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Mel Kiper’s biggest mock draft change gives the Patriots a new Tom Brady successor

In Mel Kiper’s third mock draft, QBs, WRs, and OL make up 18 of his 32 first-round picks.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The view at the top of the NFL mock draft doesn’t change. Since January, it’s been Joe Burrow and No. 1 and Chase Young at No. 2.

After that, no one’s quite sure what comes next. This year’s class is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, but ESPN draft prognosticator sees the first round leaning heavily toward the offense — especially quarterbacks, blockers, and wide receivers. That’s a sentiment shared by SB Nation expert Dan Kadar in his newest Day 1 lineup.

That led to a shift between Kiper’s second mock draft, published in February before the NFL Scouting Combine, and his latest predictions. The longtime analyst saw big jumps for wideouts like Henry Ruggs and Justin Jefferson, while standout defenders such as A.J. Epenesa, Kenneth Murray, and Noah Igbinoghene all fell.

Here are the biggest takeaways from Kiper’s latest look at an ever-shifting draft landscape. Let’s start with the reigning AFC East champions, who suddenly need to expedite their Tom Brady exit plan.

The Patriots’ next franchise quarterback is ... Jordan Love

In February, Kiper predicted New England would spend a first-round pick on a quarterback for the first time since 1993 by selecting Washington’s Jacob Eason at No. 23. He changed his mind in the aftermath of the combine; he’s got the Pats targeting Utah State passer Jordan Love instead.

That’s a change from other drafts that came out before Brady left New England for the warmer confines of Tampa Bay. Those predictions often saw the Patriots focusing on reloading their dominant defense, but the legendary quarterback’s departure will likely push Bill Belichick toward a young, developmental passer to compete with a QB room that includes Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer, and Cody Kessler..

Love would bring New England a high-ceiling quarterback, but he’s not the kind of risk-averse passer Belichick has trusted in the past. He looked like a potential top-10 pick after a breakthrough 2018 season (8.6 yards per attempt, 32 touchdowns, six interceptions, 11-2 record), but fell back to earth the next year (7.2 yards/attempt, 20 TDs, 17 INTs, 7-6 record). The Patriots haven’t had a quarterback throw more than 14 interceptions in a season since 1999.

Drafting Love would give New England its own Josh Allen-type project. Both were big-armed Mountain West quarterbacks with questions to answer about accuracy, decision-making, and supporting casts. Allen has improved over his first two seasons in Buffalo; New England may have to hope for a softer learning curve with Love — who may or may not be capable of handling a starting role as a rookie given his uneven college play — if it wants to defend its AFC East title for the 12th straight year.

The 2020 class is stacked with blocking talent

This spring’s crop of blockers is filled with with massive, athletic specimens who can turn away 265-pound pass rushers and rotund run-stuffers with relative ease. Kiper has seven offensive linemen in the first round of his latest mock, including four among the top 14 selections.

That starts with Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs, who would get the call to protect Kyler Murray with the Cardinals’ eighth overall pick. Louisville’s Mekhi Becton (10th, Browns) and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills (11th, Jets) follow soon after in similar roles clearing space for rising young passers. Andrew Thomas — who’s been pegged as Brady’s new right tackle in Tampa — Josh Jones, Ezra Cleveland, and Michigan interior lineman Cesar Ruiz round out Kiper’s list of Round 1 offensive linemen. Kadar’s list includes the first five names on that list, plus USC left tackle Austin Jackson, who he pegs as a top-20 selection.

There may be room for one more in that group, too. Kiper’s mock draft was likely written before CowboysPro Bowl center Travis Frederick announced his retirement, leaving the team with a sudden need up front.

Dallas could roll with the recently re-signed Joe Looney at center, a job he filled when Frederick missed the 2018 season while dealing with Guillain-Barre syndrome, or target a first-round blocker instead. The No. 17 spot may be a little early for a guard/center like Ruiz, but Jerry Jones may decide that’s the right place to draft a guy he likes — just like he did when drafting Frederick 31st overall in 2013.

Teams in need of targets will have plenty of opportunities to add an impact rookie

The free agency period hasn’t seen much action when it comes to wide receivers. That’s likely because this year’s draft will flood the market with young, affordable game changers.

Kiper counts seven wideouts among his first 32 picks. Kadar has six. The top three for both experts is some combination of Alabama duo Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs along with Oklahoma star CeeDee Lamb. They could wind up boosting young quarterbacks for clubs like the Jets or Broncos, or add some extra oomph to good, not great receiving corps in San Francisco, Dallas, or Las Vegas.

The 49ers shipped star pass rusher DeForest Buckner to the Colts to secure a second first-round pick this spring (No. 13 overall). It’s a near certainty they’ll use one of those to add another versatile weapon in Jimmy Garoppolo’s stable.

LSU target Justin Jefferson and Clemson playmaker Tee Higgins were the two biggest wideout risers in the ESPN scribe’s latest mock. Jefferson in particular dazzled, showcasing a strong blend of size (6’1, 202 pounds), speed, and explosiveness that may have cemented his spot as a Day 1 pick.