New England can turn to the 2022 NFL draft to replace key losses in free agency

New England Patriots

At 1-3, should the New England Patriots push the panic button?

Absolutely not.

Consider the following:

  • The three losses have been by a combined 18 points, with the biggest coming in Week 3, a 28-13 loss to New Orleans in which their rookie QB Mac Jones threw 3 interceptions, including two that led to touchdowns by the Saints. This type of game isn’t entirely unexpected from a rookie QB going through growing pains.
  • Once healthy, the offensive line should improve and has solid, relatively young pieces everywhere, including at OT.
  • The defense should prove to be one of the better units in the AFC this season.
  • Several young players are starting to play well after receiving more playing time, with more on the way, like 2021 second-rounder Christian Barmore.

Still, Patriots fans may be looking at a 9-8 season with no playoff berth.

And that’s OK, because here’s what we also know about this New England team: Jones appears to be improving and could turn out to be exactly what New England is hoping for, the long-term replacement for Tom Brady.

But even if New England experiences steady growth throughout the season, a few trouble spots are brewing, thanks to the pending free agency of some of its starters, including free safety Devin McCourty, right tackle Trent Brown, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, cornerback J.C. Jackson, and wide receiver Jakobi Myers (who will be a restricted free agent).

The main challenge? Most of those positions do not have a potential long-term young replacement waiting in the wings, with the lone exception being linebacker.

You never want to draft for need, but it’s not reasonable to strictly go by best player available in every round. Rather, you want your team to combine the two – take the best player available at a position of need.

New England can do just that in the 2022 NFL draft, even though the team only has picks in the first through fourth rounds and one in the sixth. Here’s an early look at how the team could replace those players through the draft:

Round 1: Offensive Tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, Ohio State

When the season started, Ohio State’s Thayer Munford was the offensive lineman who was getting the most press. Since then, Munford has moved to guard, and now Petit-Frere is the lineman everyone is talking about. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound junior allowed a pressure on just 0.5 percent of the team’s pass attempts, ranking him No. 1 among all OTs on Power 5 teams by Pro Football Focus. And Petit-Frere still hasn’t allowed a sack. He’s ranked No. 17 in ESPN’s Mel Kiper’s latest big board, No. 27 by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, No. 31 by Pro Football Focus and No. 23 by Pro Football News. From PFN: “Athletic, strong, and equally adept in pass protection and run blocking, Nicholas Petit-Frere is quickly becoming one of the best offensive tackles in the nation. … (H)e offers valuable versatility, which puts another tick in his NFL Draft stock box. Yet, it’s the seamless nature of that switch that has impressed us.” Petit-Frere would immediately step in for Trent Brown should he sign elsewhere.

Round 2: Wide receiver Jahan Dotson, Penn State

Few receivers in this draft boast the experience and the big-play ability of the speedy Dotson, who has 127 receptions for 2,021 yards and 19 touchdowns (and counting) for his career in 35 games. The only problem? Dotson’s size, as he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 184 pounds. But New England has never shied from taking smaller receivers, as long as they can produce on the field. And these first two picks would make Jones’ life a little easier in his second year. However, it’s possible Dotson won’t be available when New England is on the clock in the second round, as his stock is rising. Kiper listed him as his top receiver and No. 8 overall player in his latest mock. From Kiper: “Dotson is an explosive wideout having a great season. … He isn’t catching many screens and short routes — his average air yards per target is 12.2 yards, which is consistent with his four-year career at Penn State. He can break tackles after the catch. While Dotson had a few drops in 2019 and 2020, he hasn’t dropped any of his 35 targets this season. He’s on pace for a spectacular season.”

 Round 3: Cornerback Josh Jobe, Alabama

The 6-foot-1, 194-pound senior isn’t the playmaker that previous recent Alabama CBs were, like Patrick Surtain II or Trevon Diggs. But he still has plenty of experience and great size for the position. Plus, New England isn’t shy about taking an Alabama player. Since 2010, the Patriots have drafted 20 players from Alabama, including four in the past three drafts. Jobe would give the team options if it can’t re-sign Jackson. Is that asking too much of a third-round rookie? Maybe so, but Jobe has played in 30 games against some of the best competition in college football. One area of concern is penalties, as Jobe committed 11 last season, seven more than the next player on the list, according to Rival’s BamaInsider.

Round 4: Safety Leon O’Neal, Texas A&M

Texas A&M has a pair of safeties who will likely play at the next level in O’Neal and Demani Richardson. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior has 123 tackles, 9 TFLs, 17 PDs and 6 INTs for his career. While the Patriots aren’t shy about drafting a player from Alabama, they haven’t drafted an Aggie since 2008, when they drafted two. O’Neal has a PFF grade of 78.5 for the season, good for fourth-best among Texas A&M defenders. ranks O’Neal as the fourth-best safety in the draft, saying: “O’Neal is an early surprise this high on this list because his ability in run support has improved so much.”

Round 6: Linebacker Nate Landman, Colorado

The Patriots already have a couple of recent draft picks at this position who are starting to get more playing time – and are playing well – in 2018 fifth-rounder Ja’Whaun Bentley and 2020 second-rounder Josh Uche. While Uche has only received 81 snaps, he’s primarily being used on passing downs, where’s having a big impact with 3 sacks. Bentley, though, would be the most likely replacement for Hightower if Hightower doesn’t return after the season. And Ronnie Perkins of Oklahoma hasn’t seen the field this season due to injuries, but expect the team to get a look at the rookie third-rounder sometime soon. That’s why linebacker isn’t a huge need, at least in terms of the players-in-waiting, but it would be hard to pass up on the 6-foot-3, 235 pound Landman. The senior has played in 41 games (and counting), racking up 330 tackles, 41 TFLs, 10 sacks, 3 INTs and 10 PDs for his career. He’s also ranked as the 146th-most impactful player in college football, regardless of position or age, according to On3. He’s not expected to put up elite numbers at the Combine, though, which would be the reason why he’s still available on Day 3.

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