ted Karras to free agency.
Onwenu figures to handle one of the guard spots, most likely playing next to right tackle Brown, who was re-signed.
Ferentz could slot in at left guard, but he’s been a career backup, and practice squad player. With left tackle Wynn in the final year of his deal, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots prioritize going after both a guard and tackle in the draft.
Herron is the likely swing tackle this year. Cajuste, Desjarlais, Durant, Hambright and Sherman will be fighting for jobs.
EDGE DEFENDERS (5)
Anfernee Jennings, Matt Judon, Ronnie Perkins, Josh Uche, Deatrich Wise Jr.
The Locks: Judon, Perkins, Uche, Wise
Analysis: Judon came on like a house on fire early in the season, but faded down the stretch. He’ll need to carry his production through the year, but he also needs help on the opposite side, as well as someone to give him a breather every so often.
Wise is serviceable, but the Pats appear to be counting on Uche, Perkins, and perhaps Jennings, to carry the load.
Perkins basically had a redshirt year last year. Jennings sat out on injured reserve while Uche was used sparingly. So it’s time to see what those players can do. Drafting an edge rusher could also be in the mix.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES (7)
Henry Anderson, Christian Barmore, Byron Cowart, Daniel Ekuale, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Bill Murray
The Locks: Barmore, Godchaux, Guy
Analysis: No matter which way you slice it, this group needs to do a better job stopping the run. Last year, the Pats allowed the seventh-highest yards per carry average defending inside runs.
Free-agent addition Godchaux wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t the dominant nose presence the Patriots desperately needed. Guy, meanwhile, is getting up in age, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Pats drafted a rookie tackle (UConn’s Travis Jones?) to eventually pair with Barmore, who established himself during a fine rookie season.
Anderson was signed as a free agent last year, but spent the year on IR. He was brought back but will have to make the team. Cowart also spent the year on IR. Ekuale was good in spots but will still have to make the team.
OFF-THE-BALL LINEBACKERS (7)
Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Harvey Langi, Cameron McGrone, Raekwon McMillan, Jahlani Tavai, Mack Wilson
The Locks: Bentley, Langi, McGrone, McMillan, Wilson
Analysis: While they re-signed Bentley, the Patriots have to this point shied away from bringing back veterans Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. They also released Kyle Van Noy.
That would suggest there might be a changing of the guard.
McMillan, who looked good in the early camps before being lost with an ACL tear, figures to play a prominent role. It might also mean they believe McGrone, who basically had a redshirt rookie season, will be a contributor this year.
Wilson, who arrived via trade from Cleveland, should bring some speed to the position as the Pats have made it a priority to get faster all around.
Langi is a special teams contributor and depth piece. Hall and Tavai will be fighting for jobs.
Josh Bledsoe, Cody Davis, Kyle Dugger, Devin McCourty, Jabrill Peppers, Adrian Phillips
The Locks: Dugger, McCourty, Peppers, Phillips
Analysis: Bringing McCourty back was vital. The secondary needs him directing traffic especially if the cornerback situation remains somewhat unsettled, not to mention the Pats likely playing more zone coverage this year.
Peppers is coming back from a torn ACL, so he might not be ready at the start of the season. When he does return, he figures to be part of the defensive rotation behind Phillps and Dugger.
Bledsoe, a 2021 sixth-round pick, had a redshirt year, and is in the mix to make the team if Peppers is delayed. Davis has done well in his special teams role and is likely to stick especially with Brandon King signing elsewhere.
Justin Bethel, Myles Bryant, Malcolm Butler, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Terrance Mitchell, Shaun Wade, Joejuan Williams
The Locks: Bethel, Bryant, Butler, Jones, Mills
Analysis: With starter J.C. Jackson leaving in free agency, and a thin group at outside corner, it’s virtually a must for them to add at least one corner in the draft. Especially one who might be able to step in and play this year.
The Pats did bring former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler back, but he’s 32, and attempting a comeback after retiring from the NFL last August for personal reasons.
If he’s anywhere up to form, he’ll start with Mills on the opposite corner.
The Pats also signed Mitchell to a one-year, $3 million deal ($350,000 guaranteed). He could provide depth if he makes the team.
Having a healthy Jones will help. Bryant adds depth behind Jones at slot corner. It’ll be interesting to see if Wade amounts to anything after spending a year in the system. Williams has the bust label to this point.
Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona, Quinn Nordin, Nick Folk
The Locks: Bailey, Cardona, Folk
Analysis: Folk returns on a two-year, $5.6 million ($2.29 million guaranteed) deal. He’s coming off a tremendous season. He’ll turn 37 in November, so the Patriots will have an eye on Nordin, hoping he’ll assume the mantle at some point down the road.
Nordin, brought in as a rookie free agent out of Michigan, signed a futures deal after spending most of 2021 on the practice squad. He has a powerful leg, but needs to show Folk-like consistency in order to eventually get the job.
Bailey, an All-Pro as a rookie, had an off year for him, but battled through an injury. There’s been discussion about the Pats possibly drafting San Diego State stud punter Matt Araiza, but that remains to be seen.