The NFL Combine was once again one of the most entertaining weekends of the NFL offseason with a number of standouts on both sides of the ball.
Before the combine, I gave you a dozen names to watch in Indianapolis, but with over 300 prospects those 12 names don’t even come close to covering every possible outcome.
After the combine, I’m going to give you another dozen or so names that stood out in Indy for various reasons. These players either had strong on-field workouts, met with the Patriots in some capacity, or solidified themselves as top prospects in this year’s draft. And some were a combination of all three.
With that said, here are a handful of combine standouts from a Patriots perspective.
EARLY-ROUND OPTIONS (ROUNDS 1-2)
Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard (Pats Meeting: Combine)
Hubbard was on my radar before the combine, but I wasn’t sure if the quickness and speed he flashed on tape was legit or not. However, Hubbard’s impressive workout at the combine solidified him as a first-round pick in April’s draft after posting a three-cone time of 6.84 seconds, which won his position group and ranks in the 97th percentile among defensive lineman.
On tape, Hubbard is a smart and technically sound football player. He won’t “wow” you with burst off the snap or speed around the edge, but the quickness that he displayed at the combine translates to the field and his motor is always revving. Hubbard looks the part of an NFL defensive end at 6-5, 265 pounds and was highly productive last season at Ohio State with ten sacks and a 9.5 run stop percentage which ranks sixth in this class. Other than a slow get-off, Hubbard’s limitations as a pass rusher have to do with his lack of a go-to pass rushing move. His quickness allows him to be an excellent rusher on inside stunts and twists, but when he rushes one-on-one with an offensive tackle, he lacks a go-to move to beat the man in front of him. Right now, he relies on a two-hand swipe move that he adopted from Ohio State teammates Joey and Nick Bosa and a spin move. Hubbard’s all-around production, stingy run defense, and combine workout has him squarely on the Pats’ radar as a possible selection with the 31st pick in the first round. If he can develop as a pass rusher, he’ll be a productive starter in the NFL.
Alabama S Ronnie Harrison (Pats Meeting: Combine)
Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison has been linked to the Patriots throughout the draft process, and they added fuel to that fire by meeting with the ‘Bama product in Indy. Harrison didn’t run at the combine because of a sore hamstring, but his tape suggests he’s a top 50 player in this class, and possibly a first rounder.
As is the case every year, there was a ton of talent on the Alabama defense last season which made it difficult for Harrison to stand out, but he isn’t that far behind teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick who will likely be a top ten pick. Harrison played as a slot defender, deep safety, and an in-the-box safety in Nick Saban’s defense. He has a unique combination of size and speed which allows him to cover ground as a deep safety and matchup in man coverage all while bringing physicality and nastiness to the defense. His only weaknesses stem from stretches of over-aggressive play where can take some bad angles to the ball, and his desire to destroy every player he comes in contact with. Harrison could play a similar role to Patrick Chung in the Patriots’ defense, but he’s longer than Chung at 6-3 and has the top-end speed to play further off the line of scrimmage. The Patriots need some youth at the safety position with both Chung and Devin McCourty on the wrong side of 30, but it isn’t an immediate need for the 2018 team. Selecting Harrison early on in the draft would be a perfect example of the rich getting richer.
Stanford S Justin Reid (Pats Meeting: Combine)
Stanford safety Justin Reid may be the most likely Patriot out of this entire list. Reid is a do-it-all safety that tested in the 95th percentile in the 40-yard dash (4.40) and the 92nd percentile in the three-cone (6.65). He’s also an incredibly smart football player that told reporters at the combine that he knew seven different positions in the Stanford defense. Reid’s alma mater and football I.Q. will draw him unfortunate comparisons to Jordan Richards, but he’s a much better athlete. Reid finished in the 95.5 percentile in SPARQ score, Richards was in the 17.5 percentile.
Reid flashed the ability to do just about everything the Stanford coaching staff asked of him last season. He was primarily used as a slot defender and has the man coverage abilities necessary to match up with wide receivers and tight ends. He also played in the box and as a deep safety. Reid’s movement skills, body type, and intelligence remind you a lot of Devin McCourty. Unlike Ronnie Harrison, Reid fits the mold of the safeties the Patriots have obtained in recent years. He’s not a thumper, but he’ll fly around the back end of the defense while also giving the Pats some versatility at the position.
Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver (Pats Meeting: None)
As the Patriots look to replace Malcolm Butler, you can add Oliver to the list of potential draftees. The Colorado product is the top cornerback on my board mainly because he has the tape to back up his ideal size and length. At the combine, Oliver measured in the 98th percentile among defensive backs for wingspan and the 81st percentile in weight at 201 pounds, and still ran 4.50 40-yard dash. That separates him from other corners such as Louisville’s Jaire Alexander, UCF’s Mike Hughes, and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward who are smaller corners.
On the field, Oliver checks the all-important box of being a highly productive press corner. The Patriots run a significant amount of press-man coverage on the outside and need their corners to be comfortable playing on the line of scrimmage. Oliver has an extended jam and is incredible at opening his hips and running with receivers trying to get vertical. Plus, he uses those long arms to break up passes with 13 passes defended last season. Oliver’s only weaknesses come against shiftier wide receivers. He plays high in his backpedal and has trouble slowing himself down to make cuts in short areas. However, he has ideal size, pedigree, and plays the game with a little bit of an edge.
Louisville CB Jaire Alexander (Pats Meeting: None)
There may not be a surer bet out of this cornerback class than Louisville’s Jaire Alexander. Alexander solidified himself as one of the best corners in this draft with a terrific combine workout where he finished in the 89th percentile in the 40-yard dash (4.38) and the 86th percentile in the three-cone (6.71) among defensive backs. The Patriots’ draft history at the position indicates that they put a heavy emphasis on the three-cone drill, and Alexander passed that test with flying colors. It’s also worth noting that his combine workout and measurables align nicely with both Stephon Gilmore (81.9% match) and Devin McCourty (81% matchup), according to mockdraftable.
However, what makes Alexander such a lock is his tape. He’s a smooth criminal who flies around the defensive backfield with ease and shows off fluid hips in coverage. Alexander is also one of college football’s premier ballhawks, consistently making plays on the ball in the air and fighting to rip the ball out of the receivers hands after the catch. He battled injuries last season, but in 305 snaps on defense, Alexander allowed a passer rating of just 17.7 into his coverage and had more passes defended (six) than receptions allowed (five). His swagger and playing style has drawn comparisons to Rams corner Marcus Peters. He also adds value on special teams as a punt returner. Alexander is undersized at 5-10, but the Patriots will often overlook height at cornerback if the player checks the rest of the boxes, which Alexander does.
UCLA OT Kolton Miller (Pats Meeting: Combine)
A computer-generated software could not have created a more perfect left tackle than UCLA’s Kolton Miller. Miller was the darling of the combine on the offensive line as he tested in the 97th percentile at the position. The nearly 6-9, 309-pound Miller ran a 4.95 40 (fastest among OL) and set the record for an offensive lineman in the broad jump (121 inches). From a body type standpoint, Miller resembles former UCLA teammate and Pats 2017 draft pick Conor McDermott (71.1% match) and current Patriots free agent Nate Solder (69.2% match).
As you might expect with those measurables, Miller is already a menace in the run game both keeping edge rushers away from ball carriers and on the move. Miller’s movement skills allow him to block in space like a tight end with size, which is a scary proposition for opponents. However, like many college offensive tackles, Miller struggled in pass protection. Despite being a superb athlete, Miller has trouble kicking out of his stance and sliding to mirror pass rushers on the edge, and because of his size, he doesn’t bend very well either. The good news is that his kick-slides will get better over time with NFL coaching, and he has the athleticism to be more fluid in his movement. Give Miller to Dante Scarnecchia, and the Patriots might have their next left tackle.
MID-ROUND OPTIONS (ROUNDS 3-5)
South Dakota State TE Dallas Goedert (Pats Meeting: Senior Bowl)
There will be a lot of talk in the lead up to the draft about the Patriots potentially finding a Rob Gronkowski replacement after Gronk flirted with retirement this offseason. Penn State’s Mike Gesicki will be a significant part of that discussion, but my money is on Goedert. Goedert didn’t work out at the combine due to injury and didn’t meet with the Pats in Indy, but he did meet with them at the Senior Bowl.
