Since his first NFL draft with New England in 2000, Bill Belichick has shown certain tendencies that shed light on how to cover this annual pick prediction fail-a-palooza. Because of this, rather than providing a monotonous stream of mocks and position run-downs, it seems better to deal with specific categories of picks. For a rundown of past drafts, please see our Round-by-Round Review from last month, where we looked at every Patriots draft selection in the Belichick era.
The NFL Combine took place in Indianpolis last week, which helps sharpen our focus (as you’ll see in a couple of skills-based entries) and brings in some numbers to round out our descriptions of each player. You’ll also see the names previously mentioned in each category from our post-Senior-Bowl column.
As of this writing, New England has six picks in the NFL draft: one first-rounder, two second-rounders, and one each in the third, fourth, and sixth rounds. The draft takes place over three days, beginning with first-round coverage on Thursday, April 26. Rounds 2-3 happen Friday, followed by Rounds 4-7 on Saturday, April 28.
April 28? Good God, we are drawing this thing out like a six-year-old explaining the plot of a My Little Pony episode. (Yes, sweetie, I get it: Friendship is Magic.) Anyway, here’s our look at some ready-for-Foxboro guys…
The Solid First-Round Guy: With Richard Seymour (2001), Vince Wilfork (2004), Nate Solder (2011), and Malcom Brown (2016), among others, we see big men doing starters’ work along both sides of the ball. Going with a defensive lineman for this one, as Harrison Phillips (6-4, 307) of Stanford had an impressive bench press, standing out for his combine-best 42 reps of 225 pounds. He also had a 32-inch vertical and a 7.28-second 3-cone, both solid for his size. With his length and strength, Harrison – a wrestling champ in high school – could cause potential problems for offenses all the way down the line. In 2017, Phillips somehow accounted for a what-the-wha-? 103 tackles (17 for loss), 7.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles, making All-Pac-12 First Team along with Pac-12 All-Academic First Team.
Previously Mentioned Guy: Phillips, after the D-lineman wreaked havoc at the Senior Bowl.
The “Who’s That Guy?” Guy: When New England drafted offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (2009), safety Tavon Wilson (2012) and tin man Jordan Richards (2015) in the second round, everyone gave an unintentional look of perplexity, like after I watched I, Tonya (So … she knew? Jeff knew? What really happened?). Considering the Patriots also take chances with injured players in the second round (Rob Gronkowski, 2010; Ras-I Dowling, 2011), we’ll go with a lesser-known player with an injury history (a real two-fer): Nick DeLuca (6-3, 248), North Dakota State linebacker. Though slower than desired in the 40 (4.85 seconds), DeLuca had a 7.09-second 3-cone and a pinball-quick 4.23-second 20-yard shuttle (for comparison, current Patriots running back James White had a 7.05 and 4.20, respectively). After missing all of 2016 with an injury, DeLuca made the AP All-America First Team in 2017 by totaling 74 tackles (10.5 for loss), and 6.5 sacks on the number-one defense in the FCS.
Previously Mentioned Guy: Trayvon Henderson, Hawaii S
The 3-Cone Guy: Boston Sports Journal’s Christopher Price has long paid attention to 3-cone times, and he recently wrote about why Pats followers should, too. Going back to Julian Edelman in 2009, who put up a jackrabbity 6.62-second 3-cone at his pro day, the Patriots have a history with those who possess feet of Mercury (and yes, I’m mixing metaphors like I’ve put them in a can at a Sherwin-Williams store). Cornerback Darryl Roberts, also a Patriots seventh-rounder in 2015, ran a 6.66. And those are great times, until you see that Oklahoma cornerback Jordan Thomas put up a 6.28. I mean… what? A 6.28? That is batguano nutballs. It is, in fact, the fastest 3-cone time in combine history.
