New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

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

One of the most important yet under-the-radar steps of the NFL Draft process takes place this week. 134 of the top prospects from this year’s draft class will converge on Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl.

The Senior Bowl is more than just a college all-star game. It’s a chance for pro teams to get a close look at players they may be considering in April’s Draft. On top of the three practice days Tuesday to Thursday and game on Saturday where scouts can get a look at players on the field, decision makers can speak with players officially and unofficially. Players are split into two rosters, ‘American’ and ‘National.’

For the Patriots, this week holds heightened importance. Since 2008, 49 of the Patriots’ 124 draft picks (39.5 percent) have been Senior Bowl participants, averaging 3.5 such picks per year. Odds are, at least a couple of the players on the field in Mobile this week will end up on the Patriots roster in a few months.

Keeping that in mind, which players should Patriots fans be keeping an eye on this week? Here’s a a breakdown of the names to know, position-by-position.

  • Quarterbacks

    Sep 11, 2021; West Point, New York, USA; Western Kentucky Hilltoppers quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) throws a pass against the Army Black Knights during the second half at Michie Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

    Mac Jones was a participant in the Senior Bowl last year. His success as a rookie means the Patriots shouldn’t need to focus heavily on the position this time around. While a number of the top players at the position will be in Mobile this year, it’s unlikely they’ll be on the Patriots’ radar.

    With Brian Hoyer a pending free agent and Jarrett Stidham entering the last year of his rookie year though, the Patriots may be in the market for a long-term backup quarterback this offseason. If they want to address that opening in the draft, Bailey Zappe (American) could be a target. After transferring from FCS Houston Baptist to Western Kentucky last year, Zappe set the Division-I single season records for passing yards (5,967) and touchdowns (62).

  • Running backs

    ATHENS, GA – NOVEMBER 9: Tyler Badie #1 of the Missouri Tigers rushes with the ball during the first half of a game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

    Entering 2021, James White had placed first or second on the Patriots in receptions in four of the previous five seasons. His absence was felt after suffering a season-ending hip injury back in September. White, who turns 30 next week, is a pending free agent as he works his way back from that injury. Brandon Bolden, who ended up absorbing White’s role for the remainder of the season, just turned 32 and is also a pending free agent. All that is to say that, at the very least, the Patriots could use some depth in the pass-catching back role, potentially with an eye towards the future as well.

    In the Senior Bowl, there’s a trio of SEC backs the Patriots could look at who could be assets in the passing game. First up is James Cook (American), who is one of the most well-rounded backs in the draft led the National Champion Georgia Bulldogs in all-purpose yards this year with 1,012. Cook can line up both in the backfield and split out in the formation, something the Patriots have had White do in the past. He also has an ability to earn hard-fought yards between the tackles, running bigger than his size.

    Alabama’s Brian Robinson (American) earned 1,343 yards on the ground this year, but was also the Tide’s fourth-leading receiver in terms of total catches with 35. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he’s bigger than typical receiving backs but still has the ability to create after the catch. He’s also a strong blocker, which is something the Patriots value at the position.

    Finally, Missouri’s Tyler Badie (National) has plenty of experience in a pass-catching role. He logged 54 receptions for the Tigers last season, and lined up at receiver as well as in the backfield. His ability in open space and mismatch potential make him an intriguing fit for the Patriots’ offense.

  • Wide receivers

    Nov 27, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) gives a thumbs up before a play during the second quarter against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Wide receiver certainly projects as a potential first-round need for the Patriots. With so much talent on the board at the position, there’s been a number of names thrown around such as Chris Olave, Treylon Burks, Drake London, David Bell, John Metchie, etc.

    As luck would have it, none of those players are participating in the Senior Bowl this year. There’s only one consensus top-50 receiver in the game – Penn State’s Jahan Dotson (National). Given the Patriots’ history of focusing in on Pro Bowl players, Dotson being the only wide receiver from the top group taking part in the game could put him in the spotlight move him up the team’s draft board. Dotson is a versatile receiver who can line up at multiple spots in the formation, and has big-play explosive ability. He would certainly fill a need for the offense.

    There are also mid-round and late-round receivers to know when it comes to the Patriots. Christian Watson (National) of FCS powerhouse North Dakota has picked up a lot of buzz in recent weeks. At 6-foot-5, 207 pounds with an official 4.44 40 on the books, he checks all the physical boxes of a downfield threat. His game is still raw, but Watson represents a solid project option in the middle rounds.

    Potential Day 3 pick Bo Melton (National) is on the smaller side at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds. Projected as a slot receiver, he makes up for his lack of size with both straight line speed and short area quickness. Those skills make him dangerous with the ball in his hands not only as a pass catcher, but in the return game as well. He’s experienced for a player at this point, as a four-year contributor at Rutgers.

