It seems like New England goes about free agency signings the same way I approach a breakfast buffet. I start out intent on just oatmeal and a banana, but after seeing they have omelets made to order? I mean, I’ve got to at least inquire, right?
New England went against their typical wait-and-see mode this off-season and loaded up their order with a little of everything. They traded for tight end Dwayne Allen, receiver Brandin Cooks, and defensive lineman Kony Ealy, while scooping up free agents like cornerback Stephon Gilmore, D-lineman Lawrence Guy, and running back Rex Burkhead, while re-signing safety Duron Harmon, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and corner Justin Coleman.
Got it? Good. Because you might have to remind me later.
And, oh, hey – we’re still more than a month away from the NFL draft. Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots move around the draft board like a nuthatch attacking a suet feeder, flitting about in search of the best angle for the biggest reward. A few of the team’s tendencies surfaced in our annual Patriots Draft Round-By-Round Review. From that, breaking down their drafts gets simplified: not by where they pick nor by areas of need, but by the categories of athletes they tend to select.
We posted our previous “That Guy” column right after the NFL Combine. This column has some changes, but still lists more than a few combine testing numbers. For clarification of each drill, the NFL Combine page provides some useful info.
After the Cooks trade with New Orleans and the Ealy trade with Carolina, the Patriots have no first- or second-round picks. Though that may change, it has forced us to look later in the draft for certain types of athletes. New England has selections in the Third (two), Fourth, Fifth (two), Sixth, and Seventh rounds. Round One of the NFL Draft happens on Thursday night, April 27. Rounds Two and Three on Friday, April 28, and Rounds Four through Seven take place all day on Day Three, April 29. I can tell you this: as excited as you are now, you won’t believe how bored you’ll get after the first 15 minutes.
In any case, here are the sorts of players to look for next month…
The Solid First-Rounder: As said before, no Thursday night pick for the Pats; however, that could change via trade, allowing in a potential starter. The Patriots have a history of success in their first-round selections, as seen in our aforementioned Round-by-Round Review. (Am I pushing that too much? I’ll stop.) Past picks include Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, and Logan Mankins.
Possible Pick: With the Patriots drafting at 32, we previously picked tight end Evan Engram out of Ole Miss, but now it’s time to look more closely on the defensive side of the ball. Lots to like about Ohio defensive end Tarell Basham (6-4, 269). With the departures of veteran free agent pass-rushers Jabaal Sheard (Indianapolis Colts) and Chris Long (Mt. Kilimanjaro Waterboys), the Pats will look to add further depth along with Ealy and Guy.
By the way, “Ealy and Guy” sounds like the new quirky detective show on USA that follows reruns of “Rizzoli and Isles.” (You can take the “Rizzoli and Isles” quiz now!) Anyhoo, Basham came out of relatively tiny Ohio University to make some waves during Senior Bowl week, proving difficult to contain in one-on-one drills. His 4.70-second 40-yard dash didn’t disappoint. He was named the 2016 MAC Defensive Player of the Year with 16 tackles for loss (11.5 sacks), 44 tackles, and two forced fumbles. Seems like the type of player who could come in and rotate early as a rookie before expanding his role.
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, who did not exactly enter the draft adorned in neon lights saying “Pick Me Early.” Even if they fall short of acquiring a second-rounder, New England could use one of their two third-rounders on a less-than-famous prospect, much like they did on Duron Harmon in 2013.
Possible Pick: I had Northwestern defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo fitting here, but since free agency I’ve done a little shifting around (and as you’ll see, I end up with a lot of pass-rushers in other categories). Tony Conner of Ole Miss fits into this area of the draft, not just as a surprisingly high selection, but also as an Injured Guy (more on that below). Conner, a safety (like three of the four Patriots mentioned in this category), was well on his way to the NFL, reaching All-American Freshman status in 2013 and All-SEC Second Team as a sophomore. His junior season got derailed by a torn meniscus in his knee. When he returned as a senior, he managed 41 tackles (3.5 for loss) and a half-sack, along with five passes defensed, failing to reach his previous levels. Considering his setback and follow-up surgery junior year, the 6-0, 225-pound Conner could show off more of his previous abilities this spring.
