Though the 2023 NFL Draft is still many months away, it’s never too early to create the New England Patriots draft board. Following a rather unconventional yet productive draft in 2022, the Patriots look to build on their young core. And the positions the Patriots will likely need to address in 2023 are tackle, linebacker, safety, and tight end.
But what does the typical Patriot prospect look like at each position?
New England Patriots Draft Board Needs
6’4″+ , 300lbs+
Former New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia looked for three traits when scouting prospects along the offensive line. Scarnecchia wanted them to be tough, athletic, and smart. Those three traits have served the Patriots well over the years, finding gems in the draft like Matt Light, Nate Soldier, and Sebastian Volmer.
In addition to just their traits, the Patriots look for tall and heavy offensive tackles. Going back to the Tom Brady years, maintaining a clean pocket for Brady, who is not especially athletic, was important. Having giants on either side of the offensive line is a good start and something the Patriots have struggled with this year.
In 2019, the Patriots drafted Isaiah Wynn from the University of Georgia in the first round. For most of his career, Wynn, who stands at just under six-foot-three and under 300 pounds, has had trouble controlling edge rushers and keeping the pocket clean for a bevy of New England quarterbacks. As a result, Wynn’s atypical physique to the Patriots system led to his benching behind a more Patriots-sized tackle in Marcus Cannon.
If the Patriots target an offensive tackle in the 2023 draft, expect them to look similar to Trent Brown or Marcus Cannon instead of Isaiah Wynn.
The linebacker and safety position is combined as the Patriots shift to a more “positionless defense.” Moreover, the traditional “thumper” linebacker that the Patriots covet no longer serves as great a purpose in 2022. With receivers, tight ends, and running backs faster and more dynamic than ever, lumbering linebackers like former Patriots Tedy Bruschi or Ted Johnson are unlikely to keep pace. In their place, the Patriots have devised a new role known as “joker.”
The joker position is a hybrid of linebacker and safety, much like strong safety Kyle Dugger. Dugger is a physical safety helping in run support, deep zone coverage, and man-to-man coverage, shutting down tight ends. Bill Belichick is a stickler for making tackles and play recognition ability, making intelligence and fundamentals invaluable when selecting talent in the draft. Kyle Dugger played college ball at the Division II level at Lenoir-Rhyne University, but his traits matching the “joker” mold drove Belichick to draft him in the second round of the 2020 Draft.
And while finding the perfect “joker” candidate is challenging, the more athletic linebackers have become and more physical safeties have become in the NCAA, there is potential to find them. With veteran safety Devin McCourty likely to hang up his cleats after this season, New England could be in the market for another safety in the 2023 draft.
Rounding out the positions of need for the New England Patriots draft board is tight end. While 2021 signing Hunter Henry has produced for the Patriots, Jonnu Smith has yet to find his place in the offense. As a result, with both of their contracts soon to enter their third year, the Patriots will likely keep their eyes on the tight end position.
The quintessential New England Patriots tight end was Rob Gronkowski. At six-foot-six and just over 250 pounds, Gronk was a model tight end for the Patriots. Not only was Gronk an athletic pass-catcher, he was a physical and willing run-blocker whenever needed. With the Patriots showing no intentions of abandoning the Erhardt-Perkins offense any time soon, having a blocking tight end with soft hands is essential. The Patriots, for years, feasted on play-action passes to their tight ends and bullying smaller linebackers and defensive backs at the line of scrimmage.
And while Gronkowski was a once-in-a-generation talent, there are still a considerable number of modern-day comps. Players like T.J. Hockenson, George Kittle, and Pat Freiermuth are all Big-10 products built in a similar mold with similar skill sets. If the Patriots can find a player of their caliber in the draft this year, they may find their starting TE1 for the foreseeable future, reminiscent of the great Rob Gronkowski.