Listen, I tried. For years, I struggled to figure out players Coach Bill Belichick and his cohorts would select in each draft. I’d look at New England’s draft positions, figure out where athletes were ranked, and attempt to make them fit. At my prediction rate, I may as well have spent my time trying to drink a Fribble through a paper straw.
A few years ago, after putting together a Round-by-Round Review of Patriots drafts since 2000, a better, simpler way emerged: before narrowing down to specific names, find general types. As we’ll see below, the New England draft board often gets lined up differently from other teams’ boards, resulting in some surprises. That inconsistency itself has become one of a few trends that have surfaced, giving us keys as to how the Foxboro front will go about their business. Round One happens Thursday night, April 27. Rounds Two and Three follow on Friday, with Rounds Four through Seven on Day Three.
You won’t find a mock draft here; I’m leaving the board open to tendencies and possibilities.
The NFL’s combine website is a reliable resource (it’s a home-team advantage, but still). For testing newbies regarding the goings-on at Indianapolis, the page explaining each drill can prove helpful, especially regarding the 3-cone and 20-yard shuttle quickness drills.
Also, please keep in mind: I listed the possible picks shown here in light of the NFL Combine. Some players who did not participate due to injuries or snubs should get mentioned in our next “That Guy” column in a couple of weeks.
On to the picks!
The Solid First-Rounder: A look at New England’s first-round draft picks in the Belichick era reads like a predictor of the franchise’s Hall of Fame. Plenty of Pats picked here should be heading to the red blazer store, including Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Logan Mankins.
Possible Pick: This is always a little tough, because the Patriots tend to stay away from the dynamic athletes and go for the more stable, diligent types (picking Seymour over much-ballyhooed Michigan receiver David Terrell, for example). You know what? The heck with it. I’m going with tight end Evan Engram out of Ole Miss. He’s a lighter guy at 6-3, 234, but his 40 (4.42 seconds), 3-cone (6.92 seconds), and 20-yard shuttle (4.23 seconds) make him about as pleasant to match up with as burlap. Engram, who served as team captain twice, went All-SEC and All-American after leading the team with 65 receptions for 926 yards (14.2 avg.) and eight touchdowns.
Many have put Miami tight end David Njoku here, but Engram actually fared better in the 40, 3-cone, and 20-yard shuttle (Njoku had 4.64, 6.97, and 4.34 seconds, respectively). However, Njoku’s ridiculous 11-foot, 1-inch broad jump might get him plucked off the board before New England drafts.
If you want to see a guy go up the seam more than a stubborn leggings tear, you can see Engram’s highlight reel here.
The “Who’s That Guy?” Guy: Beginning in the second round, the Patriots have selected players like Sebastian Vollmer in 2009, Tavon Wilson in 2012, and Jordan Richards in 2015, sending draft commentators scrambling for their back-page notes.
Possible Pick: The combine’s not the best place to fill in this category (Vollmer was a snub), but it’s still possible to find a lesser-heralded guy to rise up the draft ranks at Gillette. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo fits here as someone with high potential. The 6-3, 258-pound Northwestern product’s 10-foot-8 broad jump tied for second-best among all defensive linemen at the combine. He also ran a 4.72-second 40, had 25 bench reps (top 13 for combine DLs), and a 31.5-inch vertical leap. He notched 10 sacks last season (12 tackles for loss) and forced two fumbles on his way to earning All-Big Ten honorable mention. Odenigbo only took up football his sophomore year in high school, yet became an Under Armour and SuperPrep All-American by the end of his senior season.
I took up listening to U2 my sophomore year of high school. So, different sets of accomplishments, I guess.
The 3-Cone Guy: As noted multiple times on this site, New England’s got a thing for quickness. The drafting of Kent State QB Julian Edelman, who put up a swift 6.62-second 3-cone at his pro day in 2009, both points to the obsession and a good reason to continue it. The quarterback became a receiver, and – in case you haven’t been following the team recently – got to be pretty good.
Possible Pick: Cornerback Kevin King out of Washington wins the 2017 Quickness Award with two combine bests, a 6.56-second 3-cone and 3.89-second 20-yard shuttle. Both are impressive times considering Edelman’s 6.62 and 3.92 marks (and he’s not exactly known for munching plants in the Galápagos). King also showcased a 39.5-inch vertical (tied for top seven overall) and a 4.43-second 40. Another Pats-possible trait? Dude’s 6-foot-3.