The 3-Cone Guy: If you’ve ever read my pre-draft stuff before, you’ll remember that New England seeks out a player with quickness over straight-line speed. Seventh-rounder Julian Edelman had a 6.62-second 3-cone at his pro day in 2009, showing off the short-twitch skills that have helped him become the player he is today.
Possible Pick: Washington cornerback Kevin King keeps this spot after his two 2017 NFL Combine bests: 6.56-seconds in the 3-cone and 3.89-seconds in the 20-yard shuttle. (Compare to Edelman’s 6.62 and 3.92 marks, and you’re looking at particle-accelerator-fast feet). The 6-foot-3 King also leapt a 39.5-inch vertical (tied for top seven overall) and a 4.43-second 40. King earned All-Pac 12 Conference Honorable Mention, both on the field and academically. He had 44 tackles (3.5 for loss) and two interceptions. Plus, his last name would provide a boon to those like me with an affinity for terrible, pun-filled headlines.
Like, a picture of him next to Kevin Faulk, with the headline “Faulk-King Great.” Right? Like that.
The Freakishly Athletic Guy: Former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins earned this moniker at the 2013 combine, moving around in ways that a 250-pound linebacker should not: a 41.5-inch vertical and 11-foot-7 broad jump. Such athleticism can help coaches set up difficult match-ups on either side of the ball.
Possible Pick: We’ve been keeping an eye out during pro day testing, but the athleticism of UConn’s 6-4, 224-pound safety Obi Melifonwu is rarer than steak tartare. A 44-inch vertical. An 11-foot-9 broad jump. A 4.40-second 40 (tied for eighth best at the combine). Crazy numbers for the First Team All-ECAC safety who wrapped up 2016 with 118 tackles, four interceptions, and three pass break-ups.
Fun Fact: Melifonwu gained 1,394 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a running back at Grafton High School in Massachusetts.
Fun Watch: You can see those moon-man jumps in slo-mo on this CBS Sports page.
Offensive Line Double-Dip Guys: A few years ago, New England started going all Noah on O-linemen, seeking them out in pairs. In 2015, they picked Tré Jackson and Shaq Mason. Last year, Joe Thuney and Ted Karras got selected. After releasing tackle Sebastian Vollmer this off-season, the team should be seeking depth on the line.
Possible Picks: Though he will never be confused with the rabbity King, Isaac Asiata (6-3, 323) could add some bulk and strength to the middle of the Patriots’ front five. The guard out of Utah had a combine-best 35 reps on the bench press. Asiata earned the Morris Trophy for best offensive lineman in the Pac-12, voted by the conference’s defensive linemen. At tackle, Will Holden from Vanderbilt gets the call, especially after Belichick’s visit to the Commodores’ pro day. Holden has the right size at 6-7, 311 pounds, and he put up some of the top combine scores for O-linemen in the 3-cone and 20-yard shuttle. 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.
The Long-Limbed Defensive End: Drafted out of Arkansas in 2015, Trey Flowers has worked up to the role of the team’s best pass-rusher, giving the Patriots enough confidence to let Long and Sheard seek contracts with other teams. In 2016, the Patriots seemed to have about as many sacks as a roomful of eunuchs (actually, they sat firmly in the middle of the pack, tied for 16th in the league with 34). New England (and most other teams, really) could use another rangy D-lineman to get after the QB.
Possible Pick: Hard to let go of 6-7, 289-pound Tanoh Kpassagnon out of Villanova, especially considering his baby-anaconda 36-inch limbs. With those reachers, he can name quarterbacks George and hug them and squeeze them. Kpassagnon ran a 4.83 40, leapt 30 inches, and jumped 10 feet, seven inches. No big surprise, he earned Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year honors with 40 tackles (19 for loss) and 8.5 sacks.
