Patriots' QB plans fuel intrigue, but importance of 2021 NFL draft goes deeper

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Of all the things that have been said about the New England Patriots over the past month, perhaps nothing sums up the importance of the moment more than owner Robert Kraft's assessment.

"I don't feel like we've done the greatest job the last few years, and I really hope and believe, I've seen a different approach this year," Kraft said.

This is a critical draft for the Patriots, who enter with the No. 15 pick, their highest selection since 2008. So much of the intrigue surrounds what they might do at quarterback, and understandably so. But there's much more to it than that.

With that as a springboard, here is a Patriots "primer" leading into the three-day 2021 NFL draft that kicks off Thursday in Cleveland (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN App).

Pre-draft buzz: Everyone knows coach Bill Belichick loves to trade. No one has made more draft-day trades than him over the past two decades (82). So it's no surprise that sources say the Patriots have explored various possibilities by reaching out to teams across the NFL to see who might be most willing to deal; it is their way of gathering intelligence leading into the draft.

As for who they might be targeting, good luck! Belichick keeps things very close to the vest, including with some close to him in the organization. Kraft said everyone knows the Patriots have to find their way, long term, at QB. But how the Patriots truly view this year's crop of top quarterbacks remains a mystery.

New regime: One point Belichick has noted is the transition from director of player personnel Nick Caserio, now the Houston Texans' general manager, and how replacing him has been a team effort. Dave Ziegler, Caserio's former assistant, is in an expanded role alongside Eliot Wolf, Matt Groh and Matt Patricia. Belichick called the work of the four "fantastic" in an interview on the Patriots All-Access television show, and he feels the team is well prepared to hopefully make good decisions.

Team needs: Beyond quarterback, other top needs include wide receiver, offensive tackle, cornerback and the defensive front seven. The good news for the Patriots? When it comes to the most prospects ranked inside the top 100, according to Scouts Inc., it is receiver (17), cornerback (16) and offensive tackle (11). If there's a run of QBs early, that could push a top-rated player at other positions of need to the Patriots' sweet spot.

Jimmy G factor: Some around the Patriots wonder if the San Francisco 49ers will come to the conclusion that keeping quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021 doesn't make sense. The draft will be a moment of truth of sorts in that regard as the 49ers will be taking a quarterback at No. 3. If Garoppolo ends up being moved, it's hard to imagine the Patriots aren't at the top of the list of considerations, especially since Garoppolo has a no-trade clause and thus retains some semblance of leverage. Any possibility would presumably have to come with a contract adjustment from Garoppolo to make it work in New England.

Draft room: The NFL is allowing a maximum of 10 fully vaccinated individuals in the draft room this year, and any rooms in which non-vaccinated personnel are present will be subject to a maximum of 20 individuals with requirements for physical distancing and mask wearing. The Patriots traditionally have one of the smallest draft rooms in the league anyhow, usually in the single digits.

Gilmore's status: Could cornerback Stephon Gilmore be part of a trade package? The main reason it would be a consideration is his contract, which calls for him to earn $7 million in base salary, a result of having $5 million advanced to him in 2020. Cornerback-needy teams such as the Carolina Panthers (picking No. 8 overall), Denver Broncos (No. 9) and Dallas Cowboys (No. 10) all pick ahead of the Patriots, so perhaps Gilmore would intrigue them. Any trade would likely have to come with a significant extension. A few weeks ago, Kraft said: "We're lucky to have Stephon Gilmore. He's a tremendous player for us, a great person. ... He's just so gifted and he's under contract with us. We'll see what happens."

Second-tier QBs: Starting quarterbacks Garoppolo (second round, 2014), Derek Carr (second, '14), Russell Wilson (third, '12) and Kirk Cousins (fourth, '12) serve up a reminder that if the Patriots don't select a quarterback in the first round, it doesn't necessarily close the book on them finding a starter in this draft. They've spent plenty of time with the second-tier signal-callers -- a group headlined by Stanford's Davis Mills, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond and Florida's Kyle Trask -- and it would hardly be surprising if they view one of them the same way they did Garoppolo in 2014. Mills, in particular, seems to have traits the Patriots generally value, such as sound mechanics and size.

10 picks: The Patriots enter with 10 picks, which ties them with six other teams for second most behind the Philadelphia Eagles (11). That's a lot of draft capital for Belichick to wheel and deal. The picks are in the first round (15), second (46), third (96), fourth (120, 122, 139), fifth (177), sixth (188, 197) and seventh (242).

Non-QB targets: From the let's have a little fun and play the "fantasy general manager" game, here are a few beyond-the-first-round prospects who seem to fit the Patriots' profile -- wide receivers Rondale Moore (Purdue), Elijah Moore (Mississippi), Dyami Brown (North Carolina) and Shi Smith (South Carolina); cornerbacks Eric Stokes (Georgia), Ambry Thomas (Michigan), Shaun Wade (Ohio State), Zech McPhearson (Texas Tech) and Camryn Bynum (Cal); and offensive tackles Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State), Spencer Brown (Northern Iowa), Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame) and Alaric Jackson (Iowa).

Cam in town: With so much focus on the QBs, it is notable that into the second week of the team's offseason program, Cam Newton continues to show up at the facility. So does Jarrett Stidham. A lot of the team's newcomers are in town as well, a group including tight end Hunter Henry and wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. So while the Patriots are considering their QB options in the draft, Newton and Stidham are establishing early chemistry with some of their teammates.