What the Patriots' love for older rookies could mean for their 2023 NFL Draft board


Guessing the New England Patriots' intentions in the NFL Draft is always easier said than done.

In fact, the most predictable move they've made in recent years might just have been taking Mac Jones at No. 15 overall in 2021, and the jury's still out on whether that's going to work out.

But one thing has consistently come through in the Patriots' recent drafts: they typically lean on experienced prospects with their first picks in the draft.

Over the last five years, New England has taken a college senior or graduate student with each of their first picks in the draft (including second-round pick Kyle Dugger in 2020) with the exception of N'Keal Harry, who came out as a true junior in 2019.

Expanding that out, only four of the Patriots' 19 picks in Rounds 1-3 since 2018 (Harry, Christian Barmore, Ronnie Perkins and Dalton Keene) have played fewer than four years of college ball.

(Fun fact: Kevin Harris was the only three-year college player from last year's class.)

What does that mean for this year's draft? Well, perhaps it means we can potentially cross some players off our list of first-round hopefuls for the Patriots.

All those top tackles we've been talking about -- Peter Skoronski, Broderick Jones and Paris Johnson Jr. -- might be the first casualties. All of them are either true juniors or redshirt sophomores and are projects in their own way due to physical limitations (Skoronski) or flaws borne of inexperience (Jones and Johnson).

Additionally, Patriots.com reporter Evan Lazar noted Wednesday all of the offensive linemen drafted in the top 50 under Bill Belichick (Cole Strange, Isaiah Wynn, Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, current offensive line coach Adrian Klemm and Matt Light) all played at least four years of college ball and were multi-year starters. Even Sebastian Vollmer, who didn't attend the Senior Bowl or the Combine like the others, was a redshirt senior who started two straight seasons at tackle before the Patriots made him the 58th overall pick in 2009.

Though offensive tackle is still a big need for the Patriots in this draft, perhaps they might view Darnell Wright and Dawand Jones, who both showed out at the Senior Bowl and have more playing experience, as safer bets to contribute right away.

For those who want a cornerback in Round 1, Joey Porter Jr. and Devon Witherspoon fit the bill as four-year college players while Christian Gonzalez, a true junior who bounced between Colorado and Oregon, does not. Emmanuel Forbes also doesn't fit the four-year cut off, though the Patriots might be considering him anyway.

Then, among receivers, we all know Zay Flowers chose to return to Boston College for his senior year and participated at the Shrine Bowl while Jaxon Smith-Njigba comes out of college as a true junior, which could knock him down the list of possible Patriots targets.

One might argue, of course, that passing on talented players who have the potential for greatness just because they're a little green might not be the best practice. But the flip side is that banking on (ostensibly) more mature college prospects could reduce the learning curve going into the pros and lead to more immediate production.

For coaching staffs (and fans) who aren't interested in intensive development projects, drafting older players would seem to mitigate some of that risk. That said, you still have to draft the "right" old rookies, and one can debate plenty whether the Patriots have done that well enough.

Anyway, don't be surprised if New England takes a left turn in the draft due to their affinity for experience over who pundits might perceive to be the best player on the board.

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