Technique: Here’s an interview with Kpassagnon at the Senior Bowl, where he talks about working on his technique. Considering Flowers’ nickname is “Technique,” maybe Foxboro is the place for Kpassagnon to go.
Bonus Technique: Oh, it’s also an album by New Order? Have fun.
The Alabama Guy: Belichick and Alabama coach Nick Saban‘s relationship goes back to a different era, one where giant, square glasses frames made sense (I had the same kind as Saban in this Browns coaching photo). Second-year player Cyrus Jones and Super Bowl standout Dont’a Hightower (2012) are two examples of Tuscaloosans becoming Foxborobros.
Possible Pick: Not like they’re starving for defensive linemen, but Dalvin Tomlinson (6-3, 310) had a good year in Alabama’s defense, with 62 tackles (5.5 for loss), three sacks, and four pass break-ups. Tomlinson also made some noise at the combine, with a 5.19 40 and a 27-inch vertical jump, both notable numbers for a 300-plus pounder.
Fun Fact: Tomlinson won three state titles as a high school heavyweight wrestler in Georgia, compiling a career record of 169-2.
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. Call it a potential category of the future.
Possible Pick: Declared junior Dareon Conley (6-0, 195) should get a long look from the Gillette front office. He made All-Big Ten second team with 26 stops, four interceptions, and eight pass break-ups for OSU. At the combine, Conley ran a 4.44-second 40 and – more importantly – a 6.68-second 3-cone, tied for top three corner.
Fun Fact: In 2015, Conley blocked a punt vs. Rutgers. Because it always comes back to Rutgers.
The Injured Guy: New England has been known to gamble on an injured collegian, hoping to cash in on the player out-performing his draft status. Tight end Rob Gronkowski in 2010 immediately comes to mind. Alas, so does Ras-I-Dowling in 2011. Like I said: it’s a gamble.
Player To Watch: With the Patriots having so few picks early, I’m backing off of linebacker Alex Anzalone out of Florida and moving down the draft a bit, switching my attention to edge rusher JoJo Mathis (6-2, 266) out of Washington. Mathis led the Huskies in sacks after six games with five, then had to stop due to injury and eventual foot surgery. He did not test at the combine and could fly under the radar before the draft. As a late pick, he has the chance to provide a decent payoff.
An extended look at Mathis vs. Arizona embedded in this article. Lots of potential to work with, there.
The Small-School Defender: Sixth-rounders Markell Carter of Central Arkansas (2011) and Zach Moore out of Concordia (2014) show New England’s willingness to look past school pedigree for potential gems looking to dazzle once light is shone upon them.
Holy crap, that was poetic.
Possible Pick: Sticking with West Georgia outside linebacker Dylan Donahue (6-3, 248) here. He’s got the physicality with a 4.75 40 and 26 bench reps. He’s also got the prerequisite almost-unbelievable numbers for a small-school product. The Division II First-Team All-American and Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Year had a school-record 13.5 sacks in 2016, racking up 67 tackles (20 for loss).
Donahue’s Division II dominance calls to mind that of former Patriot Dane Fletcher, a D-II defensive end out of Montana State who played linebacker for New England. You can see Donahue’s pass-rushing skills (and some rather flustered offensive linemen) in this highlight reel.
The Backup Quarterback: Some recent surprise choices include Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2014 second round and Jacoby Brissett in the 2016 fourth. Both seemed like high picks for a team with the best QB in all the land, but they’ve worked out so far, helping New England to a 3-1 record to begin 2016.
Possible Pick: I don’t think the Patriots will pick quite as high again. With that in mind, after Davis Webb of Cal had a solid Senior Bowl and an impressive combine, his draft board status got too lofty for the Patriots to take him. That switches our focus to C. J. Beathard (6-2, 219) out of Iowa, who led the Hawkeyes with 1,929 yards and 17 touchdowns vs. 10 interceptions. Beathard completed 170 of 301 passes for a 57 percent completion rate. An added bonus is the fact that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and Belichick go back about 25 years to the pair’s days coaching for the Browns. So, hey: in-depth scouting report for a potentially solid backup.