The craziest part seems to be that, beyond his überhuman quickness (he also jetted a 3.94-second 20-yard shuttle), Jordan had an average (and often less-than-average) combine, including a 4.64-second 40 and a mere four bench reps. Not sure what New England (or any other team) would do with him, but his efforts in Indianapolis can’t be ignored. At OU, Thomas had 27 tackles (two for loss), two pass break-ups, and one interception.
I mean, 6.28, though. Yeesh.
The Small-School Defender: New England drafted sixth-rounders Zach Moore (Concordia) in 2014 and Markell Carter (Central Arkansas) in 2011. They also brought in undrafted West Alabama corner Malcolm Butler (*sigh*). South Alabama safety Jeremy Reaves (5-11, 204), a Sun Belt Conference alum like Butler, could make plays in Foxboro. We’re running a bit blind here because Reaves was not invited to the combine, but during the Senior Bowl, the safety had an interception, two pass break-ups, and a fourth-down tackle for loss. Reaves led the Jaguars with 104 tackles (seven for loss), 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, eight pass break-ups, and three forced fumbles. You can watch a nifty highlight reel of him here, just please remember to turn it down as it’s NSFW (as most highlight reels seem to be, for some reason).
Note: Reaves is also a sneaky-good candidate as a “Who’s That Guy?” Guy.
Previously Mentioned Guys: The aforementioned Reaves; also Malik Reaves, Villanova DB
Offensive Line Double-Dips: From Antonio Garcia and Conor McDermott this past year to Joe Thuney and Ted Karras in 2016 and Tré Jackson and Shaq Mason the year before that, New England is on a streak of grabbing two or more O-linemen on draft weekend. With Garcia missing last season due to illness and McDermott getting cut (he ended up playing in three games last season for the Bills), the Patriots could take another healthy swipe at offensive tackle. Two guys to keep in mind are Kolton Miller (6-9, 309) out of UCLA and Ike Boettger (6-6, 310) from Iowa. Miller had a sharp combine performance, exhibiting a 4.95 40 and a 7.34 3-cone, both top three for offensive linemen, plus a combine-OL-best 10-foot-1 broad jump that, given his size, seems a tad beyond human. (Seriously, when he jumps he must look like an angry velociraptor.) Miller played left tackle for the Bruins (also McDermott’s alma mater) making Second Team All-Pac-12.
Boettger injured his Achilles last fall and did not participate in the combine, but he has two things going for him: his Iowa connection to old Bill Belichick pal Coach Kirk Ferentz, and flexibility. In 2016, Boettger started at three different positions on the O-line – right tackle, left tackle, and left guard – as the team battled injuries. He earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention that season.
Previously Mentioned Guys: Brandon Parker, NC AT OT; Joseph Noteboom, TCU OT; Jake Bennett, Colorado State C; Austin Golson, Auburn C/G
The Long-Limbed Defensive End: What team doesn’t want their own personal Kraken to release? Last year, New England drafted Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise; they took Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom back in 2015. Ohio State team captain Jalyn Holmes (6-5, 270) stood out at the Senior Bowl, proving hard to block and getting past the line more quickly than a fashion model at a nightclub. Holmes ran a noteworthy 4.83 40-yard dash and put up a respectable 25 reps on the bench press. The OSU co-captain made 2017 All-Big Ten Honorable Mention with 29 tackles (three for loss), two sacks, three pass break-ups, and forced fumble.
Previously Mentioned Guys: Holmes; Chad Thomas, Miami
The Alabama Guy: Coaches Belichick and Nick Saban go back years to their time on the Browns together, which puts the spotlight on Alabama players as potential Patriots. (Belichick visited the school to check out their pro day Wednesday.) Previous picks include cornerback Cyrus Jones (2016) and linebackers Xzavier Dickson (2015), and Dont’a Hightower (2011). It would seem surprising if no Crimson Tiders (probably not a thing) end up with New England this season, considering 14 members of the team made the combine, including 10 of them on defense. One of these is linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (6-0, 233). Though he hasn’t played since hurting his knee vs. LSU in November, a couple of weeks ago Hamilton posted a video to try to make a positive impression on scouts. He’s small for an inside linebacker, and this knee injury is his second in as many years, but last season Hamilton managed 40 tackles (5.5 for loss) and 2.5 sacks in nine games. His knowledge of the Patriots system due to its similarities to Alabama’s could have the Foxboro front office giving him a call in April.
