We’ll have more on the media coverage of the Patriots a bit later, but for now, a quick detour onto some actual football talk.
By Chris Warner.
After checking out three college All-Star games over the past three weekends, we’re reviewing some players who may fit in at Foxboro. Because what else is there to write about this week?
Except basic physics, I mean. (Hat-tip to Matt Chatham – @chatham58 )
One reminder about our at-times-disheveled notes below: Kentucky pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith and Auburn tight end C. J. Uzomah both made the Senior Bowl, but they are written up below for their previous appearances.
SENIOR BOWL (Jan. 24)
Lockett Up: Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett (5-10, 181) made two eye-catching catches Saturday, one off a slant in heavy traffic, grabbing the football out of the air amidst three defenders and taking the hit, the other on a ball tipped by the defender. Lockett snared three passes for 48 yards and had two carries for seven yards. He also caught our eye as a returner and as a willing blocker, helping open the way for the South’s opening touchdown. At Kansas State, Lockett gained All-American status as an all-purpose offensive player and kick returner, catching 106 passes for 1,515 yards (14.3 avg) and 11 touchdowns. He also returned two punts for scores in 2014 (averaging over 19 yards per return), and was KSU’s primary kick returner.
Foxboro Fit: The Patriots haven’t exactly knocked their recent receiver picks out of the park (2013: Aaron Dobson, second round; Josh Boyce, fourth round). but Lockett’s got some serious versatility. Though he’s a little small (redundant), he can fill in and add production to a number of offensive positions.
Guarded Response: The Senior Bowl offered a lot to like regarding interior offensive linemen. Laken Tomlinson of Duke (6-3, 323), Tre’ Jackson out of Florida State (6-4, 323), and Arie Koaundjio of Alabama (6-5, 318) all showed quick feet, proper technique and power at various stages of the game. Tomlinson started all four years at right guard for Duke, getting named All-ACC and All-Academic ACC honors along the way. Jackson started at FSU for three years at guard. He was named All-ACC for his final two years, reaching All-American status this past year. Koaundjio started at guard his last two full years. He was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week twice, as well as Second Team Academic All-American.
Foxboro Fit: Big, experienced dudes to help hold down the middle of the offensive line would work, especially considering recent injuries to Dan Connolly.
Bright, Sunshine-y Davis: Iowa defensive lineman Carl Davis (6-5, 321) was named the most outstanding practice player for the week at the Senior Bowl. He spent an inordinate amount of time in the South team’s offensive backfield, showing great quickness for a man of his size. Davis had two sacks and five quarterback hits for the Hawkeyes this past season.
Foxboro Fit: Due in part to his friendship with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, Coach Belichick always seems to have his eye on the Hawkeyes. With New England’s chameleon defense, Davis’ size and quickness seem to fit in well.
How Ya Like Them Apples? Outside linebacker Nate Orchard (6-3, 251) of Utah had a busy Senior Bowl. He showed discipline on an early end-around play, later made a tackle for loss near the goal line, and ended up with five tackles and two quarterback hits. Last season for the Utes, Orchard tallied a remarkable 18.5 sacks and won the Ted Hendricks Award for the nation’s best defensive end.
Foxboro Fit: Rob Ninkovich turns 31 on Super Bowl Sunday, so the Pats could look to add some youth at the DE/OLB spot. Orchard made ten different All-American lists and seems like the kind of player who can figure out a defensive playbook.
Hall Of Fame: At least we think so, at some point. Central Florida receiver Rannell Hall (6-0, 193) demonstrated remarkable effort in hauling in two passes Saturday. The first was a 32-yarder along the sideline, where he timed his jump just right so he could out leap the defender. The second was a twisting, diving 12-yard come-backer where he managed to get his feet in-bounds. Hall also did a decent job returning kicks. At UCF, Hall had 49 catches for 500 yards, along with 25 rushes for 129 yards and a TD. Also averaged 27.5 yards per kick return.
