By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Player evaluations before the NFL Draft can be exhausting. Teams have a number of ways to discover prospective employees, and they're mostly an overwhelming assembly scouts descending on a vast, tortuous pool of aspiring pros. The Combine and Pro Day tours bring the highest volume.
But if the Patriots really want to familiarize themselves with a particular player, they can fly him to Foxborough for a top-30 visit.
Each team is allotted 30 prospects that they can bring to their headquarters before the draft. Top-30 visits typically include private meetings with the head coach and other pertinent staffers. They're often more about the people behind the athletes, a more intimate get-to-know-you session than you'd find at a shorter, less formal meeting.
Prospects who played within 50 miles of teams don't count toward that list. So the Patriots could host, say, Boston College edge rusher Zach Allen without counting him against their top-30. But they'd have to count UMass receiver Andy Isabella, who's understandably drawing interest from New England.
The Patriots' top-30 visits are starting to emerge publicly. These prospects are legitimate possibilities to get the call from Bill Belichick on draft day.
There's a recent precedent. The Patriots reportedly hosted cornerback Duke Dawson for a top-30 visit last year, and ended up drafting him out of Florida with the 56th overall pick. They also hosted eventual sixth-round picks Braxton Berrios and Christian Sam as part of their top-30. But Dawson indicates that Belichick could very well take a top-end prospect who visits Gillette Stadium in the coming weeks.
By the same token, the Patriots hosted plenty of eventual first- and second-round picks that they ultimately either passed on or couldn't draft without trading up (h/t Pats Pulpit). In the 2018 class, that list includes Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley, Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, and Panthers receiver D.J. Moore. So just because they met with a high-end prospect doesn't mean they'll have a sniff of drafting him.
On the radar...
So who could Belichick be targeting this year?
Only three top-30 visits have been reported as of Sunday night. According to NFL Draft insider Jared Tokarz, the Patriots have hosted or plan to host Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger and Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin. Additionally, Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network says they're meeting with Arizona State wideout N'Keal Harry. That should perk the ears of anyone imploring the Patriots to replenish those positions in the draft. There's a lot of you, and understandably so.
The Patriots have also reportedly met with Ole Miss wideout A.J. Brown. It's unclear if it happened in Foxborough. It's possible the Pats held a shorter meeting with him at Friday's Ole Miss Pro Day, where James Palmer of the NFL Network reported the connection. But Brown fits the profile of a player they might want to bring to Foxborough if they haven't already.
Still, Belichick may have to take Brown in the first round if he really wants him. That would be unprecedented. The highest he's ever drafted a receiver is Chad Jackson with the 36th pick in 2006. Sternberger and Boykin are both more likely to go on day 2, making them more plausible.
Sternberger projects as a dynamic pass-catching tight end who runs crisp routes, but an undersized (6-foot-4, 251 pounds) and inconsistent blocker who can get out-muscled. Boykin has impressive size and length with big-play ability, but may have to work out the finer details in order to gain the production to to match his physical gifts. Harry could be a prototypical Patriots "X" receiver with his physicality, contested catch ability, and blocking, but he also plays inside.
All three of these prospects should ping your radars ahead of the NFL Draft. Same goes for everyone that is reported to visit the team. It doesn't mean they'd even be within the Pats' reach come draft night, but Belichick likely isn't meeting with these kids just to blow smoke. The interest is real, and so is the possibility that they become Patriots.
Top-30 visits may not guarantee future Patriots. But they're certainly worth tracking.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].