picby Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff

Predicting the draft is tough enough, but it’s even tougher for the Patriots. People who follow the Patriots and the draft closely probably do a pretty reasonable job estimating the players the team is interested in. But just interest alone doesn’t get the player drafted by the Patriots; he has to be available as well, and surely there are always other teams interested. This is especially true now with all the former Patriots coaches and front office personnel spread throughout the NFL.

I know I have been doing my own draft lists for years and usually get 1 or 2 players who end up drafted by the Patriots. Sometimes the players I pick in the late rounds have ended up as undrafted free agent signees in New England. And undoubtedly, every year the Pats will surprise you in the early rounds (Ben Watson) and late rounds (Matt Cassel) with off-the-radar picks. But, since this is mostly for fun and good conversation, let’s give it a try and see how we do projecting!

Round 1(23): Alphonso Smith, Jr., CB, Wake Forest

Smith is in my opinion one of the top two corners in the draft, along with Ohio State’s Malcolm Jenkins. He can’t shift to safety due to his size and the knock against him is he is too small to be a top corner. So why does he fit? Because he is tough, physical, smart and has the ability, small size and all, to be a great corner, along with being an electrifying return man. Sort of a more talented version of Ellis Hobbs, who is a good corner in his own right. With both Hobbs and Leigh Bodden becoming free agents after this season, and Shawn Springs at 34 years old, it’s likely the Pats will want to bolster their corner ranks. They can’t go wrong with a sure-fire starter in a tough, physical and athletic guy like Smith, who also is a good character guy. Here is some of what we wrote about Smith last September on Patriots Daily: “A bit undersized at 5’9″ but is physical, fast and with pure athletic ability. Blankets receivers in coverage and college receivers generally can’t get much separation from him. Really impressive how he sticks his head in against the run and also can make big plays in coverage. Has 15 career interceptions. Looks quicker than everyone else. Has returned kicks and played special teams well, including blocking kicks. Probably second to Malcolm Jenkins as the second best senior corner in next year’s draft.”

Round 2(34): Evander “Ziggy” Hood, DE, Missouri

Many of the commercial draft publications have Hood as more of a 1-gap style defensive lineman. This, of course, is a style the Patriots rarely play, as they are almost exclusively a 2-gap team. The reason many are making this projection is that Hood has excellent speed, quickness and experience in a 1-gap type of system. This does not mean, however, he doesn’t have the skills to play 2-gap. And being quick isn’t a negative in a 2-gap system so long as you have the requisite other skills. And Hood does. Hood has the size, strength and coachability to adapt to the Patriots 3-4 2-gap style. He is strong, nobody disputes that. And he checks in at at a stout 6’3″ 300 lbs., perfect size for a 3-4 end. His speed and quickness will be looked at as an added benefit for the Patriots, as he can contain the edge and become an effective pass rusher. It is my opinion Hood has been underrated by some commercial draft sites and is a very good prospect. This does not mean necessarily he has been underrated by NFL teams, however, and the Patriots would likely be thrilled to get him at 34, helping with an area of need as Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green and LeKevin Smith all become free agents after this season.

Round 2(47): Andy Levitre, G, Oregon State

Again, with Logan Mankins a free agent after this season and Stephen Neal turning 33, the Patriots will likely try to bolster their guard ranks. There’s a lot to like about Levitre. A team captain, a hard worker, light on his feet enough to play in the Patriots screen-filled offense; he seems to have 10 year NFL starter written all over him. He is also strong and coachable. Has also played every position on the line except center, including goal line tight end.

Round 2(58): Pat White, QB, West Virginia

With an abundance of 2nd round picks, this is somewhat of a luxury pick. White is a great athlete who is also a winner with good intangibles. He is extremely quick as a runner. Reports are numerous that the Patriots spent quite a bit of time evaluating him. White has the skills to convert to wide receiver and also be an effective returner. He does have some good QB skills, such as a strong arm, but is a bit thin and short to be a traditional QB. With the Patriots also showing an interest in Texas A&M’s mobile QB Stephen McGee, one wonders if they are toying with use of wildcat formations this season.

