The New England Patriots had a confounding draft class this season. Every draft analyst and expert had the Patriots jumping for a safety or tight end in their first picks, and instead the Patriots drafted a defensive lineman and a quarterback with their first two picks. While everyone anticipated a draft built around adding offensive weapons for aging quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots grabbed an interior pass rush specialist and Brady’s possible replacement at quarterback in the future. Instead New England balanced the present and the future as they shored up both sides of the football and addressed their needs in their typical manner.
As frustrating as the 2014 NFL Draft may have been to observers, let’s take a look back at the draft for the Cover32.com New England Patriots Grade Day as training camp kicks off this week, and the rookies get to take center stage:
ROUND 1: #29 – Dominique Easley, DT
Easley is the type of high-risk, high-reward pick common at the end of the first round of the NFL Draft. He could be an explosive interior rusher, but he tore both ACLs in college and that’s the big concern. If he returns to health, the Patriots have a late first round steal like they did a decade ago when they snagged a tumbling defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. On one hand, having been through the injury once on his other knee, Easley could be on the fast track through rehabilitation. Expect to see Easley initially on third down, replacing Wilfork and rushing from the interior of the defensive line. As he returns to health, learns the defense and gains Coach Belichick’s confidence, Easley will likely end up rushing the passer from every and any spot on the defensive line.
ROUND 2 #62 – Jimmy Garoppolo, QB
Garoppolo fills a specific need in New England: insurance. Quarterback Tom Brady is moving towards being 40 years of age which is O-L-D for a starting quarterback, with pass rushers half his age coming at him. Backup Ryan Mallett is entering the last year of his contract, and the team needs a legitimate quarterback as the Tom Brady era nears its end. Garoppolo has one job in 2014: learn the offense. Beyond that, it is a development season for the young quarterback barring any calamity involving both Brady and Mallett. Garoppolo will be the top backup to Brady in 2015, so he needs to get his mechanics straightened out while learning from every preseason snap this training camp.
ROUND 4 #105 – Bryan Stork, C
The Patriots have been in need of an upgrade to their interior offensive line for the past two seasons and the selection of Stork gives them one of the highest rated players at center in the 2014 NFL Draft. Stork missed some time with injuries in college, but at 6-foot-3, 315 pounds, he brings a bigger body type to the position that the Patriots don’t currently have with undersized incumbent Ryan Wendell. Stork was brought in to be the long-term answer at center. He is being counted on to snap the ball to Tom Brady from 2015 until the end of his illustrious career at quarterback in New England. Stork should then ease the transition of whoever takes over under center for New England.
ROUND 4 #130 – James White, RB
White is a sure-handed running back who was a four down player at Wisconsin, contributing on offense and on special teams. Potentially able to grind out yards between the tackles on first and second down and contribute as a receiver out of the backfield on passing downs, White also has the ability to contribute immediately on special teams as a kickoff returner. White should step into the rotation at running back, filling in at multiple roles, while also adding depth to the roster with 2015 in mind.
ROUND 4 #140 – Cameron Fleming, OT
Cameron Fleming is a developmental right tackle who has NFL quality physical skills that could be molded into more as a right tackle a few years into the future. He is 6-foot-4, 323 pounds and will likely be spending a redshirt-type season learning under new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo although he is unlikely to slip through to the practice squad. Fleming excelled in the running game but is raw and not ready for the NFL in pass protection. Fleming is going to eat up a valuable roster spot this season and may have been available later in the draft as well.
ROUND 6 #179 – Jon Halapio, OG
A potential future starter at right guard, Jon Halapio adds power and size to the offensive line. Halapio doesn’t appear to have the versatility and quickness that the Patriots generally desire for their interior offensive linemen, but at six-foot-three, 323 pounds, Halapio brings much needed size and bulk to the guard position. He also brings toughness. Halapio dropped in the draft due to being limited at the scouting combine due to a torn pectoral muscle injury that he played through for most of his senior season. Halapio was a great value pick in the mold of valuable swing tackle Marcus Cannon.
ROUND 6 #198 – Zach Moore, DE
Previously, the Patriots invested a seventh round draft pick in 2013 for Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan and a 2012 third round draft pick on Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette. Neither player has proven capable of carving out any significant playing time and contributing during their brief tenure in New England. Moore will compete with the duo for a backup role at defensive end. Moore looks the part of a defensive end, standing six-foot-five and weighing 269 pounds. His tape shows he is an explosive athlete but the caveat is that the competition was Division II. Until training camp starts and he gets to play in the pre-season, he is squarely in the “project”/practice squad category.
ROUND 6 #206 – Jemea Thomas, CB
The Patriots selected the Georgia Tech defensive back with their final sixth round draft pick. Thomas has the versatility that Coach Belichick prefers in the secondary as he played cornerback, slot cornerback, and safety in college. He has special-teams experience which could be his path to the 53 man roster. Thomas looks like a solid program fit in New England although the only knock against him is his size as he is just five-foot-nine and 192 pounds
ROUND 7 #244 – Jeremy Gallon, WR
With their final draft pick of the 2014 NFL Draft the Patriots selected Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. Gallon is yet another slot receiver, and with Danny Amendola, Julien Edelman, and Josh Boyce ahead of him at the position, Gallon will have his work cut out to make the roster. Gallon appears to be strictly training camp insurance for an injury epidemic at slot receiver, but he may be able to contribute on special teams this year or stick on the practice squad. He has experience as a returner and his small target (he is only five-foot-eight and 183 pounds) and elusiveness makes him a candidate for punt and kick return duties.
Some of the picks made may have confused the analyst at first on draft night, but a healthy Easley and Garappolo, acting as a sponge and getting ready for 2015, should make this draft a success. Stork and White were great value picks in the fourth round and if any sixth round pick (most likely Halapio) develops and helps in 2015 this could be a home run.
OVERALL GRADE: B
Follow Hal Bent at @halbent01
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