  • Tight ends

    Oct 7, 2021; Jonesboro, Arkansas, USA; Coastal Carolina Chanticleers tight end Isaiah Likely (4) runs with the ball after a catch for a touchdown during the second half against the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Centennial Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

    Tight ends probably won’t be an area of focus for the Patriots after last year’s spending spree, but here’s a couple of names anyway.

    Cambridge native and Everett High School grad Isaiah Likely (American) was a force to be reckoned with this year at Coastal Carolina. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he uses his size to his advantage in both in the passing game and as a run blocker. He’s a big play waiting to happen, and averaged 15.4 yards per catch in his college career.

    Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar (National) is a textbook red zone threat. At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds he’s excellent at getting to the catch point and has soft hands to reel the ball in. As expected at his size, he’s also a strong run blocker.

  • Offensive linemen

    LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY – SEPTEMBER 18: Darian Kinnard #70 of the Kentucky Wildcats against Chattanooga Mocs at Kroger Field on September 18, 2021 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    Trent Brown is set to be a free agent, Isaiah Wynn is entering the last year of his deal, and it seems like the team views Michael Onwenu as a guard. Basically, tackle could be high on the Patriots’ list of needs this offseason.

    This draft is full of the big, physical kind of tackles that fit the Patriots mold. There’s a trio of them who are all expected to be late-first, early-second round picks, and seeing those three players on the same field against the same competition could add some separation heading into the combine.

    Darian Kinnard (American) bullied defensive linemen as a right tackle in Kentucky’s run and RPO-heavy offense in 2021. At 6-foot-5, 345 pounds, he likely wont’ get pushed around much at the NFL level either. He was the highest-graded tackle in the SEC over the last two seasons.

    Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning (National) is another massive blocker at 6-foot-7, and is listed anywhere from 320-340 pounds (we’ll get an official measurement from the Senior Bowl). He’s an excellent athlete who showed even at his size, he can move with smaller, quicker defenders at the line of scrimmage. As with most small school prospects, this is a big week for him to show what he can do regularly working against elite opponents.

    Then there’s the biggest player taking part in the game this week. Minnesota’s Daniel Faalele (National) is listed at 6-foot-9, 380 pounds. He’s only been playing football since his junior year of high school so he’s still learning the game, but he has just about every ‘unteachable’ box checked off. Get him in the Patriots’ system, and he could become a top tackle in the league. If the Patriots want to replace Trent Brown, there’s no more logical fit.

    In later rounds in recent years, the Patriots have targeted players with the ability to play both guard and tackle. Tennessee’s Cade Mays (American), Tulsa’s Chris Paul (American) and Georgia’s Jamaree Salyer (American) all fit the bill here.

  • Defensive linemen

    Dec 5, 2020; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas (95) reacts during the game against the Baylor Bears at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots’ defense ranked 25th in the NFL last year averaging 4.5 yards per carry. That being said, let’s start with interior defensive lineman?

    With the success of Christian Barmore last season, would the Patriots look to draft another athletic, three-down defensive tackle? Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt (American) and Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis (American) both have similar play styles and are expected to go in the middle rounds.

    Kentucky’s Josh Paschal (American) is more of an edge rusher, but can really play any spot along the defensive line. A true four-down player, Paschal had a career year in 2021 with 15 tackles for a loss, five sacks, and a blocked field goal. Add in the fact that he’s a two-time captain, and he’s squarely in the “such a Belichick player” category.

    In the past, the Patriots haven’t been adverse to drafting similar players from the same school in back-to-back years (see: Chase Winovich and Josh Uche). If they’re going to do it again this season, Oklahoma’s Isaiah Thomas (National) would be a logical candidate to follow Ronnie Perkins. Like Perkins, Thomas is a pure pass rusher. The difference is while Perkins is a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, Thomas’ versatility comes as a hybrid defensive tackle/end.

    If it’s a true nose tackle the Patriots are after, Travis Jones (National) out of UConn may be the guy. At 6-foot-5, 333 pounds, Jones stood out as an anchor of a Huskies defense that had to stop the run quite a bit. Jones was originally recruited to UConn as a left tackle after playing on both sides of the ball in high school, and the Patriots have had success in recent years with players who changed positions upon getting to or in college (J.C. Jackson, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski).

  • Linebackers

    Dec 31, 2021; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Quay Walker (7) tackles Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) during the third quarter in the Orange Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    With Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley both pending free agents, linebacker is towards the top of the list of Patriots needs this offseason. The question is, will they stick with the bigger, downhill linebacker prototype they’ve favored historically, or trade some size for athleticism? If it’s the latter, there’s a number of players in Mobile this week that could be fits.