With White, they could incorporate this occasionally (saving Tom Brady’s knee some snaps), while also utilizing White as a returner and receiver. It’s a great way to save an extra roster spot if he can cover and return kicks and also serve as the backup QB on the game day roster, while also providing emergency WR depth. I’m guessing that is what they have in mind. Here is what we said on Patriots Daily about White last October in a “College Scout” column: “White is a very fast, athletic, game-changing type runner. He ran for over 1,300 yards just last year alone. He’s done well as a passer in college, but is likely looking at a career in the NFL as a receiver. He has the speed and athletic ability to make the transition and be a good one.”

Round 3(89): Mike Thomas, WR, Arizona

A quick and fast slot receiver who is fearless and has great hands for catching passes in the middle of the field. Though short, he is an outstanding leaper. With Wes Welker taking a pounding every year, an understudy would be a nice luxury to have. Thomas fits the bill. He can also return kicks and is among the fastest receivers in the draft.

Round 3(97): David Bruton, S, Notre Dame

A big, physical safety who played for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. Bruton hits and plays hard and is a solid tackler in space. Also known as one of the best special teams players in the draft. To top it off, he tested very well at the Combine, showing speed and skills on the three cone and short shuttle drill which indicates he can be a good coverage guy despite his 6’2″ 219 lb. frame. Belichick demands this from safeties in today’s NFL. Was a team captain for Weis’ squad.

Round 4(124): Antonio Appleby, LB, Virginia

Played middle linebacker for Al Groh at Virginia. Has classic inside linebacker size at 6’3″ 245. Some think he wasn’t quite as productive as he should have been, but had a solid college career. Physical in attacking blockers and decent athleticism to move side to side. Might fit nicely in the Patriots system next to Jerod Mayo, as a physical plugger which is essentially the role he played in college. Originally went to Virginia as a defensive lineman. Here is what we said about Appleby in a “College Scout” column last November: “He has played well, has good speed, strength and is a solid tackler but he has not played spectacularly. He does play in a system very similar to what the Patriots play. I think projecting forward, as the Patriots like to do, his upside is in front of him and with NFL coaching he could be an excellent player.”

Round 5(170): Augustus Parrish, T, Kent State

Originally recruited to Kent by Dean Pees. Parrish is an agile right tackle prospect with a good speed and athletic ability combination. Needs to improve his strength, which could come from year round commitment in a NFL training program. Played well at the East-West Shrine game, according to many scouts. Brother was an all-league linebacker for Kent when Pees was the head coach there. Experienced, with 35 career college starts. A little light for a tackle at just over 300 lbs. and probably needs to add about 10 more lbs.

Round 6(199): Brandon Long, OLB, Michigan State

This would be a project as the inexperienced Long only started one year at Michigan State. Was not even mentioned as much of a prospect and was omitted from many draft guides, but absolutely ripped it up at the Michigan State Pro Day, recording some of the best scores in all drills of anyone at his position. He checks in at about 6’4″ 250. Seems to be the type of player a 3-4 team like the Patriots or Steelers could convert to an athletic, pass rushing, disruptive outside linebacker. Has special teams experience. When looking back at his one year as a starter, he was pretty good. Probably would be a bit more highly regarded if he had two years of starting experience, with the improvement that usually comes in college with that. But projecting forward, he is as talented as you can find for this position. Played mostly defensive end in the Spartans system, but has played some linebacker (particularly in high school) and has the athletic skills to do so.

Round 6(207): Sammie Lee Hill, NT, Stillman

A pure nose tackle who would provide depth behind Wilfork (who, as mentioned earlier, is a free agent after this season). Hill went to a small school and needs coaching badly, but he is a surprisingly good athlete and quick for his 329 lb. size. Has very good strength to hold the center of a 3-4.