Random Pats Connection: When I had Webb here, I noted that he began his career at Texas Tech under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, the Patriots’ 2003 sixth-round QB pick. With Beathard, a more random connection arose. His father Casey has written songs for Kenny Chesney, including the single, “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems.” Chesney was seen celebrating the Pats’ most recent Super Bowl victory with Robert Kraft.
Yeah. When I said “random connection,” I was not kidding around.
The Take-A-Shot-On-This-Receiver Guy: After selecting Deion Branch and David Givens in 2002, New England had a long, discouraging history of drafting receivers who didn’t quite fit in at Foxboro, including Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in 2013. (Let’s not even discuss Chad “Combine Skills Champion” Jackson). The Pats found a gem in Edelman (more on him below); they halted their poor streak after finding Georgia pass-catcher Malcolm Mitchell in the fourth round last year. The rookie caught 32 balls for 401 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, bringing hope to the overall daunting challenge of finding first-year fits for New England.
Possible Pick: I liked the size and athleticism of Kenny Golladay (6-4, 218) out of Northern Illinois, but a lot of other people agreed with me after his impressive combine performance. Still seeking out a bigger receiver (I mean, Patriots wideout Michael Floyd isn’t going anywhere anytime soon) brings us to Michigan’s Jehu Chesson (6-3, 204). Chesson stood out at the combine with an 11-foot broad jump and 4.09-second 20-yard shuttle (both top six for wide receivers) and a 6.70-second 3-cone (top three for receivers, top nine overall), which, given his stature, must have looked like a sapling on ice skates. For the Wolverines – Wolverines! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself) – Chesson caught 35 passes for 500 yards (14.3 avg.), with two touchdowns in 2016, a down year after a notable junior season (50 for 764, nine TDs) with a different QB.
The Backup Tight End: As of this writing, the Patriots have brought in Rob Housler and old pal Michael Williams after losing Martellus Bennett in free agency. It seems like they could use another lighter, quicker guy to put stress on defenses if Rob Gronkowski proves unavailable. (Lower case “if.”)
Possible Pick: The previous column’s mention, Iowa’s George Kittle, did yeoman work at the combine, but Darrell Daniels (6-3, 247) out of Washington seems more like the receiving type TE the Pats could look for here. Daniels ran a speedy 4.55-second 40, the fourth-best time for tight ends at the combine. He also had a 7.09-second 3-cone, tied for sixth-best TE. In his senior year as a Husky, Daniels earned All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention with 17 catches for 307 yards (18.1 avg.) and three touchdowns. Plus, if you watch highlights, he resembles former Patriots tight end Tim Wright. (For comparison, some Wright highlights from the Buccaneers in 2013.)
The Special Teams Guy: Picks like UCLA’s Matthew Slater in 2008 and Ohio State’s Nate Ebner in 2012 tend to emerge in the fifth and sixth rounds, guys who might fill in on offense or defense in a pinch, but who get drafted to focus on special teams. I liked Boston College safety John Johnson here before, but his combine work might take him a little too high for the late-fifth, early-sixth rounds.
Possible Pick: Here’s where studying pro days from combine snubs comes in handy, as it led me to Oklahoma linebacker Jordan Evans (6-3, 232). Evans had scouts conking themselves on the head like they’d neglected V-8, showing serious juice in a 4.51-second 40, which would have been second-best linebacker time at the combine. He also had top-10-worthy 4.27 20-yard shuttle and 7.00 3-cone times. The All-Big 12 First Team defender led the Sooners with 98 tackles, adding 2.5 sacks and four interceptions.
The Navy Guy: The connection between Belichick and the Naval Academy is well-documented. (Literally, you could say: the coach and his father contributed the Belichick Collection of football tomes to the school library.)
Possible Pick: Hard to overlook wide receiver Jamir Tillman, who caught 40 passes for 631 yards and two TDs this past season. Decent numbers anywhere, but especially notable on the third-best rushing team in the country. He averaged 15.8 yards per catch. For his career, Tillman amassed 1,626 yards receiving via 91 catches (17.9 avg.) and 10 touchdowns.