On the field, Goedert is the best fit for the Patriots in this tight end class because of his versatility. Most tight ends in this class are strictly receiving tight ends, but Goedert can block in-line as a Y tight end as well as flex out as a receiver. He has terrific burst off the line of scrimmage and gets on defensive backs and linebackers quickly downfield. Plus, he has two giant hands that snatch passes out of the air. Goedert dominated the FCS last season and needs to improve as a route runner, but his ability to block and catch passes make him the best fit for the Patriots in this draft.
N.C. State RB Nyheim Hines (Pats Meeting: Combine)
Out of all the players I’ve watched in this class, Nyheim Hines might be my favorite. Hines blew everyone away in the 40-yard dash at the combine finishing with a 4.38 to lead all running backs. It’s worth noting that Hines is a straight-line runner, and only timed in the 21st percentile in the three-cone (7.18), but the tape suggests that he has enough wiggle to pair with his top-end speed.
Hines’ homerun speed is apparent as soon as you turn on the tape. When given a running lane, he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He’s also a very intriguing option as a pass-catching running back due to his background as a wide receiver. In his first two seasons in college, Hines played wide receiver before switching full time to running back. He doesn’t have ideal size for a receiver at 5-8, but you can use him in the slot or out wide and watch him burn defender after defender.. The only hesitation with Hines is that his running style may be best suited for a zone running scheme, and a lot of his big runs in college came in an outside zone scheme. However, you could see Hines’ running style working well in the Patriots’ power man blocking scheme. Just imagine a pulling Shaq Mason opening up the hole for Hines to burst through with that 4.38 speed. Hines also adds value on special teams with experience returning both kickoffs and punts.
UCF LB Shaquem Griffin (Pats Meeting: None)
The story of the 2018 scouting combine was UCF’s Shaq Griffin. Griffin was born without half of his left arm but dominated in his last two seasons at UCF and the combine. Griffin ran a ridiculous 4.38 40, the fastest by a linebacker at the combine since 2003. His combine workout resembled Falcons linebacker Deion Jones’ at the 2016 combine (68.9% match), and as we know, a Jones-type linebacker is what everyone is after these days.
When you turn on the tape, you quickly realize that Griffin isn’t just a good story, but also a terrific football player. His 4.38 speed directly translates to the field as you see him flying from sideline-to-sideline both as a run defender and a quarterback spy. Griffin can also play on the ball linebacker as an edge rusher racking up seven sacks last season and can match up with receivers as a slot defender. The 2016 AAC Defensive Player of the Year didn’t disappoint in his bowl game this past season against Auburn either. Based on the tape, he was arguably the best player on the field for either team. Griffin will get a lot of attention over the next few months due to his medical situation, but we should focus on the fact that he’s a damn good football player instead.
Wake Forest DE Duke Ejiofor (Pats Meeting: Combine)
Ejiofor is another player in this draft that checks a lot of boxes in terms of what the Patriots look for in a defensive end. He has exceptionally long arms ranking in the 90th percentile at the position, and although he’s smaller than past Patriots targets at defensive end, he plays a lot like the guys we have seen over the last 18 seasons.
The Wake Forest standout uses those long arms to leverage offensive lineman out position or to get them off balance and has violent and heavy hands that help him win at the point of attack. Ejiofor also showed off the ability to elude blockers by slipping underneath and around them in the running game to make up for the fact that he’s only 264 pounds. As a pass rusher, Ejiofor is wise beyond his years with a full arsenal of pass rush moves and he sets them up nicely throughout the game. If the Patriots select Ejiofor, the pick would be a carbon copy of their selections of Deatrich Wise (2017 draft) and Trey Flowers (2015 draft), who have very similar styles of play.
