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2018 NFL scouting combine: 12 players to watch from a Patriots perspective

Here are 12 prospects to watch during combine week with a focus on the Patriots’ offseason needs.

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NCAA Football: Boise State at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

We are officially at the unofficial start to the NFL offseason as combine week is here. A large contingent from every NFL franchise, Rich Eisen, and Mike Mayock will all convene in Indianapolis to watch over 300 soon-to-be pro’s run around in spandex.

The combine does provide a helpful litmus test to see if the athletic ability that you see on tape lines up with how a prospect tests in Indy, but ultimately the private interviews and medical evaluations have the most significant impact on a prospects draft stock.

Still, it’s an event that we all look forward to every offseason as a way to get to know these players and potentially learn a few things about their on-field performance.

Before we get to the list, here are a few disclaimers:

First, these prospects are somewhat under the radar or realistic early-round targets for the Patriots. So don’t be surprised when you don’t see players projected to go early in the first round.

Second, no quarterbacks. I will break down quarterbacks throughout the offseason, and will discuss the combine as it pertains to this quarterback class on my podcast with QB guru Mark Schofield this week.

And third, piggybacking off the last one, we are going mostly defense here. The Patriots need a quarterback and potentially an offensive tackle, but let’s be honest, upgrading the defense is on everyone’s mind.

With all that said, here are a dozen prospects to watch this week in Indy from a Patriots perspective:

1. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch - Boise State

Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is one of the hottest names early on in draft season, and an incredibly intriguing player to watch for the Patriots. Like many draft junkies, I fell in love with the 6-4, 240-pound Vander Esch after watching just a few games of his at Boise State last season. He’s big, long, and athletic but most importantly he’s instinctive. He does a great job of diagnosing running plays, navigating through traffic, and shedding blockers to find ball carriers, something the Patriots desperately need at linebacker. In all, Vander Esch led all draft eligible linebackers with 57 run stops in 2017 according to PFF.

Vander Esch is also a plus-player in coverage. He has the speed and quickness to stick with running backs and tight ends downfield, and the length to shrink passing lanes in a hurry. PFF gave him an 86.2 coverage grade in 2017, which ranked 34th out of 390 qualified FBS linebackers. Vander Esch can also provide some pass rush. He finished the 2017 season with four sacks, two quarterback hits, and 12 hurries on 98 pass-rush snaps. Vander Esch could provide the Patriots with the athleticism and top-end talent they’re missing at the linebacker position. A strong performance at the combine would solidify Vander Esch as a first round pick.

2. Defensive Tackle Hercules Mata’afa - Washington State

The NFL combine was intended for players like Hercules Mata’afa. There may not be another player out of the 300-plus invitees that has more to gain from a strong workout than the outstanding defensive lineman from Washington State. Mata’afa played primarily inside in college and dominated his opponents as a two-way force that won with quickness, timing, hand usage, and a nastiness to his game. There are not many defensive line prospects that have better tape than Mata’afa in this draft.

However, he’s only 255 pounds which makes him significantly undersized to play defensive tackle at the next level and makes finding a position for Mata’afa difficult despite being a gifted player. The combine will hopefully shed some light on whether or not Mata’afa has the speed and quickness to move to edge rusher. Teams will also be interested in his wingspan as it could go a long way in determining his position at the next level. The position uncertainty makes Mata’afa an intriguing prospect for the Patriots. Teams may shy away from him to avoid the problem altogether but who better to figure out how to use a weapon in the front seven than Bill Belichick?

3. Defensive Tackle Taven Bryan - Florida

Florida’s Taven Bryan was sculpted out of clay to play defensive line in the NFL. He’s 6-4, 290 pounds, and has length for days but his college production wasn’t off the charts due to a lack of feel for the game. Bryan has elite athletic ability to go along with an ideal frame, and with some polishing, he could be extremely productive. He has a dynamic get-off, a big upfield burst at the snap, and the flexibility and bend of a defensive end. In fact, you could easily see him play both inside and outside on Sunday’s.

Bryan’s physical traits and college tape suggest that his best football is still ahead of him, and he started to show signs of development in 2017. He won mostly with athletic ability in college, but if he continues to develop better instincts, he could be a steal in this draft. If Bryan backs up his athleticism on tape at the combine, it will be tough for teams to pass on him in the late-first, early-second portion of the draft.

