By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
At the NFL Combine, the Patriots have long been known to be in love with the three-cone drill. But in 2019, there was a curious shift toward a new soulmate.
Bill Belichick discovered a new flame last year in the bench press. New darling for draft evaluations? Or just a one-year fling? Whether planned or not, Belichick and the Patriots prioritized strength and endurance at multiple positions as they restocked the offense.
Especially interesting is that they liked what they saw out of the bench press at wide receiver. N'Keal Harry didn't even run the three-cone or 20-yard shuttle at the 2019 NFL Combine, but he tied for first among all receivers in the bench press with 27 reps at 225 pounds (D.K. Metcalf was the other).
The Patriots also aggressively targeted top bench press performers on the offensive line. Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt ended up day 2 picks who had their rookie seasons cut short due to injuries, but Belichick ostensibly liked their raw power. Cajuste finished fourth among all offensive linemen (seventh overall) with 32 reps, while Froholdt finished fifth among O-linemen (10th overall) with 31.
Will any of these guys become viable long-term NFL talents? That's the ultimate question, but one that persists for the first 2-3 years of most careers. So in the case of the Combine and the draft, the best use of this data for now is to figure out who may get the call from Belichick next.
Watch Arizona State wide receiver K'Neal Harry's full 2019 NFL Scouting Combine workout.
Best On The Bench
If the Patriots are going to continue earmarking prospects who performed well for their position in the bench press, they've already met with a few of them. Oregon center Jake Hanson finished fourth among all offensive linemen (fifth overall) with an impressive 33 reps. His NFL.com draft profile suggests that scouts are concerned about a lack of "power and mass" ... perhaps his bench press result changes that perception a bit. But as a center who still appears a little rough around the edges, Hanson isn't likely to shoot too far up the draft board for the Pats.
Another top bench-presser was Texas Tech right tackle Terence Steele. (Side note: three other tackles who met with the Patriots - TCU's Lucas Niang, UConn's Matt Peart, and South Carolina's Alex Taylor - also played right tackle in college.) Steele finished 10th among offensive linemen with 27 reps. He's big and long at 6-foot-6 with 35 1/8 inch arms, but reportedly needs time to refine his techniques for the NFL level. Sounds like a similar kind of prospect to Cajuste when he entered the draft.
Do they still want a nice strong receiver like Harry? They reportedly gushed over SMU wideout James Proche, then met with him at the combine. Proche had the fifth-most bench press reps at receiver with 20, which was particularly impressive because he was tied for the shortest (5-foot-11) and the second-lightest (201 pounds) in the top-10 at the drill. This is a wideout who plays bigger than his frame.
What About The Three-Cone?
The Patriots showed in the 2019 NFL Draft that the three-cone drill still matters to them - with their pass-rushers. Chase Winovich demonstrated enough short-area quickness in last year's three-cone (6.94 seconds, eighth among all defensive linemen and linebackers) to keep him squarely on Belichick's radar. Winovich also came in fourth among all DL and LBs in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.11 seconds. His impressive three-cone, however, added him to a list of recent Patriots draft picks on the defensive line that includes Chandler Jones, Trey Flowers, and Derek Rivers.
In light of the information we have from past drafts and combines, one lower-profile prospect to keep an eye on for the Patriots is North Dakota State edge rusher Derrek Tuszka. Initially described at NFL.com as a prospect with a chance to make the end of a roster or a practice squad, Tuszka might have had a good-enough combine to launch his stock into the middle rounds. He finished first at his position in the three-cone at 6.87 seconds (seventh overall), fourth in the 20-yard shuttle (4.34 seconds), fifth in the vertical jump (33.5 inches), seventh in the broad jump (120.0 inches), and eighth in the 40-yard dash (4.79 seconds).
Derrek Tuszka will be a great day 3 addition but after watching film I have to give him a day 2 grade. Nobody knows who Tuszka is (ESPN doesn't have any stat...
Two other names to know: Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott and Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims. Elliott had a 6.87 three-cone time, third among safeties and seventh overall. Mims, meanwhile, led everyone in the three-cone with the Number of the Beast, 6.66. The latter had a good Combine overall and may be turning into an early pick. Both players met with the Patriots in Indianapolis.
Just because Belichick wanted to shake things up in the weight room doesn't mean he's going to do the same thing again in 2020. The affinity for the three-cone drill is still there. And clearly, a bunch of numbers on a sheet isn't a reliable way of knowing who will actually be good NFL players. But it's worth tracking as we try to solve the infinite Belichick puzzle. Don't be surprised if the Patriots call one of these names come April.
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].