Foxboro Fit: Hall looks like a later third-day pick. If the Pats can add depth to their receiver spot with a late-round pick (aka The Julian Edelman Principle), they’ll probably give it a shot.
Yo: Penn State’s Adrian Amos (6-0, 214), Penn State free safety, got attention by staying at home on an end-around to Lockett, holding the playmaker to no gain. Amos had 42 tackles last year, with three interceptions and seven pass break-ups. Started every game since the beginning of his sophomore year, when he played cornerback.
Foxboro Fit: At Penn State, Amos was coached by former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, so there’s some kind of connection in terms of how things are done at New England. The experience at cornerback bodes well for a defensive backfield that prides itself on its ability to adapt on the fly.
Who Loves Ya, Baby? If the Pats are interested in another receiving tight end, Ben Koyack (6-5, 254) out of Notre Dame might have earned a look. On his 10-yard TD catch-and-run, Koyack got taken down in the end zone by his face mask. Koyack shook it off to catch another pass for nine yards and showed a willingness to block as an in-line TE. In 2014, Koyack caught 30 passes for the Irish for 317 yards and two TDs. He made the John Mackey Award watch list for the nation’s best tight end over the past two seasons.
Foxboro Fit: Bill Belichick has invited Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly to camp, so there’s respect there for how the Irish coach does business. The glut of tight ends from South Bend (John Carlson, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, Kyle Rudolph) shows a recent history of success.
Knock, Knockah. Uzomah? Oh, another tight end? Why, sure! C. J. Uzomah out of Auburn (6-5, 263) took a screen pass nine yards at the Senior Bowl. At the Medal of Honor Bowl two weeks prior, Uzomah showed some decent speed and agility beating his defender for a nice, over-the-shoulder catch during an early scoring drive. Caught only 11 passes last season, but did average 13.2 per reception and scored three touchdowns.
Foxboro Fit: You know the Pats love them some versatility. Uzomah played quarterback in high school, special teams his freshman and sophomore years, and some wide receiver before settling into the tight end role. Has the type of size the Pats look for in a Gronk back-up, and displayed solid hands and field awareness.
Back To Back: Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne (5-10, 212) dominated the South’s opening drive with 28 yards rushing. For the game, he had 10 rushes for 43 yards and caught three balls for 35 yards. TD In 2014, Artis-Payne rushed 303 times for 1,608 yards (5.3 avg) and scored 13 touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 147 yards. David Johnson of Northern Iowa had an opening carry that resulted in a 19-yard, weaving TD run. Johnson, a solid cutback runner, mirrored Artis-Payne’s stats with 10 carries for 43 yards. At Northern Iowa, Johnson rushed 287 times for 1,553 yards (5.4 avg) and 17 scores.
Foxboro Fit: With both Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley set to become free agents, New England has their eyes open regarding running back depth. Artis-Payne demonstrated quickness and smoothness out of the backfield. Johnson displayed a quick burst and strength, consistently pushing and cutting for extra yardage. Either one could become a solid contributor at Gillette.
So Near And Yet So Varga: Running back Jason Varga attempts to make the leap to the pros from Yale, and he did everything he could to ensure he’ll get drafted. At 5-10, 227 pounds, he played some reps at fullback and acquitted himself well blocking. When he got to carry the ball he gained 31 yards on just four carries (7.8 avg) and scored two TDs, showing vision and cutback ability. Added three catches for 39 yards. The Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 142 per game. His 26 total TDs in 2014 broke the Yale school record.
Foxboro Fit: Halfback, fullback … quarterback? Well, after a slew of injuries hit the Bulldogs’ QBs in 2012, Varga stepped in as a Wildcat QB and averaged 194 all-purpose yards per game – and he also returned kicks. Would help fill out the middle of the roster as an all-purpose back.