4. Cornerback Mike Hughes - Central Florida

Hughes’ 2017 tape for the undefeated Knights of Central Florida might be the best of any corner in this class. The fluidity in his hips and overall effortless movement in coverage make him particularly strong in man coverage. Hughes can become an excellent pattern matcher at the next level and showed signs of quick-recognition on receivers routes in college. He’s most comfortable in press-man coverage where he has a good, extended jam at the line and often controls the release by the receiver. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 44.5 when targeting Hughes in coverage in 2017, and he had four interceptions, nine breakups, and didn’t allow a single touchdown in coverage. And how about this stat: opposing quarterbacks were 1-11 with three interceptions on passes of 20 or more yards when targeting Hughes last season according to the PFF Draft Guide. The UCF product is a willing tackler although he has some work to do to cut down on missed tackles.

As far as Patriots corners go, Hughes checks most of the necessary boxes. His playing style is reminiscent of the guy he’d be replacing, Malcolm Butler. He also adds value as a terrific punt returner. The main reason that Hughes isn’t considered a first round pick is that he doesn’t have ideal height for an outside corner at 5-11. He also only started for one season at UCF and needs more experience before he’s completely comfortable in coverage. Hughes has a chance to be a standout performer at the combine based on his movement on tape.

5. Defensive Tackle Tim Settle - Virginia Tech

For a 340-pound defensive tackle, Settle has some of the best quickness and burst out of his stance of any defensive lineman in this class. His highlight reel plays are easy to fall in love with and aren’t fluky either. To put it simply, he has rare gifts for a man his size. Settle consistently made plays at or around the line of scrimmage for Virginia Tech with 28 total pressures and 24 run stops in 2017. He finished the season ranked seventh at his position with an overall grade of 86.0 according to PFF. The most significant question mark with Settle has been his weight and overall conditioning. If he can keep the weight off, he has a chance to be a Pro Bowler at the next level. In fact, he has drawn a lot of Vince Wilfork comparisons by those around the league. The combine should be a fun test to see how freaky the big man is athletically.

6. Cornerback Quenton Meeks - Stanford

There may not be a more NFL-ready corner in this class than Stanford’s Quenton Meeks. Meeks is the son of former Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, and he plays like a coach’s son possessing an extremely high football IQ. Meeks also has ideal size and length for a cornerback nowadays at 6-2, 195 pounds and he uses that build to his advantage in coverage. Meeks delivers some devastating shots at the line of scrimmage on his jam and uses his length to stay locked onto receivers.

There may not be a player in this draft that fits the Patriots mold better than Meeks. He’s smart, experienced, checks all the physical boxes, can tackle, and fits the scheme perfectly as predominantly a press-man corner that’s also able to play some zone. The flaws in Meeks’ game mostly involve issues with change of direction, and he can get over-aggressive on his punch at the line of scrimmage at times. I’m interested to see how he performs in the agility drills at the combine. That could answer whether or not those quickness issues will be a fatal flaw for him at the next level.

7. Linebacker Josey Jewell - Iowa

Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell doesn’t have ideal measurables (6-1, 235 pounds) or athleticism, but that didn’t stop him from earning first-team AP All-American honors in his senior season with the Hawkeyes. Jewell racked up 134 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, 11 pass breakups, and one forced fumble. That’s quite the stat line. Jewell makes up for lack of length and overall speed/quickness with lightning fast reads and eyes that quickly sniff out running plays on a regular basis. Reports out of Iowa also indicate that Jewell is a film junkie, which makes sense given how well he reads and anticipates blocking schemes. He’s an incredibly instinctive player that’s always around the ball and making plays near the line of scrimmage.

The combine should be a great a test for Jewell to see whether or not he’ll have the athleticism necessary to play at a high level in the NFL. Jewell appears to have enough straight-line quickness but is stiff in the hips and has trouble changing directions in coverage. It’s hard to argue with Jewell’s college production, and many think he’s one of the best defensive players in Iowa history, but as we know in New England, you’ll get exposed quickly in today’s NFL if you’re a subpar coverage linebacker.

8. Linebacker Fred Warner - BYU

BYU’s Fred Warner is a very intriguing prospect because he fits the mold of a new-age linebacker. The 6-3, 230-pound Warner played primarily as an outside linebacker and slot defender at BYU and flashed excellent athleticism with fluid hips and good change of direction ability. Warner was also a team captain as a senior and is underrated as a run defender. He racked up 87 tackles with nine tackles for loss in his senior season and showed the ability to read, react, and shed blockers in the running game.

