Over the weekend, medical rechecks of draft prospects took place in Indianapolis: Players, that have previously dealt with an injury might have been brought in for further evaluation of their medical statuses. As New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick noted during his pre-draft press conference last week, the rechecks – and medical examinations as a whole – can have a significant impact on a team's draft board.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some players who are coming off injuries but nevertheless would offer tremendous upside for the Patriots.
DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan
One of the top defensive tackles to enter this year's draft, Maurice Hurst was diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL scouting combine. The 22-year old was subsequently unable to perform in drills and underwent further testing. While he was later cleared to participate in Michigan's pro day and not brought in for reevaluation over the weekend, teams might be cautious when it comes to the 6'2, 290 lbs defender.
Hurst is not the first prospect to face questions about his heart: Star Lotulelei and Nick Fairley both received similar diagnosis that ultimately did not hurt their draft stocks (both were selected within the first 15 picks). However, Fairley was forced to sit out the entire 2017 season because of his lingering condition. Could this also have an impact on Hurst, who was also projected to go as early as the top-15? It appears to be unlikely, because each case is different.
If Hurst still drops during the draft, though, the Patriots might be the beneficiaries: Even though the team has a lot of bodies at the position, the Michigan product's upside as an interior disruptor would be too high to pass on. Adding Hurst in the second half of the first round would be solid value for the team.
OT Connor Williams, Texas
After being named All-American for his 2016 campaign and hailed as a potential early first-round draft pick further down the line, Connor Williams' 2017 campaign did not do his draft stock any favors: The slightly undersized offensive tackle – 6'5, 300 lbs – appeared in only five games before suffering a season-ending meniscus tear as well as sprains of his MCL and PCL tendons.
When healthy, though, Williams has the potential to become a starting tackle in the NFL: The 20-year old is a rare athlete for a player his size and enters the draft with a sound technique in both his pass protection sets and as a run blocker. It would therefore not be a surprise to see him selected late on day one or early on day two – an area where the Patriots own two draft picks.
While Williams' talent cannot be denied, the Patriots drafting an offensive tackle early will depend on the outlook of 2017 third-round pick Antonio Garcia. The Troy product missed all of last season due to blood clots in his lungs but is expected back in full capacity this year. If the team is unsure about Garcia as the potential blindside protector of Tom Brady, however, Williams – a possible day one starter – might be a target early in the draft.
CB Nick Nelson, Wisconsin
As is the case with Connor Williams, cornerback Nick Nelson is also fighting his way back from a meniscus injury. The major difference, though, is that his happened seven months later: Nelson was undergoing a workout with the Detroit Lions last week when he suffered the knee injury. The issue is projected to keep him out through minicamp and potentially even training camp.
Nelson, who was projected to be selected as early as day two, could see his draft stock fall because of the issue. While he might be able to suit up for the season, his effectiveness in year has to be questioned considering the injury – which is exactly why the Patriots might still not shy away from investing one of their draft picks in the Wisconsin product.
The team's cornerback depth chart appears to be set at the top with Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty the top three options. Therefore, Nelson would have the chance to sit for most of the season and slowly work his way back while learning the Patriots' defense. A potential win-win situation for both parties.
DE Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest
Ejiofor appeared in 11 games throughout his redshirt senior season at Wake Forest but was dealing with a lingering right shoulder injury all year long. The issue is believed to have first popped up in early October and limited his impact during the 2017 season. Ejiofor was still able to register 43 tackles and 6.5 sacks but did not live up to the expectations he set after a productive 2016 season.
Because of the injury, the soon-to-be 23-year old underwent surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum after the season. The defensive edge, who lacks top-notch athleticism and size but has still been a productive player that wins with sound technique and discipline, is still recovering from the injury and is on his way to be ready to go once training camps start in late July.
Still, the surgery and subsequent recover process might see Ejiofor slip down draft boards later this month. As a result, the Patriots might potentially be able to pick him up early on day three – and add a versatile potential linebacker conversion to its defense.
RB Mark Walton, Miami (FL)
Four games into his 2017 junior season, Hurricanes running back Mark Walton suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Considering the position he plays and how reliant it is on making quick cuts to avoid potential tacklers, the injury could significantly hurt his draft stock in two weeks. Walton, however, recently stated that he is already fully on his way back from the ailment that cost him his final college games.
“I could have played in the bowl game if I chose to,” Walton told the Palm Beach Post last month. If that is indeed the case, the 5'10, 200 lbs running back, who participated in all combine drills, would be a solid addition on day two or early day three in the draft. After all, he was a highly productive player before his ankle injury that averaged 110 scrimmage yards per game over his two years as Miami's featured back.
The Patriots, who have lost Dion Lewis through free agency, might be willing to invest in Walton as a potential long-term option at the running back position.