Patriots Mailbag: Which pick was biggest steal of 2021 draft class?

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Perry's Mailbag: Which Pats 2021 draft pick was biggest steal? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

What can we expect from the New England Patriots with the 2021 NFL Draft over and the offseason program ready to ramp up later this month?

Phil Perry answers your questions in his latest Patriots mailbag.

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We went over some of the players we feel pretty good about making the 53-man roster earlier this week. But just to point out a few names of players who could now be on notice given what the Patriots did in the draft... 

Because I don't see the Mac Jones or Christian Barmore picks rocking their respective position groups all that much, I think you have to start with the Ronnie Perkins selection. He is the same size, down to the arm size, as Chase Winovich. Hard not to wonder how Winovich's playing time could be impacted by the arrival of the Oklahoma edge defender. Winovich tested out as a better athlete when he was leaving Michigan in 2019, but his reps cratered at times last season. Does Bill Belichick view Perkins as an upgrade? 

Sony Michel is the next obvious name that needs to be brought up. Yes, the Patriots like to give their backs red-shirt years. But how often have the Patriots red-shirted a back as a third-stringer? When Damien Harris backed up Michel and didn't play as a rookie, he was the No. 2 big back. When James White backed up Shane Vereen and didn't play in 2014, he was the No. 2 sub back. They'll be a run-heavy team, but holding onto three big backs is a heavy investment. Harris will be the No. 1, and if Stevenson looks like a competent run-blocker and special-teams contributor, he could end up the No. 2. 

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Got your money's worth, Tucker! Will Bryant ever be an outside-the-numbers "starting" corner? Not sure. Could he be a slot down the line. I think so. His teammates like him. He's thought to be a smart player who's willing to do the little things to prepare. I thought it was telling that the team gave him more opportunities as the season wore on. They like the work he put in. I think Bourne is going to be a fascinating study next season. He's not a vertical threat along the boundary.

He's not a low-cut slot. I think he could be used similarly to how Jakobi Meyers was used in 2020. What does that mean for Meyers? We'll see. I wouldn't rule out an offensive role for Gunner Olszewski at some point. He's tough. He has some juice with the ball in his hands, which he's shown as a returner. He was a corner at Bemidji State not all that long ago, so he still has plenty of room to grow. But never say never. 

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Good question, Danny. They like Jakob Johnson, but there aren't many 300-pound fullbacks (who could also play defensive line in a pinch) out there. I could see the Ravens keeping a couple of fullbacks. But I could see Belichick having some interest if Ricard shook free.

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Think there's room for both, David. Both Herron and Sherman can, in theory, play tackle and guard. Herron was thought to be a guard prospect by some before last year's draft, but he showed he could play tackle capably in spurts as a rookie. Similarly, Sherman is thought by some to be a guard-only option. But he played nothing but tackle at Colorado. So he should have some positional versatility. If Sherman, Herron and Ted Karras are this team's backups on the offensive line, that's not a bad group. Lots of versatility there.

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Got you covered here, John. I'd add Kenny Stills -- who has experience in the Patriots-like Texans offense -- since he has some hard-to-teach speed the Patriots could use.

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I would've. I think Fields could be special. Ahead of the draft, I said his ceiling might be "Tall Russell Wilson." He's probably an even more dynamic runner than Wilson, though he's not always willing to turn it loose and break the pocket. But both players are deadly accurate down the field. Both hold onto the ball longer than some teams might like, but both are incredibly smart and have the ability to make something out of nothing because of their special skill sets.

According to the Jimmy Johnson trade chart, it might've cost No. 96, No. 120 and No. 122 -- New England's third and two of its fourths -- to get that trade done. That's nothing if you think you're getting a franchise quarterback. I think Mac Jones is a good fit for the Patriots offense, but in my opinion he doesn't have the ceiling Fields does.

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If the Patriots are allowed to have a 90-man roster without going to split-squad workouts, we'll see them add some folks. Just not sure that's going to be the case. And, Marg, hate to say this, but we've seen every Prototypical Patriot go off the board -- either in the draft or as an undrafted rookie. So can't say there are any obvious choices for them to go after.

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Discussed this topic in this here post, NHFS. But I'll say this: I'm not sure a speed element is what the Patriots necessarily need for their offense. Nelson Agholor was an efficient down-the-field threat last season, averaging over 18.0 yards per catch. He can be the team's speed element if that's what it wants. But if he is, then they need an interior player.

Maybe that's Bourne. Maybe that's Meyers. A traditional slot -- as opposed to the longer, leaner slots Bourne and Meyers appear to be -- would be useful, in my opinion. If they can land Jamison Crowder (still on the Jets but for who knows how much longer), and if Crowder can stay healthy, I think that would be a valuable addition.