The only real negatives to Warner’s game are that you’d like to see him play with a little bit more aggression and he can take poor angles to the ball at times. You could see Warner eventually replacing Patrick Chung in his role in the Patriots defense, and while Chung is still here, the Patriots could use Warner in dime defense as a replacement for Jordan Richards or as a true off-ball linebacker. Warner could quickly move up draft boards with a big week in Indy. He was one of my favorite prospects to watch on tape.

9. Wide Receiver Braxton Berrios - Miami

Over the last few offseasons, I’ve taken it upon myself to find an eventual successor to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the slot. Last season, it was Northwestern’s Austin Carr, who the Patriots signed as a UDFA following the 2017 draft, but a logjam at the position forced Carr to be waived by the Patriots.

This season, my pick to be the next great slot receiver in the Patriots offense is Miami’s Braxton Berrios. Berrios had 680 receiving yards and nine touchdowns working out of the slot on 97.3% of his snaps at Miami in 2017. He’s an exceptional route runner, has elite quickness and burst, and resembles Edelman as an explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands. His route running, in particular, fits the Patriots scheme perfectly as he’s very rhythmic and has an excellent understanding of how to get open within a scheme. Plus, unlike Carr, Berrios was one of the nation’s best punt returners in college, which gives him another avenue to make the Patriots roster. Seriously, this guy is like an Edelman and Amendola clone. In fact, the great Lance Zierlein at NFL Network’s pro comparison for Berrios is Amendola.

The only issue with Berrios is his height. At 5-9, he’s shorter than both Edelman and Amendola, and his arms are also short which limits his catch radius significantly. At the combine, we can gauge Berrios’ athletic abilities against Edelman and Amendola’s pro day numbers, neither was invited to the combine. Edelman ran a respectable 4.52 in the 40-yard dash and Amendola ran an average 4.58 40, but both dominated the three-cone drill which measures quickness. Edelman clocked in at a lightning-quick 6.62 seconds in the three-cone while Amendola was a bit slower at 6.81 seconds. If Berrios can come within that range, he could be a day three pickup for the Patriots.

10. Linebacker Tegray Scales - Indiana

One of the most underrated players in this class is Indiana linebacker Tegray Scales. At 6-feet, 230 pounds, Scales is undersized to play inside linebacker in the NFL, but his tape and college production suggests he’s a top-five player at his position in this class. Scales’ instincts are off the charts which keep him around the ball regularly. During his junior season in 2016, he led the FBS with 92 solo tackles and had 72 run stops. Scales also has excellent hands, shoulders, and quickness which allow him to avoid blockers in the run game instead of running through them. Scales also received a grade of above 80 in coverage in three of his four seasons at Indiana, according to PFF. There are two main concerns with Scales: his size and a lack of effectiveness in run defense outside his junior season. Scales received an 84.7 run defense grade in 2016 but had an average grade of 45.5 in his other three seasons. Scales could be a steal in the draft if a team can tap into that 2016 season.

11. Defensive End Kentavius Street - N.C. State

Kentavius Street was overshadowed on the N.C. State defensive line by the draft’s consensus top pass rusher Bradley Chubb, but when you turn on the tape Street makes his fair share of outstanding plays. Street has a wide base and plays the game with an immense amount of strength and power. He makes every collision count and is physical with his hands against offensive lineman. For a player of his stature, Street has incredible flexibility. That allows Street to make up for lack of length by bending around the edge. Street can also play both inside and outside on the defensive line and may be better off playing defensive tackle at the next level to bolster his pass rushing productivity. The combine will be a great test to see if the underrated speed and quickness that Street flashes on tape can be backed up by the numbers, and teams will get a proper measurement of his height and length.

12. Linebacker Jack Cichy - Wisconsin

The oft-injured Cichy will have to go through heavy medical evaluations at the combine this week, which could affect his draft status more than anything. Cichy missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL that he suffered during preseason camp and missed a large chunk of the 2016 season with a torn pectoral. However, when on the field, Cichy was extremely productive and flashed the versatility of a two-way player that can hold up in coverage and against the run. In his last two relatively healthy seasons, Cichy had 120 tackles, 15.0 tackles for a loss, and 6.5 sacks in 19 games. Cichy was a vocal leader of the Badger defense and a consistent sideline-to-sideline presence when healthy.

Teams will be eager to get their medical staff’s in the room with Cichy to examine his injured knee. Unfortunately, Cichy hasn’t fully recovered from ACL surgery and won’t participate in drills at the combine. His tape suggests that he’d be selected in the first two rounds if he didn’t have health concerns.

(h/t Pro Football Focus)