Memphis LB Genard Avery (Pats Meeting: None)
Memphis linebacker Genard Avery was on very few peoples radars before the combine. I discuss draft prospects with many draft junkies like myself, and not many watched his tape before his outstanding workout in Indy. However, all Avery did at the combine was dominate in pretty much every facet, ranking in the 96th percentile in the board jump (124 inches), the 93rd percentile in the 40-yard dash (4.59), and the 87th percentile in the three-cone (6.9) at 248 pounds. With that workout, Avery went from an unknown to possibly a third-round pick in April.
In hindsight, Avery should have been on all of our radars before the combine. There’s nobody in this draft class that flies to the ball in the running game with as much speed and tenacity as Avery, and if he played a more prominent school, he would have been further up draft boards. Avery is precisely the type of off the ball linebacker that the Patriots need, a guy that can clean up running plays by chasing down running backs. He will likely play on the ball as an edge rusher in sub packages, but he’d be a nice upgrade for the Patriots as a run-stopping linebacker that has the athleticism to hold up in coverage.
LATE-ROUND OPTIONS (ROUNDS 6-7)
SMU WR Trey Quinn (Pats Meeting: Combine)
It’s hard not to see the fit when it comes to SMU slot receiver Trey Quinn and the Patriots. Quinn transferred to SMU from LSU due to a logjam at the position in Baton Rouge and the coaching staffs inability to use him properly in the offense. In 2017, Quinn led all FBS wide receivers with 4.66 yards per route run from the slot. His combine workout wasn’t great, but his three-cone time of 6.91 is close enough to the Patriots’ threshold of 6.90 for wideouts. He also wowed scouts with a terrific on-field workout showing off great hands and route running ability. He’s just an okay athlete but was athletic enough to finish with 1,236 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
On tape, Quinn checks all the boxes for a Patriots slot receiver. He’s a terrific route runner that has excellent feet, and his vertical double-moves out of the slot are nearly impossible to stop. Quinn also has large hands ranking in the 91st percentile among wide receivers at the combine, which translates to him having the lowest drop rate in the FBS last season (min. 100 targets). Furthermore, despite being just 5-11, Quinn is underrated in contested catch situations, bringing down 57.1% of his contested catches. We all saw Bill Belichick pull out the binoculars when Quinn ran through the drills at the combine last weekend, and the Pats met with Quinn in Indy as well. He could be the next great slot receiver in New England.
Fordham RB Chase Edmonds (Pats Meeting: Combine)
Chase Edmonds is still under the radar because he’s a small school product, but he dominated the Patriot league in his time at Fordham. Edmonds then went to Indy and had a very Patriots-like workout as a standout at the running back position in the three-cone drill, ranking in the 90th percentile at 6.79 seconds. In 2015, Edmonds was the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year, finishing third in the FCS with 1,648 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns. Edmonds followed that up with a strong 2016 campaign earning FCS All-American First-Team honors with 1,799 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. He dealt with injuries last season but was an extremely productive player in college.
Edmonds’ production at Fordham speaks for itself, but the tape also shows a player that eerily resembles Patriots running back James White. Edmonds is shifty and jukes defenders with insane lateral jump cuts. He’s a smooth runner that can slither his way around defenders instead of taking them head-on. Edmonds can also catch the ball out of the backfield with 86 receptions for 905 yards in his collegiate career. Like White, his role may be as a receiving back early on in his career, but if he can be more decisive as a runner and develop a better feel for blocking schemes he could potentially be a steal for the Patriots on day three.
Vanderbilt LB Oren Burks (Pats Meeting: None)
Speaking of steals, Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks is buried deep down the draft board due to a stacked linebacker class, but he turned heads at the combine and the Senior Bowl. Burks finished in the 94.7 percentile among all NFL players in SPARQ score, and broad jumped an insane 131 inches (97th percentile). Burks also faired well in the 40 (4.59 seconds, 81st percentile) and the all-important three-cone drill (6.82 seconds, 90th percentile).
It’s unclear if Burks is on the Patriots’ radar at this time, but his combine workout isn’t the only reason that he should be. Burks was a leader on and off the field for his team and played three different positions in college including safety. That translated to him being an excellent coverage linebacker and a rangy tackler in the open field. Burks is still learning the position and doesn’t always trust his reads, but until he’s fully up to speed with linebacker keys he can contribute on special teams.