Or not. As I said, nine other defenders to choose from.
Previously Mentioned Guy: Levi Wallace, CB
The Backup Quarterback: I don’t think the potential for drafting a quarterback has gotten as much attention in these parts since the 1990s. Many names have floated around, but I’ll go with Texas Tech’s Nic Shimonek (6-3, 218) who hit on 12 of 18 passes for 105 yards in the East-West Shrine Game. Shimonek showed more pocket awareness than the Artful Dodger, shimmying his way to open spaces to find receivers, eventually coming up with a game-winning TD pass. Shimonek made All-Big 12 Football Honorable Mention for the Red Raiders (coached by Patriots alum Kliff Kingsbury) after completing 328 of 493 passes (67 percent) for 3,963 yards and 33 touchdowns (vs. 10 interceptions).
Oh, combine stats? For a quarterback? If you still think the 40-yard dash is important, I’ve got a documentary for you on the worst combine QB performance ever.
Previously Mentioned Guys: Shimonek; Kyle Lauletta, Richmond
The Backup Tight End: Looks like New England continues the search for a Gronk-like (Gronkish?) tight end after veteran Dwayne Allen came up with a mere 10 receptions in 2017. Though Allen and rookie Jacob Hollister could stick with the team (we just took Martellus Bennett off the list yesterday), the Patriots may seek out another blocker who can catch and complement Gronk. We’re looking at Will Dissly out of Washington – all 6-foot-4, 267 pounds’ worth. Dissly had a solid combine, overshadowing an only half-decent 40 (4.87 seconds) with a snappy 3-cone drill (7.07 seconds, notable considering his size). Though recruited as a D-lineman, Dissly switched to tight end full-time as a junior. Last season, the stout blocker nabbed 21 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns after only four catches the previous year. This guy’s got more potential than a pack of Mentos hovering over a Diet Coke.
Previously Mentioned Guy: Ian Thomas, Indiana
The Arizona State Offensive Guy: This new category arose from the Patriots signing Sun Devils in 2016 (seventh-rounder Devin Lucien and undrafted rookie D. J. Foster); it continues with the rise of running back Kalen Ballage (6-1, 227). His impressive combine efforts will push Ballage up draft boards, especially after his speedy 4.46 40 and noteworthy 10-foot-2 broad jump. (His 6.91-second 3-cone, while not lightning-quick, compares favorably to current Patriot RB Mike Gillislee’s 7.12). In the Senior Bowl, Ballage led the North squad with 10 rushes for 57 yards. At ASU, Ballage averaged 4.3 yards per carry (157 for 669) and scored six touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 91 yards and took back 20 kickoffs for 437 yards (21.85 avg.).
Previously Mentioned Guy: Ballage, though we should keep an eye on his backfield mate Demario Richard (5-10, 219), whose mediocre 4.70 40 might relegate him to rookie free agent status.