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I wouldn't bet on it. If Mac Jones wins the job, I could see the Patriots releasing Newton so he has an opportunity to sign wherever he wants. Or trading him to a destination of his choice. I think they'll want to do right by him after he took it on the chin for them last year in a difficult season that saw him play on a well below market-value contract.

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My money is on Patricia, though I don't think Adams can be replaced by just one person. The fact that Patricia and Belichick are friends -- maybe not quite in the same way that Adams and Belichick are friends, but close nonetheless -- will help Belichick lean on Patricia, I think, the way he often leaned on Adams.

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Guys who can play the edge: Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Chase Winovich, Ronnie Perkins, Dont'a Hightower, Josh Uche, Anferee Jennings

Guys who can play off the line: Dont'a Hightower, Josh Uche, Kyle Van Noy, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Anfernee Jennings

There's versatility there between those two groups. And because off-the-ball linebackers aren't as necessary in today's game -- they'll typically play two at a time, maybe less in sub situations -- I don't think their depth there is a huge concern.

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Winning the division should be within the realm of possibility for this team. Should they be the favorites? Nope. That's Buffalo. But they should be in the mix late into the season. This looks like it could be a competitive AFC East for some time, depending on how some of the young quarterbacks develop. 

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We've covered one of the reasons why the Patriots haven't been hot on a dozen or so free agents the way they are every year after the draft: If the NFL is going to have teams with 90-man rosters take a split-squad approach, then they probably aren't going to be expanding any time soon.

The other issue is that the number of players who'd hired agents ahead of the draft was miniscule compared to previous years. Scouts knew that it was going to be slim pickings in terms of the talent available at the end of Day 3. Players taken in late rounds this year might've otherwise been undrafted rookies in previous years. Just an odd, and tiny, draft class. And it's led to a tiny crop of undrafted talent. 

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I think for a lot of folks it's because they have a plan at quarterback. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. But they do have a plan.

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I think so. I know the Patriots are loaded with tight ends now, and there is some overlap between that position and the fullback spot. (Fullbacks are coached by tight ends coach Nick Caley and meet with the tight ends on a daily basis.) And I know that back when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were rewriting record books when it came to production at tight end, the fullback wasn't a big part of what the Patriots did. That was a while ago.

Since then, the fullback has become a key part of their offense -- not tight ends playing fullback but a legitimate hammer-you-until-you-want-to-give-up kind of physical presence who focuses on fullbacking and fullbacking alone. Given the construction of the team, and given the style they want to play, I think they'd be reluctant to part with that kind of player. Dalton Keene really saw no time at fullback last year -- even in camp when we thought he may be moved around some.

Same goes for Devin Asiasi. Jonnu Smith can play back there, but when you want to punish a team for playing 220-pound linebackers at the second level, do you really want to try to line up high-speed collisions with those defenders using your new, high-priced tight end (who might also be your best pass-catcher)? I'd be surprised. To me, it makes sense to have a true fullback on the roster in order to execute the variety of runs upon which the Patriots have become reliant in recent seasons.

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Great question. I'm not sure. I think, given the amount he's been paid, it should be Nelson Agholor. He's played inside in the past, and he's athletic enough to create separation on the interior. He also happens to be the team's best deep threat at the moment.

So where do the Patriots opt to use him? If he's outside, then that'd leave an opening for Kendrick Bourne or Jakobi Meyers, who are high-cut slots and different types of route-runners than the low-to-the-ground interior option the Patriots are used to having. I think there's a chance that type of player is going to land on the roster in time. Jamison Crowder from the Jets? Jakeem Grant from the Dolphins? Golden Tate, who's a free agent? They need one more piece in that receiver room, in my opinion. 

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I'll say Christian Barmore. If Mac Jones turns into a legitimate franchise quarterback, that's a steal in the middle of the first round. Those types of players usually go inside the first 10 picks. But in all likelihood, Jones was taken where he should've been.

My guess is he'll be solid, if not an All-Pro, at the next level. Barmore has the potential to be one of the best players in football at his position. He's that talented. He dominated in the College Football Playoff against future pros from Ohio State and Notre Dame. Dominated them. He fell for a reason, but if the Patriots can get the most out of him, he'll be a disruptor in passing situations and a powerful two-gapper on early downs. To get him nearly 40 picks into the draft, when he could end up a top-20 player in this draft class, qualifies as a potential steal.

