Patriots letting Devin Lloyd slip away in 2022 NFL Draft could haunt them

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When people think about the Patriots missing an opportunity to draft a defensive player in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, they’ve typically focused on the cornerbacks the team could’ve taken.

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Like Trent McDuffie, who went to the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 21 pick the Patriots traded them, or Kaiir Elam, who went to the Buffalo Bills 23rd overall.

Fortunately, the strong play of Jonathan Jones and the sudden emergence of fourth-round rookie Jack Jones has blunted some fears about the cornerback position. Jack Jones might have just as much upside as any of the guys they could’ve taken in the first round — only falling to the fourth because of disciplinary issues.

That’s not the position the Patriots should be kicking themselves over for passing on early in the draft. It’s linebacker.

Yeah, sure, linebackers aren’t as valuable as cornerbacks, edge rushers and offensive tackles. But for goodness’ sake, read the room! Not only did the Patriots need an upgrade at linebacker heading into the season, there were several dynamic first-round options who had the positional versatility and raw play-making skill to actually justify a late-first-round pick.

Devin Lloyd, though, might be the one who got away.

The former Utah linebacker, who had looked like a top-15 pick in most early mock drafts, fell down draft boards over concerns about his explosiveness (which is why Georgia’s Quay Walker went before him) and positional value. But watching his tape made it annoyingly apparent how good a fit he seemed for the Patriots: a new-age Dont’a Hightower who had the range to cover sideline-to-sideline, ball skills to excelling pass coverage and chops to rush the passer on the line of scrimmage and as a blitzer.

Sadly, he never made it to the Patriots, instead going to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the No. 27 overall pick. New England took guard Cole Strange two plays later.

First of all, let’s make this clear: Strange has been a perfectly fine pick for the Patriots so far. He’s gotten better seemingly every game and dominated a really good interior defender in Green Bay’s Kenny Clark at points during last Sunday’s game against the Packers. He has true Pro Bowl/All-Pro potential later in his career.

But man, the Patriots sure could’ve used a young linebacker who just got named Defensive Rookie of the Month for September thanks in part to two interceptions, four pass-breakups and a rookie class-leading 30 tackles (including a 14-tackle game against the Philadelphia Eagles).

Instead, New England swapped out its older version of “bad” at linebacker for a newer one. The team’s highest-graded inside linebacker (via Pro Football Focus) so far in 2022 is Jahlani Tavai (69.2), who can occasionally stop the run but is a liability about 90 percent of the time. Ja’Whaun Bentley has been as advertised — big and thumping but slow — Mac Wilson is fast but out of position too much and Raekwon McMillan has been hurt and bad.

There’s a wishful thinking element of believing the Patriots could have just stayed at No. 21 and drafted Lloyd or burned a Day 3 pick to slide up two spots to get him at No. 27 even after trading down while still getting the players you got instead — Strange and second-round pick Tyquan Thornton, specifically. But sometimes sacrifices have to be made, and taking Lloyd probably changes their whole draft outlook.

Still, it’s hard not to look at how the draft unfolded and lament the Patriots missing out on the potential Defensive Rookie of the Year just because “off-ball linebackers aren’t that important.”

Because Devin Lloyd could have been if he was a New England Patriot, and he’s now showing it for one of the surprising young teams in the league early in 2022.