Round 7(234): Marcus Thigpen, RB, Indiana

An extremely fast burner who fits as a returner and a change of pace/third down back in the NFL. With Kevin Faulk getting up there in years, Thigpen could develop into that role. Has great pass catching skills and was originally a WR at Indiana. Had 78 career catches in college and also ran for over 1,600 yards. Team captain. Also had over 2,000 career return yards. We profiled him back in the fall on “College Scout” and said “Not an every down back at 5’9″ 199 (and looks smaller) but his 4.22/40 speed is sure to attract some NFL teams.”

Other Patriots Prospects

As noted, picking the draft is tricky business and especially tricky with the Patriots. Trying to read the tea leaves from press reports, coaching affiliations and our own impressions is an imperfect art. Without a doubt the Patriots will select players in which their interest had previously been unknown. So I tried to take a fresh look at the list of players at each position and pick one guy at each who I may not have considered as Patriots targets and haven’t seen fans or commercial draft guides associating as their type of player. Basically reconsidering the conventional wisdom. So, without further adieu, here is my list of potential Patriots we may not have thought much about:

QB Jason Boltus, Hartwich

Has the type of athleticism and arm strength that may attract the Patriots as their next long-term QB project.

RB Brannan Southerland, Georgia

I originally had Southerland in my mock draft and took him out. So this is the one guy on this list I actually did recently consider. With Heath Evans gone, the Patriots may look to this traditional 250 lb. fullback as a replacement. Very hard-working team captain and good special teams player. Can catch as well. Would be a priority free agent if he goes undrafted.

WR Quinten Lawrence, McNeese State

A speed burner and track star who did catch 99 balls in college. Needs a year or two to learn the NFL and get stronger, but has great ability and pure speed. Andy Brodell is another guy from Iowa who might be a priority free agent for the Pats.

TE Davon Drew, East Carolina

It’s probably a mistake that I left a tight end out of my mock draft as the Patriots will likely take one. Drew is a late round guy who is a good combo of pass catching and blocking ability with upside at both. Decent speed and good size.

OT Ryan McKee, Southern Mississippi

A very athletic tackle who needs to bulk up. This is the type of project the Patriots have developed at tackle in the past in Tom Ashworth, Brandon Gorin and Wesley Britt. In other words, a guy with natural athleticism who needs to get stronger and/or improve their techniques for a year or two before getting on the field.

OG Seth Olsen, Iowa

A late-round type who has some skills to work with. Plays hard.

C Rob Bruggeman, Iowa

A very strong, smart center who has great experience and toughness.

DE Jeremy Navarre, Maryland

A lunch pale type defensive end ala Mike Wright who is probably a free agent type. Former linebacker has some athleticism.

NT Antonio Dixon, Miami

Has the size to play the middle. Decent athlete.

OLB Robert Francois, Boston College

Didn’t become a full-time starter until Brian Toal got hurt his senior year, but played well. Has tested well also and is a good athlete who made plays down the stretch for BC. Has size to play in the Patriots system.

ILB James Bryant, Louisville

A talented kid with 6’3″ 250 lb. size, but he had a rocky college career. Started at Miami and transferred to Louisville his senior year. Probably won’t be drafted, but has a lot of talent and came out of high school as a top prospect. Character concerns, but may be worth a look as a free agent.

CB Gregory Toler, St. Paul

A small-school corner (like Leigh Bodden) with great athletic talent and good cornerback size. Very productive in college as a man against boys and has the skills to play well in the NFL. Could be a sleeper late round pick.

S DeAngelo Willingham, Tennessee

Can play both corner and safety which the Patriots would like. Up to 217 lbs, but tested well at his Pro Day. Was a JUCO player who only played at Tennessee 2 years but has quickly improved and has shown good talent. Late round possibility for the Pats.

Greg Doyle can be reached at greg@patriotsdaily.com