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Six defensive prospects that should be on the Patriots’ radar after the combine

The Patriots’ defense limped into the offseason after an embarrassing Super Bowl effort. Here are six guys they could look to add in April.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Ohio State Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

I spent the Super Bowl at a local bar (shout out El Mariachi) and I found myself drinking a lot more than I intended to because they couldn’t get a damn defensive stop. We could go back and forth for hours about whether the coaching, the scheme, or the players were the issue last year, but the bottom line is that the defense definitely needs to be more athletic as a whole, and I don’t think that anyone will disagree with that.

There were several standout performances from defenders at the combine this weekend and I was particularly intrigues by these six players.

Sam Hubbard, EDGE Ohio State

Sam Hubbard’s mockdraftable combine chart compared to EDGE defenders
Sam Hubbard’s mockdraftable combine chart compared to 4-3 OLBs

From Sam Hubbard’s NFL Draft profile:

Hubbard intended on attending Notre Dame on a lacrosse scholarship before Urban Meyer showed up at Archbishop Moeller for a recruiting trip

Hmmm... I wonder who would be interested in this kind of prospect. Belichick and the Patriots had an official meeting with Hubbard during the combine according to Ryan Hannable. And Hubbard proved at the combine that he has the type of athleticism where you could insert him as a 4-3 base OLB, a 3-4 Jack OLB, or a 4-3 Sub DE from day one. In particular, his 3 cone and shuttle times were elite for a man that is over 6’5 and weighed in at 270. Hubbard was a high school safety that is a very good coverage defender for an edge player.

The first play of that GIF is Hubbard dropping into a zone 10 yards up field to come up with a contested interception and the 2nd is him immediately reading screen and blowing up the play. These are instincts that you just don’t see out of EDGE players. After Rob Ninkovich retired and Shea McClellin ended up missing the entire season, the Patriots really had no good options to play that hybrid OLB/DE position. Cassius Marsh was a spectacular failure. Eric Lee was serviceable, but he played far too many snaps for a team that made it to the Super Bowl.

There are still some questions about Hubbard. He’s not a guy that’s going to be an elite pass rusher. He’s mostly a guy that wins with effort and about 8-12 sacks per year is his ceiling. He’s been playing with either Joey or Nick Bosa his entire career and they attract all of the double teams. But I think that his athleticism and versatility will allow him to be a standout contributor at the next level. Think of a bigger Connor Barwin with Ryan Kerrigan as his ultimate upside. And Hubbard is a better athlete than both of those guys: coincidentally, his #1 athletic comparison according to mockdraftable is Joey Bosa. He’s cemented himself as a 1st round pick in my mind.

Where I would pick Hubbard: Anywhere after #25 overall

Oren Burks, 4-3 OLB Vanderbilt

Oren Burks is another guy that fits the new age hybrid S/LB position. Burks started 18 total games for Vanderbilt at both free and strong safety during his redshirt freshman and sophomore years and then transitioned to an ILB/OLB hybrid for his last two seasons. Previously thought of as a guy you could grab at the end of Day 3, Burks had a fantastic combine and cemented himself as a player that has the size and speed to guard tight ends and running backs at the next level. Based on his combine, Burks is a guy that should make any NFL roster as a core special team player, and we all know how Belichick values the third phase of the game.

If you flashback to last year’s NFL Draft, you might remember the somewhat odd obsession that Bill Belichick had with then Vanderbilt and now Houston Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham. He met with Cunningham multiple times including at his pro day where he specifically ran through drill with him 1 on 1. This is a very loose correlation but at the least we know that Belichick is very close to the linebackers coaches and the Vanderbilt staff as a whole from their interactions last year. I expect scouts to be at Vandy again week from now for their March 13th Pro Day.

Where would I take Burks: Rounds 4-6

Arden Key, EDGE LSU

Based purely on raw talent, Arden Key is a top 10 talent in this draft class. But as his college career progressed, both on and off the field concerns emerged. Key walked away from LSU during the offseason for 4 months because of “personal reasons” that neither him nor his outspoken father have elaborated on. When Key returned for his junior year, his weight had ballooned from 225 lbs to 270 and he missed time in season (including his bowl game) from finger, back and knee injuries. The pass rusher that had 16 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a true freshman and sophomore had only 4 sacks and 5.5 TFL in 2017.

Arden Key could have boosted his shaky stock with a standout performance at the combine but in one word, his workouts were “meh”. He appeared to lose most of the weight that he gained at the beginning of last season but he was merely an above average athlete for his position. He didn’t run the 40 yard dash due to his lingering knee injury but he did say that he would run it at LSU’s Pro Day, one of the latest out of all of the schools on April 4th.Some other relevant information is that LSU plays hybrid fronts at times so Key has experience as a 4-3 and a 3-4 OLB.