The Take-A-Shot-On-This-Receiver Guy: Possibly due to the multiple nature of New England’s offense, the team has had difficulty drafting a receiver able to consistently produce. In 2016, Malcolm Mitchell became the first draftee to show long-term potential after several attempts, including Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in 2013 and Taylor Price in 2010. Central Florida pass-catcher Tre’Quan Smith (6-1, 210) first caught our eye at the Senior Bowl, hauling in five catches on a variety of routes (including a 14-yard slant TD) for 79 yards. Smith had an unspectacular-yet-solid combine, with a 4.49 40 and 6.97 3-cone drill, sticking out on his lunar-landing-level 10-foot-10 broad jump (top three among combine receivers). That type of suddenness seemed on display at the Senior Bowl, and it did Smith some good for the 14-0 Golden Knights, as he caught 59 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Previously Mentioned Guys: Michael Gallup, Colorado State; Daurice Fountain, Northern Iowa
The Special Teams Guy: Selecting fifth-rounder Matthew Slater out of UCLA in 2008 seemed to initiate a series of drafts with special teams in mind, as with punter Zoltan Mesko in 2010, Nate Ebner in 2012, and long snapper Joe Cardona in 2015. We’re keeping our eye on BYU linebacker Fred Warner (6-3, 227), who has some similar traits to New England linebacker and fellow BYU alum Kyle Van Noy. At the combine, Warner ran a more than respectable 4.66-second 40 and a 6.90 3-cone and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical. These show the potential to a) produce on special teams, and b) cover tight ends in certain defensive packages. In 2017, Warner led the Cougars with 87 tackles (nine for loss), one sack, one interception, five pass break-ups, and one forced fumble.
Previously Mentioned Guys: Warner; Kenny Young, UCLA LB
The Navy Guy: Belichick has a storied relationship with the Naval Academy. He drafted Cardona and brought in fullbacks Kyle Eckel and Eric Kettani to Foxboro. As much as we enjoyed watching linebacker D. J. Palmore (6-3, 236) at the East-West Shrine Game, no Navy players were invited to the combine; moreover, according to the Academy’s sports information office, no Navy player has been invited to an NFL workout. We shall see, though. Belichick might bring in somebody this summer. He has been known to keep Navy graduates on the Patriots’ roster under reserve/military exemption (slotback Shun White, for example).
Note: My favorite pre-draft interview ever came from a guy who had no inclination to play football: Navy linebacker Ross Pospisil, Class of 2009. If you want to read about a college experience that I simply could not relate to, please do so here.
Previously Mentioned Guy: Palmore
The Seventh-Round Slot Receiver: When the Patriots drafted Julian Edelman in 2009, I did not understand the pick. I did, however, love them taking linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, as he “fits a position of need.” (You can read my not-so-prescient 2009 draft review here.) Perhaps in an attempt to relive some Edelmagic, Belichick has gone back to this round with picks like Jeremy Ebert out of Northwestern (2012) and Jeremy Gallon out of Michigan (2014). Given Edelman’s recent injury, plus the fact that both he and Danny Amendola hover closer to the ends of their careers than the starts, might be time to give this category another entry. (And, yes, we know that New England has no seventh-rounder as of this posting, but things can change.)
You ever get a player crush you have trouble shaking? Oklahoma’s Jeff Badet (6-0, 185) had a strong East-West Shrine Game (five catches, 42 yards, including two fourth-down conversions), and man, I can’t quit that guy. Last season at OU, Badet caught 26 passes for 400 yards and three TDs, while rushing for 44 yards on six carries (6.8 avg.) and returning 15 kicks for 313 yards (20.9 avg.) Badet did not receive a combine invitation … but neither did Edelman! (Dun-dun-DUN!)
Fun Fact, Maybe? In November, Badet scored on a jet sweep vs. Oklahoma State, went careening into the sideline, and crashed into a cheerleader. He later apologized.
Previously Mentioned Guys: Badet; Braxton Berrios, Miami
Over the next couple of months, I’ll be posting notable workouts by NFL hopefuls whom the combine failed to invite (aka Combine Snubs Who Showed ‘Em – where current Patriot receiver Riley McCarron got a mention last year), as well as another pre-draft “That Guy” column taking into account pro-day workouts and free agent signings that could alter the draft landscape.
Until then, dear draft-minded readers, mock well.
Chris Warner firmly believes that the best way to avoid constantly eating Girl Scout cookies over a long period of time is to consume them all at once. (This does not, in fact, work.) You can email him your favorite kinds at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @cwarn89.