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME (Jan. 17)
The Ends Justify The Means: Two prominent pass-rushers during this bowl game included Miami’s Anthony Chickillo (6-3, 271) and Kentucky’s Za’Darius Smith (6-5, 270). Smith earned Most Outstanding Defensive Player honors with a sack and a QB hurry. For his part, Chickillo just seemed unblockable at times. This past season, Smith had 61 tackles and 4.5 sacks, while Chickillo tallied 41 tackles and three sacks. Smith earned an invite to the Senior Bowl for his performance.
Foxboro Fit: Again, Ninkovich turns 31 next week. Chandler Jones has had some nagging injuries. To bolster that hybrid defensive end/linebacker position with at least one of these potential Day Two selections would do the Pats’ pass rush some good.
Talk To The Mitten: Two Wolverines got themselves noticed during the Shrine Bowl. All-Big Ten First Team linebacker Jake Ryan (6-3, 235) showed his ability to read defenses and rush to the ball. Receiver Devin Gardner (6-3, 215) had two catches for 20 yards. Ryan had 112 tackles with 14 for loss last year. Gardner – a quarterback for the Wolverines – racked up 7,252 yards of total offense in his career. Last year, he passed for 1,896 yards and ran for 258.
Foxboro Fit: Ryan, a team captain, was given the East-West Shrine Pat Tillman Award for his leadership and ability on the field. He looks like the type of player who makes his way from rookie special teamer to veteran defensive contributor. Gardner’s a big-bodied receiver who has some experience catching the ball but must make the full-time transition from college QB. Hmm. If only the Patriots knew what to do with college-QB-turned-receiver types.
On The Geaux: Something to be said for LSU running backs in New England. Kevin Faulk and Ridley came North to succeed in the friendly confines of Foxboro. Terrence Magee (5-9, 220) might qualify as the next one up. Magee rushed for 571 yards (5.1 per carry) and three TDs in 2014, adding 17 catches for 171 yards.
Foxboro Fit: Magee, projected as a late- to mid-round pick, could spend time in camp and compete with New England’s current crop of big backs, especially considering Ridley’s aforementioned contract status.
Future Patriots In The Cards? The right side of the East’s offensive line consisted of guard John Miller (6-3, 315) and tackle Jamon Brown (6-4, 330), both out of Louisville. These gentleman giants paved the way for teammate Dominique Brown (6-2, 232), who ended the day with 70 yards rushing. Miller had quick feet and a solid anchor in pass-rushing, while Brown seemed to erase any defensive threat in his path. Miller played all four years at guard; Brown came to the Cardinals as a defensive tackle and made the switch to offense as a freshman (making one start). Brown started all 13 games at right tackle as a sophomore, then switched to left as a junior and senior. Dominique Brown fell by the wayside a bit his senior year, rushing for just 378 yards and three TDs after compiling 825 yards rushing (eight TDs) as a junior.
Foxboro Fit: Tired of talking about offensive line depth? Deal with it. As far as Dominique Brown, he had a notable Shrine Game (the aforementioned 70 yards) and possesses the body type and versatility that could help a team. Had 16 receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown as a junior.
By The Time I Get To Arizona: Arizona wide receiver Austin Hill (6-2, 210) didn’t get many looks at the Shrine Game, but he showed proper quickness and route-running when featured. Hill, a slot receiver who sat out his redshirt 2013 season with a knee injury, came back strong this past year with 49 catches for 635 yards (13-yard avg) and four scores. Led the Wildcats as a sophomore with 81 grabs for 1,364 yards and 11 TDs.
Foxboro Fit: Not that we can have Gronk-sized expectations of anyone, but Hill comes out of the same school and looks to improve after missing a season due to injury. Rated as a mid-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com, Hill could provide a low-risk option at receiver, a welcome addition after a disappointing year for 2013 selections that many expected (myself included) to improve.
They Might Be Asking A Lott: As New England showed while drafting Zach Moore out of Concordia in the sixth round last year, the team has no hesitation picking up small school products. Enter defensive lineman Derrick Lott out of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Lott (6-4, 299) began his career at Georgia but transferred after his redshirt sophomore year. Had six sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss as a sixth-year senior this past season for the Mocs.