The Patriots really need to do their homework on a guy like Key that had off the field issues, but if everything checks out he could be a steal. At this point, Key has a realistic chance of falling to 31 or even 43. And outside of Bradley Chubb, Key has the highest upside out of any edge player in the draft.

Where I would draft Key: Rounds 1-2

Leighton Vander Esch, ILB/OLB Boise State

Leighton Vander Esch was a virtual unknown prior to the 2017 college football season, but he has rocketed up draft boards over the last 6 months. As seen by that mockdraftable spider chart, he’s an athletic freak to the point that Jamie Collins comparisons aren’t all that crazy. As one of the tallest and heaviest prospects, he was 80th percentile or higher for every agility event other than the 60 yard shuttle. He’s a monster attacking gaps and he can go sideline to sideline.

The issue with Vander Esch is that you must always be careful of drafting the workout warrior that got significantly better once he stopped playing football. He only started for 1 year in college and he sometimes suffers from Elandon Roberts syndrome where he overpursues or hits the wrong gap. When Vander Esch declared for the draft, people thought that he was going to be a top 100 pick, but absolutely no one thought of him as a 1st rounder. The last Boise State linebacker that raised his stock from 2-3rd round to 1st round after combine and Pro Day workouts? That would be New England’s own Shea McClellin, a huge riser who was taken 19th overall in 2012 before Chandler Jones, Whitney Mercilus and Nick Perry.

I don’t buy Vander Esch’s 1st round hype (and I have a hunch that NFL teams won’t either) but I wouldn’t hesitate to take him in the 2nd round. He’s another guy who has the floor of a core special teamer and will be able to contribute in that aspect from day 1.

Where I would take Vander Esch: Round 2

Troy Apke, S/ST Penn State

A little known safety out of Penn State, Troy Apke made headlines in the combine for shocking Deion Sanders with his 40 yard dash time.

Overall, Apke was 90th percentile or higher in every agility performance. He’s going to be an immediate contributor on special teams but remains very raw defensively. He was a high school wide receiver that moved to safety at Penn State and was only a starter for his senior year. Apke does show some skills that suggest that he has starter potential at either safety spot. He plays at the same heat missile speed in pads, the only issue is that he doesn’t have much experience.

Apke makes the tackle that Bademosi didn’t make in the Super Bowl.

Apke should be there in the 5th and I would be comfortable taking him around there. He can develop as a special teams player immediately and has the potential to be much more. He never did it in college, but based on his combine and background as a high school wide receiver, I suspect that he could be a good returner as well. With Brandon King unlike to be tendered as a restricted free agent and Nate Ebner’s health uncertain, there’s an opening.

Where I would draft Abke: Round 5-6

Tony Brown, CB Alabama

Prior to the combine, Tony Brown projected as a slot cornerback with awkward measurables. He wasn’t really seen as a quick twitch athlete that could stay with slot guys and he had basically no experience at Alabama at outside cornerback due to their depth. Despite being a top 10 recruit, Brown was never a full time starter at Alabama and spent his senior year as their dime defensive back. There are two sides to this coin. Is Brown being undervalued because he never got a chance to showcase his skills? Or is Brown being overvalued because in college he played next to 5 star defensive backs every year (including Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, and Anthony Averett just from this draft class) that would take all of the difficult assignments?

Brown projects as one of the best, if not the best run defending cornerbacks in the draft... exactly the kind of cornerback the Patriots were looking for in the Super Bowl. His quick twitch workouts at the combine give credence to the idea that he could be a full time slot cornerback. He has adequate height to match up with bigger receivers as well and to be honest, a more athletic Logan Ryan makes a lot of sense as a comparison. Of course Brown is mostly projection at this point due to his lack of playing time, but that’s his ultimate upside. You’ve probably sensed a theme that most of the players on this list could come in and play special teams from day 1 and Brown is no exception. He projects as a fantastic gunner.

Also worth noting is that Brown was suspended for 4 games prior to the 2016 season because of failed drug tests and will probably begin his NFL career already in the protocol. But I’m not overly concerned due to Belichick’s relationship with Nick Saban. There’s no doubt in my mind that Belichick will have a conversation with Saban if he is interested in Brown.

Where I would take Brown: Round 3

While some of these guys could be week one starters while others are high upside projects, I think that all would be pleasant additions to a defense that lacked athletic playmakers. Once again, I stress that success in combine workouts shouldn’t be the end all when scouting prospects. But based on their combines, I expect Belichick and the rest of the scouts to pay much more attention to all six of these guys as draft day approaches.

5 combine standouts from a Patriots perspective

Keep an eye on these five players in the upcoming weeks!

Posted by Pats Pulpit: For New England Patriots News on Wednesday, March 7, 2018