King earned All-Pac 12 Conference Honorable Mention both for his work on the field and in the classroom last season. He tallied 44 tackles (3.5 for loss) and two interceptions. The Patriots could get a strong scouting report from Alabama coach and Belichick pal Nick Saban, as King racked up nine stops vs. the Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a 24-7 Alabama win.
Fun Fact: According to his UW player page, King won the Tyree Sports Community Service Award, a foundation that helps incoming freshmen catch footballs on their helmets. What? Wait a second … Nope. Read that wrong: it’s the Tyee Sports Council Community Service Award from the Tyee Club, a supporter of Husky Athletics. Different deal, I guess.
The Freakishly Athletic Guy: Ever since the Patriots took Jamie Collins in 2013, it’s been worth keeping an eye out for someone who lights up the combine. Collins showed the explosiveness of a Yosemite Sam cartoon with his 41.5-inch vertical and 11-foot, seven-inch broad jump. Belichick seeks versatility in his charges; physical ability can help gain that.
Possible Pick: Whoooaa. You know, being a 6-4, 224-pound safety set UConn’s Obi Melifonwu apart from the crowd already, but after this past weekend, he might have to take up residence on a different planet. He showed a combine-best (and Collins-besting) 44-inch vertical and 11-foot-9 broad jump. Think about that for a second. If Melifonwu were standing with his toes just inside the four-yard line, he could broad jump to the end zone. Add a 4.40-second 40 (tied for eighth best at the combine) and 17 bench-press reps (eighth among safeties), and Melifonwu has cemented his status as the WHAT THE HUNH?!? combine player of 2017. This past season, Melifonwu was named First Team All-ECAC after piling up 118 tackles (in 12 games, no less), four interceptions, and three pass break-ups.
Fun Fact: In the West African language of Igbo, the word “Obi” means “heart.” Sometimes pronounced haht.
Offensive Line Double-Dip Guys: The Pats have done well to go back to the OL buffet in recent drafts, stocking up on Tré Jackson and Shaq Mason in 2015 and Joe Thuney and Ted Karras last year. With the release of tackle Sebastian Vollmer and the relative lack of bulk on New England’s interior, the team could draft to bolster the line both inside and outside.
Possible Picks: If the middle of the offensive line is light, then Isaac Asiata projects well to anchor that bunch of helium balloons. The Utah guard checked in at 6-3, 323 pounds and put up a Herculean (and combine-best) 35 reps on the bench press. At tackle, Will Holden from Vanderbilt seems to fit. An elm tree at 6-7, 311 pounds, Holden managed a 9-foot-3 broad jump and a 28-inch vertical, showing the athleticism necessary to keep faster pass-rushers at bay. The All-SEC Second-Teamer started as a right tackle sophomore year but moved to left beginning as a junior, starting all 13 games his senior year. Asiata earned the Morris Trophy for best offensive lineman in the Pac-12, voted by the conference’s defensive linemen. It’s an award Asiata said he wanted since he started playing at Utah.
Fun Fact: Asiata is the cousin of NFL running back (and former Ute) Matt Asiata.
The Long-Limbed Defensive End: After his 2016 performance, this might get renamed the Attempt To Duplicate Trey Flowers Guy. The 2015 fourth-rounder out of Arkansas became the team’s best pass-rusher and went amok for 2.5 sacks in the Super Bowl to consistently give New England a chance to come back. With veteran Chris Long moving on in free agency, the Patriots are expected to tend to this position.
Possible Pick: Well, outside of Freddy Krueger living in my nightmares, you’re not going to get a longer-limbed demon than the 6-7, 289-pound Tanoh Kpassagnon out of Villanova, who sports 35-and-five-eighths-inch limbs. If running a 4.83 40 didn’t bolster his draft stock, then his 30-inch vertical leap and 10-foot-7 broad jump did. (Putting up 23 bench reps with those transatlantic-cable arms wasn’t unimpressive, either). Kpassagnon was the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year with 40 tackles (19 for loss) and 8.5 sacks.
