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Jan 27, 2018; Mobile, AL, USA; General view of the Reese's center field logo during the 2018 Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com

In the last decade, Patriots fans have been accustomed to spending the final week of January focused on their team getting ready for the Super Bowl, or at least looking at what went wrong in the AFC Championship. For the second year in a row, however, the team’s season was over long before Groundhog Day.

That opens Patriots fans up for the other bowl game played the week before the Super Bowl. Not the Pro Bowl, but the Senior Bowl. With Pro Day workouts replacing the Combine and other showcase games cancelled this year due to COVID, the Senior Bowl – which is taking place this week in Mobile, Alabama, – will be as key as ever when it comes to player evaluation for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Even without the added emphasis this year’s game brings, the Patriots are generally Senior Bowl-focused when it comes to the draft. According to Zack Cox of NESN, the team has averaged 3.5 Senior Bowl invitee draft picks per year since 2008. That number also doesn’t include the undrafted free agents from the game that the team brings in. Recent Senior Bowl alumni who have ended up in Foxborough include Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Justin Herron, Jarrett Stidham, Jake Bailey, Jakobi Meyers, and Isaiah Wynn.

Bill Belichick has said Kyle Dugger’s Senior Bowl performance is a big part of what drew the Patriots’ interest. (Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)

There will be plenty for Patriots fans to watch throughout the week. The practices are televised on NFL Network, starting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Some experts will argue those reps are more valuable for player evaluation than the actual game, which is played on Saturday.

The week will be the best chance if any quarterbacks outside of the solid top six are to make a push into the top-50 conversation. Mac Jones and Kyle Trask were expected to be the only two first-round quarterbacks competing, but Trask pulled out late with an ankle injury. That leaves Jones, Kellen Mond, and Jamie Newman as the QBs for one squad, with Sam Ehlinger, Ian Book, and Feleipe Franks the arms for the other. If you’re somebody who expects the Patriots to wait until Day 3 to pick a quarterback, you’ll get a good look at those options this week.

Meanwhile, the wide receiver position has plenty of depth with 20 players scheduled to compete this week. The group is highlighted by Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, with big names such as Florida’s Kadarius Toney and Clemson’s Amari Rodgers participating as well. Still, there’s depth all the way through, and it’s worth watching players like Notre Dame’s Ben Skowronek and Wake Forest’s Sage Surrat, who will have a chance to climb draft boards with their natural physical skill.

Ben Skowronek is 6-foot-3, 224 pounds, and was a three-year starter at Northwestern before transferring to Notre Dame for a grad year. (Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

There’s not as much high-end defensive talent in this year’s game, but there are still players to keep an eye on that the Patriots could grab with middle-to-late round picks. Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher was projected as a borderline first round pick a year ago before a rough 2020 season set him back. Still, he checks a lot of the boxes the Patriots usually look for at the middle linebacker position, and with Dont’a Hightower’s future uncertain, the three-year starter and former captain would be a logical choice for a shot at the role.

On the back end, Missouri safety Tyree Gillespie is a guy the Patriots could target on Day 3. He’d be an immediate factor on special teams, and could develop into a second deep safety opposite Devin McCourty, something the Pats missed last year after trading Duron Harmon. With so many deep threats in the wide receiver group, Gillespie will have his chances to shine throughout the week.

Tyree Gillespie has the special teams abilities the Patriots tend to look for on Day 3 of the draft. The question is, to what extent can he contribute on defense at the next level? (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

One player the Patriots drafted who wasn’t at the Senior Bowl last year? Kicker Justin Rohrwasser. After a rookie camp that saw him miss the active roster, could Bill Belichick head back into the draft for a kicker he’s had a better look at? If so, Memphis’ Riley Patterson and Miami’s Jose Borregales will be the two options.

The Senior Bowl usually ends up an overlooked event on the NFL calendar, especially in New England. But for those fans who like to enter draft season informed, and usually fawn over the Combine, this is the event to watch this year. How will it shape Belichick’s approach to the 2021 draft? We won’t know for sure until April, but it’s almost a guarantee there will be at least three or four future Patriots on the field in Mobile in the coming days.

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Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.