    Utah’s Devin Lloyd (National) is the consensus top linebacker in the class, but he’ll likely be off the board before the Patriots pick. Likely Day 2 picks Quay Walker (American) of Georgia and Chad Muma (National) of Wyoming are more logical targets. Walker and Muma are similar players. They’re both three down linebackers who can play sideline-to-sideline. At the same time, both weigh in at just over 240 pounds, which means they’re big enough to play the downhill style the Patriots want.

    If the Patriots do still want a bigger linebacker, Cincinnati’s Darrian Beavers (National) is noticeably mobile at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. A former high school wide receiver, he could give the Patriots’ defense some of that lateral movement it lacked last year.

    In the later rounds, it’s hard to find a more fun prospect than Troy Andersen (National). In his five years at Montana State, Andersen switched positions from linebacker to running back, then to quarterback, then back to linebacker. He was named the All-Big Sky quarterback in 2018, then won Defensive Player of the Year for the conference just three seasons later. Andersen is slightly smaller than the other two linebackers at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, but makes up for that lack of size with an incredibly explosive play style.

  • Cornerbacks

    Nov 27, 2021; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Auburn Tigers cornerback Roger McCreary (23) breaks up a pass intended for Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver John Metchie III (8) during the second quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

    Outside cornerback is yet another premier need for the Patriots this offseason. Two of the top players on the board will be at the Senior Bowl.

    Roger McCreary (American) of Auburn is a projected late first round pick, and plays the cornerback position exactly the way the Patriots like. He’ll get right up into a receivers face in press coverage, and is one of the best man corners in the draft. His tackling ability allows him to limit yards after the catch when he does give up a completion, and also allows him to contribute in the running game.

    While Cincinnati’s Coby Bryant (National) isn’t the highest ranked receiver from his own school, he’s still projected to be a top-100 pick. Playing opposite potential top-15 pick Sauce Gardner for the Bearcats, Bryant was tested often in 2021 and held his own.

    However, the most interesting cornerback – and perhaps the most interesting player – in Mobile this week is Tariq Woolen (American) out of UTSA. Woolen is listed at 6-foot-4, 207 pounds, and reportedly ran a 4.34 40-yard dash over the summer. It’s not just his size and athleticism that stands out though – Woolen was a wide receiver his first two years in college before moving to cornerback. He’s still learning the position, but as a projected early Day 3 pick, his upside is tremendous.

  • Safeties

    NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – JANUARY 01: JT Woods #22 of the Baylor Bears breaks up a pass intended for Urriah Shephard #35 of the Mississippi Rebels during the first quarter in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome on January 01, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

    With Devin McCourty reportedly returning next season, safety isn’t a major need for the Patriots this offseason. However, McCourty would still be the only free safety on the team, so a pick here could add some needed depth.

    Like the wide receiver position, many of the top safeties in this year’s class will not be taking part in the Senior Bowl. Still, looking further down the board there are a few names that stand out.

    Baylor’s JT Woods (National) showed all the makings of a modern deep safety over the last two years. As a multi-year starter, he recorded eight interceptions in 23 games as a junior and senior. His athleticism allows him to control deep zones with ease, and he’s regularly near the football in the running game.

    Oregon’s Verone McKinley was a late addition to the roster, but a name who should be on the Patriots’ radar. He’s one of the best deep safeties in the draft, and is the kind of player that could fill McCourty’s role.

    Yusuf Corker (American) of Kentucky also was a multi-year starter, but at box safety. He’s a strong tackler who shows up regularly in the running game, and also has special teams ability. The Patriots took a similar player last year in Joshuah Bledsoe, but are always looking to add to their special teams units.

  • Special teams

    Oct 30, 2021; Waco, Texas, USA; Texas Longhorns place kicker Cameron Dicker (17) connects for a field goal against Baylor Bears in the second half of an NCAA football game at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

    Nick Folk is 37-years old and a pending free agent, while Quinn Nordin remains an unknown. Meanwhile, Jake Bailey is entering the final year of his rookie contract. No punter has played for the Patriots under two consecutive contracts since Rich Camarillo in the mid-80’s. There’s a case to be made the Patriots could add at either spot this offseason.

    Texas’ Cameron Dicker (American) is the top kicker in this year’s game. He hit 75.9 percent of his field goal attempts in college, and was 13-of-15 as a senior. Over his last two seasons, he was 14-of-20 from beyond 40 yards. He also doubled as the Longhorns’ punter this past season, and averaged 43.3 net yards per punt with a long of 78 yards.

    Jake Camarda (American) of Georgia is the game’s top punter. He netted 41.5 yards per punt in 2021. He’s the consensus second-ranked punter in the draft behind San Diego State’s Matt Araiza.

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