Oh, and that nightmare about Freddy? I dreamt he cut my arm off, then woke up having slept in an awkward position where I couldn’t feel my arm. True story.
The Alabama Guy: Belichick’s relationship with Coach Saban is only a little younger than the relationship between the Earth and the Moon. Second-round rookie cornerback/potential 2017 comeback story Cyrus Jones is the latest example; Dont’a Hightower came aboard in 2012.
Possible Pick: They seem stocked with defensive linemen, but could the Patriots take another one in Dalvin Tomlinson? (Well … of course they could. It’s not magic or anything.) The 6-3, 310-pounder whose 33.5-inch arms also make him look like a living Laocoön sculpture excelled at the combine, showing some speed (5.19 40) and athleticism (27-inch vertical, 9-foot-2 broad jump) for his size. He also did quite well in Alabama’s defense in 2016, notching 62 tackles (5.5 for loss), three sacks, and four pass break-ups.
The Ohio State Defensive Back: This is a recent amalgam of The Rutgers Guy and The Ohio State Guy, taking into account former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano moving into the D-Coordinator position at OSU.
Possible Pick: The best DB out of Ohio State this year will be Malik Hooker, meaning he should be gone by the time the Patriots pick. Declared junior Dareon Conley (6-0, 195) could make the Foxboro draft board. Conley ran a 4.44-second 40, 11th for combine corners. He submitted a 6.68-second 3-cone (tied for top three corner) and a 10-9 broad jump (top six corner). At OSU, he made All-Big Ten second team with 26 stops, four interceptions, and eight pass break-ups. You can watch a highlight reel where he demonstrates solid fundamentals here.
The Injured Guy: On the hunt for value like my mother at Zayre, New England will gamble on an injured player in the hopes that he will outperform his draft status. The greatest example of this theory? Rob Gronkowski in 2010. The not-so-greatest? Ras-I-Dowling in 2011. Eh, you take your shots. (Flashing back on Zayre, this discovery: Garanimals still exist!)
Player To Watch: Following up his noteworthy Senior Bowl performance with a strong combine, I’m sticking with linebacker Alex Anzalone out of Florida. The 6-3, 241-pound linebacker ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash, a 6.88 3-cone, and a 4.25 20-yard shuttle, all top five for linebackers at Indy. Anzalone has played in only 10 games in the last two seasons due to shoulder and arm injuries. in his one full season (2014), he played in all 12 games as a backup and tallied 14 tackles.
The Small-School Defender: As we saw with Zach Moore out of Concordia in 2014 and even Kamu Grugier-Hill from Eastern Illinois last year, New England seems quite willing to overlook school status in favor of potential. Despite going undrafted, a certain cornerback from West Alabama whose name rhymes with Talcum Cutler adds to this ideal.
Possible Pick: The more I research West Georgia outside linebacker Dylan Donahue (6-3, 248), the more I like what I see. Running a decent 4.75 40 and putting up a solid 26 bench reps might get him a little more notice, but numbers for the Division II First-Team All-American tell a better story. The Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Year had a school-record 13.5 sacks in 2016, racking up 67 tackles (20 for loss) as an edge defender.
Donahue reminds me of Montana State product and former Patriot Dane Fletcher, a D-2 defensive end who converted to linebacker for the NFL. Both are from Montana (Fletcher went to Bozeman High, Donahue to Billings West), and both put up monster numbers in college.
Fun Fact: The word “monster” comes from the Latin “monere,” to warn, and “monstrum,” portent. It’s also the name of an oddly-sexualized cartoon high school.
The Backup Quarterback: Recently, the Patriots have been drafting quarterbacks earlier than expected, with Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2014 second round and Jacoby Brissett in the 2016 third. Though New England will probably wait until the later rounds before picking a QB this year, it’s still likely they’ll seek out another arm for the summer.
By the way, Another Arm For The Summer sounds like it would be the title of Mike Lupica’s worst novel. Christ, I’m cringing just thinking about it.
Possible Pick: Looks like Davis Webb of Cal had a strong Senior Bowl and could be a Day Three fit for Foxboro. He also had one heck of a combine, gaining top five scores for quarterbacks in the 40, vertical and broad jumps, and 3-cone and 20-yard shuttles. Last year, Webb got an Honorable Mention in the Pac-12 with 4,295 yards passing (62 percent completion rate), and a Tom-Brady-like ratio of 37 touchdowns against two interceptions.