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Sure. There's room for both. Both are going to have to contribute in the kicking game. Both are going to have to produce on third down. But the Patriots like to keep their linebacker rooms loaded. And they're loaded at the moment. Wouldn't shock me if the Patriots toyed with the idea of playing Winovich at the second level.

He's a good athlete (he's tested out as a better athlete than Perkins back in 2019) and has the demeanor to take on a new role. But that's exactly what it would be. New. He's an edge guy. I think you're more likely to find a defensive back -- Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger -- playing at the second level than you are Winovich.

You simply don't play many big bodies at off-the-ball linebacker these days because defenses are so often in sub situations. After Dont'a Hightower and Josh Uche, so long as they're healthy, the Patriots probably won't need an incredibly deep rotation there. And don't forget about Kyle Van Noy. He spent half his snaps in 2018 off the ball and could be moved back there if the team feels it has a need. 

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Never say never, Eric. Julio Jones would be a massive expense if kept on his current deal ($15.3 million base salary), but the Patriots have enough cap space to make that work if they really wanted him. My contention has been even well before the draft that they need another wideout. Jones would more than capably -- even at this stage of his career -- fill that void. Play him outside. Play Agholor inside. Roll with the two tight ends.

Suddenly, if the quarterback play is solid, this is one of the more dangerous offenses in the league. Is Bill Belichick looking to spend that kind of dough on a wideout who's closer to the end than the beginning? Maybe not. But he'd also be well aware of just how much more dynamic an addition like Jones would make his offense. The price point, to me, would be the obvious sticking point.

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I don't think they're against it. Look at 2007. I just think Belichick hasn't had an appetite for paying for that kind of player. (Even in 2007, Randy Moss came at a massive discount for the player he was.) And the lack of receiving talent they have right now isn't necessarily for a lack of trying. It's just that N'Keal Harry hasn't panned out. I thought they'd keep swinging in the draft, but they really didn't outside of a late flier on Tre Nixon in the seventh round. 

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I don't think it's that people don't believe in COVID fog. It's clearly been an issue for some athletes. And I think it's fair to say it might've been a thing for a while for Newton, whether he was willing to admit it or not. But he's been given ample opportunity to talk about his post-COVID issues and what he's described is that the offense was more complex when he came back -- not that he was dealing with pulmonary issues or cognitive issues or light-sensitivity issues (something Evan Fournier described recently).

Plus, his struggles really lasted the entirety of the season. So to say he was improved by the Chargers game kind of misses the mark. (He was 9-for-16 a few days later in a blowout loss to the Rams.) I think other ailments, maybe his foot or his throwing shoulder, were probably more significant hindrances to him last season. Regardless of what he was dealing with, he should be more productive in 2021 if given the chance to start just based on the talent that will now surround him.

The numbers will be better, in all likelihood. The question is going to be whether or not someone else on the roster -- namely the No. 15 overall pick from last weekend -- could do more with who's in Foxboro these days.

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Used both off the line and on last year. Good size. Built more like a "Sam" linebacker in that he should be able to hold up on the edge and funnel runs back inside. We just didn't see him excel in any of the roles in which he was used last year.

I think he'd benefit from maybe taking on one gig and trying to master it rather than trying to do a little bit of everything. Maybe he's Matt Judon's backup. Maybe he's the next in line to play off the ball behind Hightower and Bentley. Whatever it is, a simplified role could help him. 

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We put together a 53-man roster earlier this week. I think there's a chance two recent first-rounders (Sony Michel, N'Keal Harry) and one recent second-rounder (Joejuan Williams) aren't in town by the end of camp. Maybe the Patriots can bring back a little draft capital for some or all of those, but player-for-player trades are exceedingly rare in the NFL these days. If the Patriots do acquire a veteran of some sort before the start of the season, I'd expect it to be a receiver.

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I think you're on the money, Nick. We had Steve Sarkisian on Next Pats lately, and he compared Jones to Ryan in that their off-the-field approaches are similar. There are pocket passers aside from Tom Brady who have had success in the league lately. Ryan is one. Derek Carr is another. Kirk Cousins is another. I think that's about Jones' ceiling. If he can get close to any of those players while he's still on his rookie contract? That's serious value. 

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It doesn't matter because Trubisky is now in Buffalo, but I don't see the fit there, Sean. Trubisky (1.8 scrambles per game) was actually more of a scrambler than Newton was last season (1.3) believe it or not. Trubisky is just not really a play-within-structure quarterback with good timing and an ability to make sound decisions quickly. Not his game. If the Patriots wanted a good bridge for the style of play Jones brings to the table, Teddy Bridgewater -- who landed with the Broncos for a sixth-round pick earlier this offseason -- would've made some sense.

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