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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Falcons compared Matt Ryan to Tom Brady in draft; Good and Bad combine results for Christian McCaffrey

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Also thoughts on how the Patriots system has stayed on the rails for such a long period of time.

1. At the NFL Combine, former New England Patriots director of college scouting and current Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff shared a story about how he evaluated Falcons QB Matt Ryan and how he saw traits similar to those of Patriots QB Tom Brady:

“When we first looked at Matt back in 2008, I had the great opportunity to be around Tom Brady and see how he moved in the pocket and how he ad-libbed,” Dimitroff explained. “Not necessarily from an athletic standpoint, but just his ability to be creative in the pocket. I thought Matt did an amazing job that way.”

Brady is only now gaining recognition for his skills as an elite scrambler (hah!), but he’s always had a supernatural understanding of navigating the pocket and finding a way to move around before resetting and finding the receiver. Dimitroff believed that Ryan shared that same trait coming out of Boston College.

2. Dimitroff also shared how Patriots head coach Bill Belichick managed to remain ahead of the rest of the league over all these years, by focusing on the process instead of the annual results.

“I think Bill Belichick and [then-Patriots director of player personnel and now Falcons assistant general manager Scott] Pioli during that time did a great job of keeping the focus on not being caught, what I’ve often heard, are the trappings of being successful championship football team,” Dimitroff added. “I think the big thing is making sure you’re focused. Making sure you not complacent. We all know that. Making sure that you are honest with yourself as far as where you are with the team. Who you are looking to re-sign? Who you are looking to put more money into. Who you may be down the road looking to think about moving on from.

“That’s the reality of it. Making sure that you’re open minded enough to continue to build you’re depth and know that that depth potentially be the type of players that will take over when time is needed. Bill is a great leader that way and Scott Pioli was in terms of making sure that the focus was on and not thinking that you’ve figured it all out because this is not an exact science as far as putting teams together.”

“I think as a general manager and I know as a head coach, from talking to day, when you’re the head coach and team-builder, you definitely have to put the emotion aside and you have look and be a visionary,” Dimitroff continued. “You have to think about the money. You have to think about the culture. You have to think about the age. I’m a firm believer in having veteran football players on the team. I’m also a firm believer in making sure that you play your young talent.”

Some teams focus on staying ahead of the competition and some teams build themselves to counter their competition; all three of the Patriots AFC East rivals are guilty of constructing their rosters to have disruptive defensive lines to get after Brady, but they fail to win enough of their other games to actually compete.

The Patriots are consistently trusting the process and finding players that fit the system, and not deviating from the system on an annual basis. Sure, there are tweaks that can result in improved scouting of college receivers that yields WR Malcolm Mitchell, but the system is in place.

3. Part of that system is finding replacements for players a year too early rather than a year too late. No player is a better example than RT Marcus Cannon, who signed a 5-year, $32.4 million extension with the Patriots this season before being named Second Team All Pro. Cannon was starting in place of the aging RT Sebastian Vollmer, who was recently released.

The Patriots found their solution at right tackle and opted to extend him midseason, which is about to look like a brilliant move according to free agency prices:

Cannon has an average annual salary of $6.48 million and the top free agent right tackle is expected to “blow the lid off” the right tackle market. Cannon was arguably the Patriots best offensive lineman in 2016. He could look like a bargain for the next half decade.

4. Another part of the Patriots system is to prepare for the inevitable departure of coordinators and coaches. Belichick prefers to groom coaches within the system so they know exactly what he’s looking for out of the position. Both Patriots coordinators interviewed for head coaching jobs this year, but declined to return to the Patriots.

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia interviewed for the Los Angeles Charges job, and Chargers GM Tom Telesco shared his thoughts on the experience at the combine.

“He was very good,” Telesco said about Patricia. “It’s hard when you interview coaches that are currently playing, because obviously, what we’re doing is secondary. It should be like that. He was in the middle of a playoff run that supersedes us. We’re appreciative of the fact that he took the time during a busy prep week to meet with us down in Providence. I mean, he drove through a snowstorm to come see us. That meant a lot of us. It was a great conversation. I talked to him on the phone a couple times. We interviewed him. He’s sharp, he’s smart, he knows football, he’s a good person. He’s got a really bright future in this league, in my opinion.”

Patricia has come through the Patriots coaching pipeline and will eventually be a head coach in the NFL. Patriots LB coach Brian Flores appears to be next in line if and when Patricia leaves and will start to groom for the position because Belichick’s system of team building- whether for players or coaches- is to have a viable back-up option in case the starter is no longer available.

The Patriots are all about quality depth. Coaching is no exception.

5. Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey has been linked to the Patriots in the 2017 NFL Draft due to his versatility out of the backfield and he has an NFL Combine result in his favor: his three cone time.

McCaffrey ran the three cone drill in 6.57 seconds, the fastest time so far at the NFL Combine and the 26th fastest time in combine history and 2nd fastest by a running back (Florida RB Chris Rainey ran a 6.50 second three cone in 2012).

The Patriots value the three cone time more than most drills for players at the combine because it combines quickness with change of direction and speed, and is an ideal drill to help translate into quick separation from defenders in the NFL.

For comparison, Patriots WR Julian Edelman ran a 6.62 second three cone time. McCaffrey is quick.

6. But here’s a bad stat for McCaffrey: his bench press. McCaffrey only managed 10 reps on the bench press, the second worst for all running backs at the combine (San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey only managed 5 reps, but he’s just 176 pounds and expected to be a receiving back in the NFL).

McCaffrey was a strong between-the-tackle runner in college, but there are some concerns about whether those skills will translate in the NFL as a power runner in short yardage. McCaffrey wasn’t asked to run on the goal line in 2015, and of his 21 rushing career touchdowns, just five came from within the 5-yard line and most were from big runs. That’s not to say that McCaffrey can’t handle short-yardage and goal line situations, but that he wasn’t asked to do it that frequently while at Stanford.

So when McCaffrey puts up just 10 reps, those that were concerned about how McCaffrey projected in the NFL will have their concerns validated.

Only six running backs in combine history have posted fewer than 9 reps, including Pumphrey, and players like Oregon RB DeAnthony Thomas (8 reps, 2014), Alabama RB Kenyon Drake (10 reps, 2016), and Nebraska RB Roy Helu Jr. (11 reps, 2011) all projected to be receiving backs in the NFL.

There aren’t many (any?) successful between-the-tackles running backs that failed to put up at least 15 repetitions on the bench. Maybe McCaffrey can break that trend.