Random Pats Connection: Webb began his career at Texas Tech under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, the Patriots’ 2003 sixth-round QB pick.
The Take-A-Shot-On-This-Receiver Guy: Let’s see, here. New England skipped a couple of years in this category after taking Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in 2013, but Malcolm Mitchell in the fourth round this past year has changed perspective. With 32 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games, Mitchell proved that – as difficult as it may be to find young receivers who can get on the same page as Brady – productive pass-catchers are out there.
Possible Pick: Looking for a bigger receiver with impressive combine measurements leads us to Kenny Golladay. The 6-4, 218-pound Northern Illinois product did solid work in Indianapolis, running a 4.50 40, a 7.00-second 3-cone, and a 4.15-second 20-yard shuttle. He also had a 10-foot broad jump. He is one of the biggest wideouts to participate in the combine.
Golladay made First-Team All-MAC last season, catching 73 passes for 1,129 yards and two touchdowns. New England only has two receivers on their roster over 6-foot-1: one (Devin Lucien) is a second-year player with no game experience; the other (Michael Floyd) is not exactly going to be running a lot of pass patterns over the next couple of months. Expect someone Golladay-sized to get a tryout at Gillette in July.
The Backup Tight End: As of this writing, the Patriots have six tight ends on the roster, only one of whom weighs under 265 pounds (Rob Housler, at a petite 250). It seems like they could use another lighter, quicker guy to put stress on defenses should Martellus Bennett and/or Rob Gronkowski be unavailable.
There’s a notable clip from the Week 16 Jets game edition of Mic’d Up where Matt Lengel has just scored his first career touchdown. At about the 2:35 mark, ends coach Brian Daboll says to him, “Don’t’ worry about your touchdown, got me?” followed by something that sounds like, “I want better in the run game.” In other words, You’re not here to catch passes, big fella. Even if the Patriots pick Engram early, they could still be on the lookout for a versatile H-back type.
Possible Pick: At the combine, Iowa’s George Kittle raised some eyebrows with a 4.52-second 40 (third-best tight end) and an 11-foot broad jump (also third). The 6-4, 247-pounder caught a mere 22 passes for 314 yards (14.3 avg.) and four touchdowns in 2016. He was often called on to block, as the Hawkeyes featured two running backs who gained 1,000 yards on the year.
Fun Fact: Since 1999, Kirk Ferentz has been Iowa’s head coach. Despite having known Belichick since coaching with him at Cleveland in the early 1990s, Ferentz has only had one of his players drafted by New England. (That player’s listed below. And if you can get this off the top of your head, you win the day.)
The Special Teams Guy: When New England drafted Matthew Slater out of UCLA in 2008, I figured they’d gotten themselves a fast receiver and potential kick returner in the fifth round. Little did I realize they would begin a trend of drafting players who focus and excel on special teams. Ohio State rugby player Nate Ebner (2012 sixth) also makes this list, as well as long snapper Joe Cardona (more on him below).
Possible Pick: Let’s keep it local with John Johnson (6-0, 208) out of Boston College. Timed at 4.61 in the 40, with a 6.72-second 3-cone (tied for second among combine safeties), a 4.18-second 20-yard shuttle (tied for fourth safety), a 37-inch vertical (also tied for fourth) and 14 bench reps at the combine, Johnson may have moved beyond typical Special Teamer draft status. At BC, he had 77 tackles (three for loss), three interceptions, and nine pass break-ups.
The Navy Guy: Belichick’s father, who was to football scouts what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was to The Beatles (thanks for the refresher, Internet!), coached at the Naval Academy for 50 years. His son wanted Cardona in Foxboro badly enough to spend a fifth-round draft pick on him in 2015. The result? Super Bowl. (Okay, maybe not a direct correlation, but still.)
Possible Pick: For the record, no Navy guys made it to the combine this year. As a preview of future “That Guy” columns, keep an eye on receiver Jamir Tillman, who somehow managed to grab 40 passes this past season in a program that throws the ball about as often as Carli Loyd. His 631 yards receiving led the team by over 350. He averaged 15.8 yards per catch and came down with two touchdowns.