Fun Fact: Tillman rushed six times in his career for 51 yards (8.5 avg.).
Fun Retro Fact: When I was a child, the Navy had the best recruiting ads on television: It’s Not Just A Job, It’s An Adventure.
The Back-To-The-Well Guy: While Belichick might not have ties as strong to most schools as he does Navy, the success of one player can lead to selecting another from the same program. Rutgers had its own category for years. Florida State (center Bryan Stork, 2014; guard Jackson, 2015) is another example of a program that has provided some recent additions.
Possible Pick: Had linebacker Tyus Bowser here previously in light of New England drafting Houston LB Elandon Roberts in the sixth round last year. However, Bowser’s draft stock may have gotten too rich for New England after a killer combine. (Note: Killer Combine is not the name of a Stephen King novel about farm equipment gone amok. But it should be.) We’ll switch over to offense here, taking Cal running back Khalfani Muhammad in light of the Patriots drafting Cal running back Shane Vereen in 2011 and signing rookie free agent receiver Chris Harper in 2015. At 5-7, 174 pounds, the word “diminutive” is itself too big to describe Muhammad, but he made All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention in 2016 with 1,543 all-purpose yards. He led the Bears with 827 yards rushing on 152 carries (5.4 avg.), caught 17 passes for 132 yards, and returned kicks at a 24.3-yard clip. A combine snub, Muhammad has yet to be tested, but his highlights show speed, quickness, and a surprising amount of strength.
Seventh-Round Slot Guy: We can look back at Jeremy Ebert (Northwestern, 2012) and Jeremy Gallon (Michigan, 2014) and see New England trying to reap similar benefits as with the Edelman selection of 2009. Again, 3-cone can play a large role, but production and adaptability provide keys as well.
Possible Pick: I had Isaiah McKenzie out of Georgia here before, but he is Khalfani-sized at 5-7, 173-pounds. Seriously, those guys’ frames could barely hold up a painting. Instead, I’ll go back to Fred Ross (6-1, 213), a Mississippi State receiver whom I mentioned in our “That Guy” Senior Bowl column. (There I go, linking myself again.) Ross, a two-time First-Team All-SEC selection, caught 72 passes for 917 yards (12.7 avg.), for 12 TDs. He also returned punts. At the combine, Ross put up respectable-yet-unremarkable numbers (4.28 20-yard shuttle, 6.99 3-cone) that will keep him toward the back of the draft. So, sure, he shouldn’t be confused with John Ross – he of the astounding 4.22-second 40 – but he can play in the NFL.
Nice look at Ross’ versatility on this brief, densely profane highlight reel.
The Pedigree Pick Guy: We’ve introduced this category this year in light of former Patriot Bryan Cox’s son entering the draft next month.
Possible Pick: We watched defensive end Bryan Cox, Jr. (6-3, 264) do some damage at the East-West Shrine Game, getting in the backfield often and causing general havoc. His combine wasn’t the best, but a 4.89 40 fails to represent the type of impact he could potentially have on the field. Injuries limited Cox to 19 tackles (2.5 for loss) in 2016.
Other Possible Pick: Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson (6-0, 228) is the son of the Tampa Bay Pro Bowler of the same name who had an amazing 214 tackles in 1993. The younger Nickerson had 107 tackles last year (5.5 for loss) and two interceptions.
Next week, we’ll post the first of 2017’s Combine Snubs Who Showed ‘Em series, checking in on notable field days from players whom NFL scouts overlooked. 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.
You want a quick preview snub? Sure. Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong projects as an NFL receiver; his pro-day times in the 3-cone and 20-yard shuttle would have made top 10 at the combine.
See? Fun. Hope to have you back next week. You’re officially invited.
Chris Warner noticed that the woman sitting across from him has the same coffee travel mug and he now wonders if he should try to make eye contact and nod toward his own mug, like, “Hey, how about that? Twinsies!” but is deciding against it. You can email him advice about how to initiate human contact at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @cwarn89.