In three months, the NFL draft will commence. As it currently stands, the Patriots will make just five selections during the seven-round, three-day process, but much can change with potential trades.
Should the Patriots stand pat with their selections, they'll draft a small rookie class, even smaller than last year's seven-man group.
But while the Patriots are short on draft picks right now, they have three intriguing players that were not able to be with the team on the field during the 2012 regular season. In a sense, running back/return specialist Jeff Demps, tight end Jake Ballard, and defensive lineman Armond Armstead are comparable to draft picks for the Patriots this offseason, as each will begin next season at 25 years or younger.
Here's a brief overview of each player:
Running back/return specialist Jeff Demps
Background: Describing Demps' speed as world class is no exaggeration; he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team and won a silver medal at the London Olympics this past summer. He was added during training camp, and in a limited sample size we saw that speed on display. He eventually ended up on injured reserve (knee), but was regularly spotted in the locker room during his recovery period. While the Patriots have depth at running back, one area where they could use an upgrade is at kick returner. Demps, given his speed and shiftiness, would figure to be a factor in that phase next season.
Tight end Jake Ballard
Background: Ballard already has three NFL seasons under his belt, so we know more about what he brings to the table. While the Patriots kept four tight ends on the active roster for much of the 2012 season, depth is still needed. When tight end Rob Gronkowski went down, the team lost its best blocking tight end. With an improved rushing attack, the Patriots leaned heavily on lead isolation running plays. Those involved a lead blocker (it was often Daniel Fells or Michael Hoomanawanui) having to pick up a linebacker and create a hole for the running back. While both Fells and Hoomanawanui were sufficient, neither was above average as a blocker from this perspective. Ballard, a sturdy 275 pounds, can take on that role and provide good value as a depth-level tight end. The Patriots acquired Ballard with the knowledge that he would need an entire year to recover from a knee surgery. That is an indication of their intrigue in the former undrafted free agent.
Defensive lineman Armond Armstead
Background: Armstead was a force in the CFL in 2012, registering 6 sacks and 43 tackles, while drawing the eyes of scouts around the NFL. ESPN's NFL Insider Adam Schefter recently reported that multiple teams were interested in signing him, and that acquiring Armstead was similar to adding a high draft pick. Jim Barker, the GM of the Toronto Argonauts, whom Armstead played for last season, recently told colleague Mike Reiss that the Patriots have acquired a first-round talent without having to invest a first-round pick. We'll learn much more about Armstead, who received $655,000 in guaranteed money from the team, but he sounds like a player who will help generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.