The Back-To-The-Well Guy: While Belichick might not have as strong a tie to most schools as he does Navy, the success of one player can lead to selecting another from the same program. Rutgers is the best example of this, as the Gillette lighthouse once beckoned to the Scarlet Knights like the Lighthouse of Alexandria to sailors in papyrus boats. Florida State (center Bryan Stork, 2014; guard Jackson, 2015) is another program that gets attention from around these parts.
Possible Pick: New England drafted Houston linebacker Elandon Roberts in the sixth round last year; that paid off in the form of 45 tackles and a forced fumble from the rookie. Easy to get enamored with Roberts’ college teammate, linebacker Tyus Bowser, watching his highlight reel. While I know that’s what highlight reels are for, the fact that a Houston product like Roberts found such success as a rookie points to his former teammate coming in with potential to contribute quickly. Bowser’s 7.5 sacks and 10.5 total tackles for loss in 2016 should help – especially if you consider he missed five games due to injury. The 6-3, 247-pound Bowser ran a 6.75-second 3-cone, best among combine linebackers. His 10-foot-7 broad jump qualified as top three among linebackers, while he added a 4.65-second 40 that made top five for good measure.
Ha! Measure, I said. About the combine. I kill me.
Seventh-Round Slot Guy: Looking at Jeremy Ebert out of Northwestern in 2012 and Jeremy Gallon from Michigan in 2014, we can see attempts to duplicate Edelman magic from 2009. Edelman’s NFL success makes college receiving stats about as reliable as a sundial in Seattle, but combine quickness may offer a clue or two regarding potential. (For the record, Edelman was not invited to the combine in 2009.)
Possible Pick: At 5-foot-7, he might be shorter than his future Fathead poster, but Isaiah McKenzie out of Georgia still manages to come up big on the field. McKenzie ran a 4.42 40 (tied for seventh best at the combine), and a 6.64 3-cone (third best), because if you’re going to be smaller than a tackling dummy, you’d better be fast and quick. As a junior in 2016, he was Georgia’s leading receiver with 44 catches for 633 yards (14.4 avg.) and seven touchdowns. He also ran for 134 yards on 19 carries (7.1 avg.) and returned a punt for a touchdown (he had five punt return TDs in his career). Pats brass must be contemplating the success of Bulldogs alum Mitchell in Foxboro last year and wondering whether that could translate to his former teammate.
Trivia Answer: The only Iowa player drafted by the Patriots under Belichick has been offensive lineman Mike Elgin in 2007.
Fun Fact: Elgin, Illinois is a stupid suburb of Chicago where jerks come from. (You know what you did, Kevin. You know what you did.)
The Pedigree Pick Guy: A new category this year, it may get used more frequently as former NFL players see their sons play in college. Although, as I write this, I have to wonder whether Slater’s pedigree (his father is Pro Football Hall of Fame left tackle and Brady-based truth-teller Jackie Slater) became a factor as Belichick considered drafting him. Safe to say it didn’t hurt.
Possible Pick: In any case, seeing the name Bryan Cox brought back some memories, the clearest of which involved his linebacker father back in 2001 planting Colts receiver Jerome Pathon like a daffodil bulb. (Nice piece on Cox, Sr. by Christopher Price here.) Cox had a mediocre combine, timing at 4.89 in the 40 and benching 16 reps, but his size (6-3, 265) and – like the category says – pedigree make him an intriguing prospect. Beset by injuries his senior year, Cox only had 19 tackles (2.5 for loss). Seen as a late Day Three pick, Cox could bring value to the right team.
In the next couple of weeks I’ll be putting together the first of 2017’s Combine Snubs Who Showed ‘Em series, checking in on notable pro days from players who did not get invited to Indianapolis. Last year’s Snubs wrap-up column is worth a review as it includes current Patriot linebacker Trevor Bates, who at 6-1, 245, ran a 6.75-second 3-cone drill at Maine’s pro day.
Enjoy the speculation, folks. It’s all we’ve got for the next several weeks. Well, that, and multiple “Three Games To Glory V” viewings.
Chris Warner actually kind of admires the flat-earthers for their sticktoitiveness, as misplaced as it may be. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeted at @cwarn89.