For just the second time in four years, the Patriots will go into the NFL draft with a first-round selection.
Last year they drafted Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel, but didn’t have a first-rounder in 2017 after trading for Brandin Cooks and in 2016 because of Deflategate. This year, they have the last pick in the first round, No. 32 overall, following their Super Bowl win over the Rams.
With the last pick in the first round, projecting who they will pick is nearly impossible for a variety of factors, including not knowing how the 31 picks before them will go, but also the unpredictability of Bill Belichick.
It appears the top needs on the roster are (not in any particular order) tight end, wide receiver and defensive line. But, usually this doesn’t matter at all as the Patriots are typically a team that takes the best player available, even if it doesn’t necessarily fulfill a need.
But, looking at the two first-round selections last year, they were at positions (offensive tackle and running back) that suffered big blows during that offseason — both Nate Solder and Dion Lewis leaving via free agency.
Going off that, it would appear the Patriots will be looking closely at tight ends (Rob Gronkowski retiring) and defensive ends (Trey Flowers signing with Detroit).
So, if the Patriots do select at No. 32, because trading up or down is always possible, who will it be?
Tight end Irv Smith Jr. out of Alabama.
At just 20 years old (he turns 21 in August), he’s still fairly raw and has plenty of room to grow, but he’s extremely talented. At 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, he can contribute both in the blocking and passing game, and also can line up as a wingback given his athleticism.
Smith didn’t record a catch as a true freshman, but was able to make a name for himself over the past two seasons, which Alabama reached the national title game in both. In 2017, he finished with 14 catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns in just nine games, but really stood out this past fall when he finished with 44 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.
These numbers also likely would have been even better if he didn’t play for Alabama and was part of an offense with so many other talented players.
This selection would make a ton of sense for New England, as it has had some success with drafting Alabama players in Round 1 (Dont’a Hightower) and given Nick Saban’s relationship with Belichick, Saban would likely need to give his full endorsement in order for Belichick to make the pick.
With Gronkowski out of the picture, the Patriots have Jacob Hollister, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Stephen Anderson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo on the tight end depth chart. Smith wouldn’t be pressured into making a huge impact right away because of the presence of Seferian-Jenkins, but as the season gets going and he gets comfortable, those two could be a duo Tom Brady and the Patriots offense has been seeking for many years.
Smith is the No. 3 tight end in the entire draft, as Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant will be long gone by the time the Patriots’ pick rolls around as they are projected to be top-20 picks, with the potential to go even higher. There’s a decent drop off between Smith and the next tier of tight ends, which is why the Patriots shouldn’t mess around and grab Smith when they can at the end of Round 1.
Of course, anything can happen on Thursday night including the potential of trading up, or back, but the name to know is Irv Smith Jr.