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Insiders predict the perfect Patriots draft: How Belichick will use 2018 picks

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After losing several players in free agency, the New England Patriots have needs across their roster. Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Cameron Fleming and Danny Amendola are among the recent contributors who are now gone. They also have no young backup with potential behind soon-to-be 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady.

Now, after trading Brandin Cooks for a first-round pick, Bill Belichick & Co. have the draft capital (picks 23, 31, 43, 63 and 95 in the first three rounds) to move into the top 10 of the 2018 draft. But Belichick is known to do the opposite -- he likes trading down and acquiring extra picks, not trading up and mortgaging next year's picks. So what will New England do?

We asked a panel of four ESPN NFL Insiders to go inside the mind of The Hoodie and predict how the Patriots will finish April:


What's the No. 1 position the Patriots should target in the draft?

Matt Bowen, NFL writer: Drafting a young offensive tackle should be one of the top priorities after Solder signed with the Giants in free agency. And with Belichick now holding the No. 23 pick, Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey and UCLA's Kolton Miller should both be high on the Patriots' draft board. But don't forget about the Patriots potentially targeting a linebacker with speed and versatility or adding more depth/competition in the secondary. Keep an eye on Alabama's Rashaan Evans here.

Mike Reiss, ESPN Patriots reporter: It's a toss-up between left tackle and off-the-line linebacker, with developmental quarterback slotted right behind those spots. How the team views 2017 third-round pick Antonio Garcia -- who missed all of last season after reportedly having blood clots in his lungs -- will determine how strongly they view the left-tackle need. In the end, the vote here is for an off-the-line linebacker who projects as a four-down player (think back to the struggles in coverage in Super Bowl LII). Those types of linebackers, of course, are rare.

Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Left tackle. Garcia was supposed to be the heir apparent to Solder until last year's blood clot issues. He's expected to make a full recovery, but can he put all the weight back on and return to the field in time to be a starter by September? It's unlikely. LaAdrian Waddle is certainly not a starting-quality left tackle, and then there's the problem of depth: What if Waddle is forced into the lineup and then gets hurt?

Field Yates, NFL Insider: Left tackle. The draft, however, is not the only solution for the Patriots at this position. The reality is that the NFL has endured a near league-wide effect of college offensive linemen transitioning to the NFL, which traces in part to the saturation of spread offenses at the college level in which linemen play a decidedly different style than they will at the pro level. If the Patriots do not draft a left tackle in one of the first two rounds, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is the team's ace in the hole to help ready an in-house candidate, be it recently re-signed Waddle, Garcia or Cole Croston, another second-year player.

A perfect 2018 draft for Belichick would be ...

Bowen: If McGlinchey slips to No. 23, I see that as the safe bet for the Patriots in the first round with Belichick flipping the No. 31 pick for more draft capital. And if that's the case, it sets up the Patriots with a realistic shot at four Day 2 picks. That would put New England in line to draft a developmental quarterback, versatility at the linebacker position, secondary help and possibly get a boost at running back with Georgia's Sony Michel or USC's Ronald Jones II.

Reiss: They land a four-down off-the-line linebacker, potential left tackle of the future, and a Jimmy Garoppolo-type developmental quarterback, while also adding more assets to their 2019 draft stock (first-rounder, second-rounder, two projected third-round compensatory picks). It would really be a bonanza if they can find an Alvin Kamara type difference-maker in a deep class at running back (they haven't selected a RB since James White in 2014), and a combination tight end to groom behind Rob Gronkowski, who has been weighing how much longer he wants to play.

Schatz: A left tackle, a developmental quarterback, and a linebacker who can play in pass coverage. I'll also agree with Mike Reiss that there's a need for a young tight end here who can develop for when Gronk departs and be part of two-tight-end sets now. If the Patriots take a running back, it should be later in the draft; no team has done better developing late-round or undrafted running backs, and the Patriots don't really need a James White-type because they have James White for the next three years.

Yates: A left tackle, developmental quarterback and speed at linebacker and running back. That's asking a lot, but to address those needs -- in that order -- would put the team in another strong position to make a deep run in the 2018 season. More over, having a player like 2017 third-round edge rusher Derek Rivers healthy will only make for another likely contributor on the defensive front.

What's more likely to happen: New England trades into the top 10 to take a QB; New England trades out of the first round and takes a QB in the second round; or New England doesn't take a QB until Day 3 of the draft?

Bowen: Let's go with option "B." Think of Richmond's Kyle Lauletta, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph or Washington State's Luke Falk as possibilities in this spot. This would allow the Patriots to stockpile more picks while adding a quarterback to mold behind Brady. And that would create time to truly develop a young player in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' scheme.

Reiss: The Patriots have entered the draft with multiple first-round picks five times in Bill Belichick's 18-year tenure, and in three of those years, they've traded out of the first round with one of the selections. So I'll take scenario "B" here. The Patriots are looking for Jimmy Garoppolo 2.0 and, let's not forget, they found him in the second round in 2014 (62nd overall).

Schatz: Another vote here for the Patriots doing what the Patriots are known for doing: They're more likely to trade down and/or use one of their second-round picks on a quarterback. Our QBASE system would favor Louisville's Lamar Jackson if he falls to the second round, and Rudolph otherwise.

Yates: Option "B." While the need for a developmental quarterback on the roster is apparent, mortgaging multiple picks (perhaps both first-rounders plus a second-rounder) to move into the top 10 would compromise the team's ability to replenish youth across the roster.

Will the Patriots come out of this draft with a first- or second-round pick in the 2019 draft?

Bowen: Yes. With Belichick holding the No. 31 pick, the Patriots are in the ideal spot to field calls from teams looking to jump back in the first round. Picture a situation there with a team moving up to draft Lamar Jackson if he's still on the board or LSU running back Derrius Guice. This would allow the Patriots to add another Day 2 pick this draft and another second-round pick in 2019.

Reiss: Belichick's long-term security, and willingness to be patient, has helped the Patriots take advantage of opportunities like this in the past when other franchises/regimes are operating with more urgency with their jobs on the line. That dynamic remains in play today, with Belichick showing signs he's still in it for the long haul and owner Robert Kraft putting his full support behind him. That increases the odds the Patriots will come out of the draft with a first- or second-round pick in 2019.

Schatz: That seems like a likely scenario if there's a trade down from one of those two first-round picks: Perhaps they flip No. 31 for a high second-round pick this year and a second-round pick in 2019.

Yates: Yes. While the Patriots are in a position right now to maneuver throughout this draft, it does not mean that they will be maneuvering upward (toward pick No. 1). There seems to be a near annual appetite for a team to trade into the back end of the first round to select a quarterback, which would position the Patriots to make a move built along the lines of (with other additional parts involved): a 2018 second- and 2019 second-round pick in exchange for their late 2018 first-round pick.