What the New England Patriots will do on draft day is anyone’s guess. Based on the team’s current roster, free agency outlook, scheme and issues during the 2020 season, however, some potential targets can already be identified even as the pre-draft process is just starting to enter its crucial phase. Among those are a handful of players that have also had a pretty solid start to this year’s Senior Bowl down in Mobile, Alabama.
Based on the tape available and the interpretations from experts — including Pats Pulpit’s own Mark Schofield — we can now take a look at some potential Patriots targets that are turning heads at the Senior Bowl so far.
QB Mac Jones, Alabama
No position on the Patriots’ roster has been under greater scrutiny in 2020 than quarterback. While it remains to be seen how the team will address it, drafting a potential quarterback of the future certainly seems to be in the realm of possibility for a team slated to pick 15th overall in April.
If the Patriots elect to go after a passer with that selection but do not want to trade up to get one of the consensus top-four available this year, Mac Jones might be their guy. While there are some legitimate questions about Alabama’s one-year starting quarterback, he did look good playing outside of the team’s scheme for the first time — throwing pin-point touch passes such as this one time and again:
Jones is projected to come off the board in Round One. If he can continue his solid Senior Bowl performance and build some momentum into the next few weeks of the pre-draft process, he could very well find himself on New England’s radar in late April.
WR Josh Palmer, Tennessee
The inconsistent play of quarterback Cam Newton was not the only reason for the Patriots’ offensive struggles in 2020: the lack of high-quality skill position players also hurt the unit. Accordingly, New England is in the market for more help at wide receiver. One player to watch as a potential late-round option is Tennessee’s Josh Palmer, who had himself a few nice drills at the Senior Bowl earlier this week:
Josh Palmer vs Bryan Mills— Damian Parson (@DP_NFL) January 27, 2021
Palmer's shifts gears mid-way through his vertical stem. Mills opens the gate attempting to turn & run, Palmer, explodes across his face towards the goal post!
Palmer will remain a sleeper receiver in this class! ✍️ pic.twitter.com/JDmPz9ZPf8
The Patriots’ wide receivers had a hard time getting open down the field in 2020, and Palmer’s straight-line speed and agility in the open field — as displayed above — are traits the team needs if it wants to upgrade its aerial attack this year. Having a player capable of stretching the field would also help make the job of underneath targets such as Jakobi Meyers or tight end Devin Asiasi easier.
WR Cade Johnson, South Dakota State
The Senior Bowl is not just an exhibition contest but also a stage for players from smaller college to make an impact. Safety Kyle Dugger out of Lenoir-Rhyne is a prominent example of that, as he bolstered his stock last year before eventually getting picked 37th overall by the Patriots.
This year, there are also lower level players making a positive impression. South Dakota State wideout Cade Johnson is one of them:
SDSU WR Cade Johnson was in his bag. Shuffle release, brought his head and shoulder and made the CB open their hips. Violent rip across face to help accelerate to the slant. Took him into deep water #SeniorBowl pic.twitter.com/FBaMp3xh6S— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) January 27, 2021
A possible mid-round selection, Johnson appears to be one of the Senior Bowl’s big winners so far by delivering some spectacular wins during one-on-one drills. The play above to get open before the defensive back was able to get a hand on him is a good illustration of what he can bring to the table: short-area quickness that allows him to get open even when challenged at the line of scrimmage.
Measured at 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds, Johnson projects to play primarily inside the formation at the next level. While New England is in comparatively good shape there with Julian Edelman and Jakobi Meyers, adding a player with that kind of quickness could be a good investment.
OL Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater
Wisconsin-Whitewater is not necessarily a football powerhouse, but the Division-III school was home to one of the most intriguing players the Senior Bowl has to offer so far: Quinn Meinerz, who first caught the eye due to his style and later followed it up with some impressive reps as a blocker both in one-on-ones and team work:
With long-time left guard Joe Thuney headed towards unrestricted free agency, and with Michael Onwenu possibly staying at right tackle instead of moving back to the interior, the Patriots are definitely in the market for more help along the interior offensive line.
Meinerz, who has some versatility as a player who could play guard and center, appears to be a natural target — one who might follow Kyle Dugger’s footsteps as a Senior Bowl standout catching New England’s eye.
WR Nico Collins, Michigan
Under-the-radar wide receivers Josh Palmer and Cade Johnson have impressed, and so has potential early-round prospect Nico Collins. Not only is he coming from a school that produced three future Patriots recently — offensive lineman Michael Onwenu as well as linebackers Chase Winovich and Josh Uche — he also could be a potential deep threat the team has been lacking for quite some time now.
The following play is a good illustration of what he would add to an NFL offense:
Michigan WR Nico Collins will be a boundary vertical threat in the NFL. So much size/athleticism and knows how to use it. No wasted time against press, feels the CB in good position down the field so gets his body in-between the catchpoint. High points, strong tuck #SeniorBowl pic.twitter.com/AkSvYADkEU— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) January 28, 2021
The Patriots, as noted above, are in a comparatively good shape at the slot and Z positions but do need some more playmaking ability outside of the hashmarks. Collins would provide just that, and he is looking the part at the Senior Bowl. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds he would also add some considerable size to New England’s receiving corps.
DT Levi Onwuzurike, Washington
New England’s big questions are on the offensive side of the ball, but the team also might have to rebuild its defensive front seven with interior linemen Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr. all scheduled to enter free agency in March. While there is a chance that all of them are retained, getting better at the point of attack has to be a goal for a Patriots team that struggled mightily to control the gaps in the running game last season.
Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike may not have the prototypical size the team is looking for at 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, but he can certainly play and would help add some quality depth to the position in New England. He has been showing his skills at the Senior Bowl so far as well, with this one-on-one win an impressive example:
If the Patriots are looking to bolster their defensive line this offseason, investing in a player like Onwuzurike who can hold his ground in one-on-ones might not be a bad idea.