The third day of the combine marks the arrival of defensive linemen and linebackers to the combine. The Patriots will be paying close attention and it's very likely one or two of the players on focus today will be selected by New England in the draft.
Today hosts the following events:
Special Teams workouts
Offensive line and tight end bench press
Quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs measurements and medical exams
Defensive line and linebacker orientation
The defensive front sevens are extremely important for the Patriots for multiple reasons. There are the questions surrounding the contracts of Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, there's the age of Rob Ninkovich, and there is the potential to upgrade the depth on the inside, so they don't have to rely on calling up Joe Vellano from the practice squad, or signing Alan Branch mid-year.
At linebacker, the Patriots seem to operate in a similar style to tight ends and running backs- there are a handful of players that distinguish themselves from the pack, and then there's everyone else. If there's not someone at the top they're interested in, most everyone else is fungible.
Bill Belichick has preference in size for his stand-up linebackers (taller than 6'1, heavier than 240 lbs) and there are only a few that meet these qualities. I'm on the record that UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks is the best prospect and should be a top 20 pick, but he doesn't fit the Patriots profile.
1. Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State, 6'4, 250 lbs - The Patriots found 2014 stand-in linebacker Deontae Skinner while working their draft prep of McKinney last off-season, so he's definitely on their radar. He's strong and fast, and fits best inside in a 3-4 attack. Raw in coverage. He projects as an early 2nd round pick.
2. Stephone Anthony, Clemson, 6'2, 245 lbs - Anthony looks to be a homing missile on the field and flashes tremendous athleticism and ability to maneuver through traffic. He is best in the middle of the field and needs to improve upon his pursuit angles when running towards the sidelines. He projects to be an early Day 3 pick.
3. Taiwan Jones, Michigan State, 6'3, 255 lbs - Jones is a thumper in the middle of the field and offers fantastic size, but he appears to struggle in coverage and doesn't offer the athleticism of Anthony. Possible just a run defender. He projects to be a mid Day 3 pick.
This isn't a strong draft for Belichick-style linebackers, so keeping Mayo around makes the most sense.
The edge defenders that Belichick likes, the flexible athletes who can operate in both the 3-4 and the 4-3, are extremely plentiful. There are at least four players expected to be drafted in the top half of the first round, outside of the Patriots price range, in Florida's Dante Fowler, Missouri's Shane Ray, Nebraska's Randy Gregory, and Kentucky's Bud Dupree.
Beyond those first round locks, there are plenty of more intriguing prospects:
1. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, UCLA, 6'4, 265 lbs - Stout run defender who looks to be a great heir to Rob Ninkovich. Doesn't offer the best hip bend, but sheds blockers extremely well. Bottom-1st.
2. Hauoli Kikaha, Washington, 6'3, 250 lbs - A flexible rusher who could do well to add more weight to become more stout as a defender. Kikaha is a fierce pass rusher with tremendous results and plenty of upside. Torn ACLs in 2011 and 2012. Mid-2nd.
3. Nate Orchard, Utah, 6'3, 250 lbs - Another great pass rusher with possible the best first step of the group. He's not the most physically imposing and could add more strength, but he's extremely productive. Noted by some offensive linemen as the toughest rusher they've faced in college. Mid-2nd.
4. Preston Smith, Mississippi State, 6'5, 270 lbs - Smith will bring recall of Jermaine Cunningham or Justin Francis. A big body who would be asked to play 3-4 defensive end in the flex, as opposed to dropped outside as a linebacker. He's productive, but where he fits on the Patriots defense is the question. Late-2nd.
5. Trey Flowers, Arkansas, 6'2, 265 lbs - Flowers looks primed to be a stout run defender due to his tremendous wingspan and ability to shed blockers. He's a four-year starter, but lacks the general flexibility required to play in a 3-4 front. 3rd rounder.
6. Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville, 6'4, 255 lbs - Maudlin is coming from a hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme, so he has plenty of experience in both fronts. He's athletic, but it doesn't translate well on the field when engaged with a blocker. More finesse than power. 3rd rounder.
7. Za'Darius Smith, Kentucky, 6'5, 270 lbs - Extraordinarily raw, converted from basketball in 2010 and had never played football before. Definitely a developmental player, but flashes starter qualities with stout run defending and persistent pass rush. 4th rounder.
8. Lynden Trail, Norfolk State, 6'6, 260 lbs - A Senior Bowl stand out, he has experience in the 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker and boasts the athleticism to succeed. He can struggle with shedding blockers at times, but shows great aptitude in every facet of the game. 4th rounder.
9. Markus Golden, Missouri, 6'2, 255 lbs - Golden looks like a perfect 3-4 OLB convert and showed some ability at the Senior Bowl, after playing 4-3 DE in college. He's a little on the smaller size, bodywise, so he can't really engage as well to hold the edge. Wins with his speed. 4th rounder.
There are plenty of defensive tackles worth noting, too. While USC's Leonard Williams is the top rated prospect overall, and planet theory candidate Washington DT Danny Shelton is also expected to go in the top 10, there is quality depth in Day 2, and some players worth fliers on Day 3 (like UCLA's Ellis McCarthy and Arizona State's Marcus Hardison).
1. Carl Davis, Iowa, 6'5, 320 lbs - Davis is very talented and it shows up on tape, but he can be his own worst enemy with his effort. His first step is great and his strength allows him to disrupt the pocket at will. But he falls off late in the game when he gets tired. Needs a coach to push him. Late-1st.
2. Xavier Cooper, Washington State. 6'4, 300 lbs - Cooper might have the best first step out of the defensive tackles and is flying under the radar. He's disruptive, he's stout, and he's able to shed blocker. Projects well into the NFL. Early-2nd.
3. Malcom Brown, Texas, 6'4, 320 lbs - Brown has great size and offers surprising quickness. He sometimes struggles to shed blockers, but when he gets angry he can't be stopped. He fights through the whistle and doesn't stop until the game is over. Early-2nd.
4. Michael Bennett, Ohio State, 6'2, 290 lbs - Bennett is a less explosive version of a healthy Dominique Easley. He can get washed out against the run, but he offers the potential to make a huge play every snap he takes. Mid-2nd.
5. Arik Armstead, Oregon, 6'7, 300 lbs - There are few with Armstead's size, but he's clearly still learning how to be effective on the field. A prototypical 3-4 defensive end, Armstead uses his length to engage and disregard blockers. Mid-2nd.
6. Eddie Goldman, Florida State, 6'3, 320 lbs - Goldman entered the year as a top rated defensive tackle, but didn't do much to improve his ranking over the course of the season. He flashes positive qualities in all facets of the game, but isn't overwhelming. Late-2nd.
7. Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma, 6'6, 335 lbs - Phillips has been linked to the first round because his size is something that can't be taught. He's a huge presence in the middle of the field and gives effort on every snap. Still, he seems to struggle disengaging when facing quality interior linemen, which could lead to him getting washed out at the next level. Late-2nd.