The New England Patriots are one of four teams still playing as they head into Conference Championship Sunday, and the 2016 NFL Draft remains far from the minds of most Patriots fans, not only because the draft won’t happen for another three months, but also because the Patriots lost their first-round pick, as well as their fourth-round draft pick, due to league penalties resulting from the so-called Deflategate scandal.
Though Quarterback Tom Brady, who was suspended four games over Deflategate, went on to beat that suspension in court and the case against him and the Patriots in the deflated-football affair has been widely discredited, that all came too late to reverse the draft pick penalty. Owner Robert Kraft last May decided to accept the league sanctions without a fight in what he thought was a peace offering to the NFL — a goodwill gesture that proved futile.
As result, the Patriots will not make a selection in the draft, which runs from April 28 to April 30 in Chicago, until the second round. And because of their place as one of the final four teams in the NFL playoffs, they will pick no higher than 60th overall.
What can they get with a pick that low? History would suggest, quite a bit. Most famously, New England selected what turned out to be a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady with the 199th selection in the 2000 draft, Head Coach Bill Belichick’s first at the Patriots helm. And in 2009 star wide receiver — and Brady’s favorite target — Julian Edelman was the Patriots seventh-round pick, number 232 overall.
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In 2010, they used the 42nd pick to take tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has gone on to revolutionize the position. The previous year the Patriots took offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer with the 59th pick. Record-setting kicker Stephen Gostkowski went with the 118th pick in 2006.
While no one can say for sure who New England will pick with their first selection in 2016, draft experts who are already staging their mock drafts have zeroed in on two possible Patriots targets.
According to Eddie Brown of the San Diego Union-Tribune, who laid out his initial mock draft picks on Wednesday, the Patriots will use that 60th overall pick on wide receiver Sterling Shepard, a 5-foot-10, 193-pound senior out of the University of Oklahoma.
“Shepard has only one weakness,” Brown wrote. “He’s slightly undersized, which puts him at a disadvantage against bigger, more physical defensive backs. He’s a nightmare to cover otherwise.”
Perhaps due to his size, Shepard — whose Sooners career highlights can be viewed in the video below — is projected by CBS Sports as a second- or even third-round pick, behind such better-known prospects as Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss and Baylor’s Corey Coleman.
On the other hand, Rotoworld draft analyst Josh Norris sees Shepard as the 22nd overall prospect in the draft, and if other teams see him that way, he may not be available when the Patriots finally get their chance to pick.
New England has had little success drafting wide receivers. Their last significant score — other than Edelman — came in 2002 with Deion Branch, picked 65th overall that year.
But according to NFL.com draft expert Lance Zierlein, the Patriots may opt instead to build their depth in the defensive secondary, targeting Virginia cornerback Maurice Canady.
At six-foot-one, Canaday would give the Patriots some additional size in the cornerback role, where they currently have Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, both at five-foot-11, who often find themselves forced to leave their feet to compete with taller wide receivers. But speed and footwork have been areas of weakness that cause Canady to project as a lower-round draft pick.
Though they hope to be preparing for the Super Bowl on January 30, the New England Patriots will certainly be keeping an eye on the Senior Bowl, played that day in Mobile, Alabama, where both Shepard and Canady will be taking part.
[Featured Photo By Maddie Meyer / Getty Images]