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2019 NFL Draft: The Patriots get a closer look at WR Mecole Hardman and EDGE Ben Banogu

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New England looks to complete their evaluations on two impressive NFL Draft prospects.

Florida v Georgia Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With a little over two weeks left until the start of the NFL Draft, the Patriots front office is continuing its push to finalize their draft board by getting a closer look at two of the most athletically-gifted prospects in the draft.

The first, who announced his visit to Foxborough on his Instagram page (h/t to Cat Scratch Reader’s Billy Marshall), was Georgia wide receiver Mecole Hardman.

Hardman, who just turned 21 last month, isn’t the biggest WR (5’ 10-1/4”, 187 lbs), but he has a strong (17 reps of 225), muscular frame that can stand up to contact, and he is arguably the most electric player in the draft with the football in his hands. He posted an “elite” Relative Athletic Score, fueled by a blazing 4.33 40-yard dash at the combine. His decision to forgo agility drills (three cone and shuttle) in Indianapolis, or at Georgia's Pro Day, can be easily explained: he had nothing left to prove. One look at his tape and you immediately see that he’s the twitchiest, most elusive athlete on the field.

Hardman’s lack of gaudy offensive production totals at Georgia can be attributed to the incredible surplus of weapons around him. Nonetheless, he made the most of each opportunity in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s offense, averaging 16.0 yards per reception on 60 catches over the past two seasons, 11 of which were touchdowns. He also added two more scores on the ground.

According to The Draft Network’s Brad Kelly, the former USA Today High School All-American’s limited route tree will not be an issue at the next level:

“His cuts can be flexible and explosive, as he can turn and accelerate at a fast pace. Hardman would show head fakes that got the defensive backs biting, before smooth cuts to separate. His best routes came vertically when he was given a free release, as defensive backs struggled to keep up with his acceleration.”

While Hardman’s incredible speed puts a ton of stress on defenses both vertically and horizontally, it’s his prodigious change of direction and ability to get to full speed at the blink of an eye that makes him so deadly on jet sweeps, screens, and — perhaps more importantly to the likes of Bill Belichick and the Patriots — in the return game. He averaged 15.2 yards per punt return over the past two seasons, and a whopping 20.1 yards per return on 16 opportunities in 2018, including one touchdown. He also averaged 25.0 yards on 35 kickoff returns since 2017.

After trading away Brandin Cooks a year ago, the Patriots’ offense obviously took on a much different look last season. But they still utilized their skill personnel in a lot of the same ways in an attempt to recreate the same stress they were able to put on defenses in 2017. Cordarrelle Patterson, Julian Edelman, and even James White were the unit’s primary jet sweep options, with Patterson also adding the vertical element to the passing game at times. With Patterson now in Chicago, drafting the versatile Hardman would instantly add that explosion back into the offense and return game.

According to Justin Melo of SB Nation’s Music City Miracles, the Patriots are also hosting or privately working out Texas Christian University edge defender Ben Banogu.

Banogu, who transferred to TCU after two years at Louisiana-Monroe, is coming off back-to-back First Team All-Big 12 seasons in which he totaled 34.5 tackles for loss, 17 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 27 contests.

In looking at the pass-rusher’s athletic profile, it’s easy to see why NFL teams are intrigued.

Having already met with Banogu at the Senior Bowl in February, the agility numbers he put up at TCU’s pro day piqued the interest of Bill Belichick and the Patriots to the point where they met with him again that day. This third visit and/or private workout could very well be the team trying to evaluate just how much time and effort will need to be invested in a guy with substantial measurables, but whose tape shows a player who is still quite raw. Based on the reported contacts the Patriots have had with prospects so far this offseason, Banogu is the only player the Patriots have met with and/or worked out on more than two occasions.

After losing Trey Flowers to free agency and granting Adrian Clayborn’s request for release, New England’s pass rushing depth could benefit from an infusion of young talent behind guys like Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise, whose roles are likely to increase in 2019.

To have all reported contacts between the Patriots and NFL Draft prospects this offseason at your fingertips, bookmark our 2019 Patriots Pre-Draft Tracker!

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter — @BPhillips_SB