Sunday 7: Patriots’ biggest draft need is a ‘guy that wears a target’


1 – Longtime NFL offensive lineman, NFL Network analyst and Audacy insider Brian Baldinger joined WEEI’s “6 Rings” podcast this week to talk all things Patriots and the fast-approaching 2023 NFL Draft.

Baldy, as he’s known to just about everybody other than his own mother, had an interesting response when asked what Bill Belichick and New England should be looking for with the No. 14 overall pick this coming Thursday night.

“I just feel like they need the best playmaker they can find on any side of the ball. They just need a guy that wears a target every Sunday. Look, Rhamondre [Stevenson] is a good player. But they need a star power-type player. Where they’re just an elite, elite player every time they step on the field. Like what Micah Parsons was in Dallas, they picked Micah at No. 12 or whatever it was. They need that type of player somewhere on the field on this team.”

2 – One of the always-interesting narratives heading into the primetime first round of the draft is the question of how many actual first-round talents are available. Just because 31 picks will be made in the opening round, doesn’t mean there are that many guys truly valued at that level by talent evaluators. Still, Baldinger believes there are more than enough prospects with high-end grades across all positions for the Patriots to get value.

“I’d say like most drafts, there’s not 31,” Baldinger said of first-round grades. “There are somewhere between 20 and 25 blue-chippers. I feel like there are 20-25 players that are true No. 1 draft picks.”

3 – Senior Bowl director and former Patriots front office staffer Jim Nagy create a stir on Twitter a couple weeks ago when he noted that the media seems to like the wide receiver talent in this year’s draft class more than NFL teams do. Nagy passed along that some NFL teams have only one receiver with a first-round grade, Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba. That may be disappointing for some local football fans – including yours truly! -- who’ve fallen in love with the idea of Boston College receiver Zay Flowers making the short NFL commute down 95 to a career at Gillette Stadium.

“If he’s used right,” Baldinger does believe Flowers can be an NFL star. “Like if you said OK, Zay Flowers is going to be our Wes Welker, our Julian Edelman and [Tom] Brady’s our quarterback, not that Mac [Jones] can’t utilize him, but this has been a franchise that literally went Wes, Edelman, [Danny] Amendola…that was an elite position for the Patriots for the better part of two decades. To me that’s what Zay Flowers is. He’s an elite…he’s smaller. That’s kinda the theme of the receiver draft. They’re smaller, look like slot-type guys. But Zay is right there with his ability, with his stop-and-start quickness, what he can do after the catch. Zay Flowers has that if you use him the right way. I think if he was in an offense where he was used the right way then I think he could be an elite prospect.”

4 – While an “elite” wide receiver would certainly be on New England’s list of needs, adding a high-end tackle or a cornerback would also certainly be a need consideration at No. 14. As a guy who played 143 games on the line in the NFL, Baldinger doesn’t shy away from his belief in investing in that area and in one guy in particular for New England.

“Darnell Wright, to me he’s the best offensive lineman in this draft,” Baldinger said of the Tennessee tackle. “That’s just me. I like a guy that started 42 games. I like a guy that shut out Willie Anderson and Travon Walker. I like his size, the way he runs. I don’t know how many right tackles the Patriots played the last 3-4 years, but there’s a bunch and they signed Riley Reiff. OK. Darnell looks like you could plug that guy in. He’s not going to pull a calf muscle the first day, the first game and miss the season. You can plug that guy in at right tackle and you’re going to be a better offense. That’s how I feel about Darnell, anywhere he goes. And I don’t think 14 is too high.”

5 – New England created some pre-draft buzz when it hosted Kentucky QB prospect Will Levis on a visit to Gillette Stadium this week. The Newton, Mass. native played high school football in Connecticut and has a self-described “cannon” for a right arm. His draft status has been much debated, with a late push to the idea that he might even end up going No. 2 overall.

Levis’ New England visit and all that’s gone on with Jones’ over the last year-plus has created a simple but rather big-picture question as to whether the Patriots can win with the former 2021 No. 15 overall pick under center.

“I don’t think you can win like you are used to winning. That would be making comparisons to Tom Terrific. That’s not fair. But I don’t feel like they can compete right now with Josh Allen,” Baldinger said. “I don’t feel like if Aaron Rodgers goes to New York and plays two years that you’re going to be able to compete with New York. So that’s just me. Maybe if you give him Zay Flowers and a right tackle or you give him Billy O’Brien in his hear and you get somebody who knows how to do this as a profession maybe we’ll see a real bounce back from what we saw a year ago when he wasn’t very good. Do we really need another 12- or 14-play drive to score a touchdown? Enough of these things. That’s a hard way to make a living unless you are Tom Brady. So I feel like you wouldn’t be wrong talking to Will Levis. He’s got a bigger arm. I don’t know that he’d be a better player.

“New England might think about upgrading the position. You have to win in your division if you are going to advance anywhere in the playoffs.”

6 – As much as Baldinger may have doubts about Jones’ ability to compete with the elite quarterbacks in the AFC East or across the conference, he’s even more dubious that Jones and second-year option Bailey Zappe should be in some sort of quarterback competition this offseason.

“I think that’s probably a bad sign if they are going to compete for the starting job. Because are you really going to start the winner? Is the winner really that much better? I just fee like you better know your quarterback,” Baldinger said. “It’s a new offense. Billy is calling the plays. Give that guy as much time this offseason to just listen to Billy in his ear and understand his philosophy and how he’s going to make this offseason sing next year. Like, I hope they have that decision made.”

7 – The 2023 NFL Draft will kick off Thursday night at 8 pm, the Patriots holding the No. 14 pick in the first round, one of New England’s 11 selections over the course of the three-day process. WEEI will have a live Rich Keefe Show draft night party from 6 to midnight, including not only the “6 Rings” podcast crew but a variety of other guests breaking down all the picks, trades and rumors. If Belichick stands pat at No. 14, and given that each team has 10 minutes per pick in the first round, it could take a little more than two hours for the Patriots to be on the clock. Although, based on last year’s total first-round time of three hours and 18 minutes, it’s possible New England could pick sometime in the 9 o’clock hour. Whenever the pick is made – or traded away, boo!!!!! – WEEI and will have full coverage and analysis. To get ready for the NFL Draft listen to all the “6 Rings” podcasts, prospect breakdowns and the extended chat with Baldinger.

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