Foxboro Fit: We’ll get a better look at Lott during the NFL Scouting Combine (February 17-23), but he has the size of a 4-3 pass-rusher that the Pats have been employing of late.
MEDAL OF HONOR BOWL (Jan. 10)
On The Run: If you go to a small college, you have to light it up for the NFL to notice you. Running back Brandon Wegher (5-11, 206) out of Division II Morningside in Iowa accomplished that. Wegher ran the ball 327 times for 2,680 yards (8-yard avg) and scored 39 rushing touchdowns. He added 29 receptions for 429 yards (14.8-yard avg) and four TDs.
Foxboro Fit: Quick, name the Patriots’ regular-season leading rusher this year. Vereen? Not a bad guess with 391 yards. Ridley managed 340 yards in six games. Nope, it’s Jonas Gray, who compiled 412 yards in eight games. (LeGarrette Blount averaged a whopping 4.7 yards per carry, but only over the last five contests.) The point being, New England can draft ’em (Vereen, Ridley) or sign ’em (Blount) and expect production out of the position.
Wegher had eight rushing TDs in 2009 at Iowa, a freshman record. He then left the Hawkeyes, was rebuffed in his bid to transfer to Oklahoma, and ended up down the road at Morningside. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, a Friend of Bill (Belichick), could give the lowdown on his potential.
Beastly Beasley: Offensive guard David Beasley out of Clemson (6-4, 330) made Honorable Mention All-ACC for 2014. He’s credited with 10 knockdowns over 12 games. Had 32 starts over his last three years.
Foxboro Fit: The Patriots could find interior line depth here with a young player who could improve in his first couple of years. In terms of respect from his own team, Beasley was named Offensive or Co-Offensive Player of the Game twice this past season.
What’s It All About, Alfy? Another small school product, Winston-Salem State’s Alfy Hill (6-4, 275) lit up the defensive end spot in 2014 with 29 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks. Played DE for the Rams but was listed as a 245-pound linebacker leading up to his freshman year at Alabama. Hill never played for the Tide, having been ruled ineligible in the fall of 2010. Stops at East Carolina, Itawamba Community College, and L.A. Valley Community College.
Foxboro Fit: Oh, did we say Alabama? Yup. Belichick pal Nick Saban would have the lowdown on this guy, whom he apparently recruited throughout his wandering years. Hill was one of the top national recruits out of high school. A solid comeback project.
Good Knight, And Good Luck: Fullback/H-back Mike Burton out of Rutgers (6-0, 230) joined the Scarlet Knights as a walk-on under Coach Greg Schiano. He had 15 catches for 150 yards this past season. Burton is the only other Rutgers player besides QB Gary Nova to make a college All-Star game this year.
Foxboro Fit: Yup. Rutgers. As noted in this impressive story by Dan Duggan for NJ.com (by the way, Duggan’s a great follow on Twitter for Pats fans), Burton rushed for over 3,300 yards and 51 touchdowns in his West Morris (NJ) High career. He got no Division I offers and made himself into a fullback.
Maybe Navy, I’ll Have You: He’s got plenty of other obligations (see below), but Navy defensive end Paul Quessenberry (6-2, 251) would fit right in as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in New England’s defense. For the season, Quessenberry had 39 tackles (8.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles.
Foxboro Fit: The Pats seem due. Every few years or so, Coach Belichick brings in a Navy guy to attend spring practice, get a look around the digs, and sit on the military exemption roster list for a season or two. Though Quessenberry won’t make the active roster next year (all Navy players have a five-year commitment and must wait two years before applying to play while serving*), we’re sure he’ s getting a look from the Foxboro front office.
*If granted, the remaining three-year commitment doubles to a six-year commitment in the Reserves. Thanks to Scott Strasemeier at the Naval Academy Athletic Director’s Office for the clarification.