The NFL offseason is headed to Indianapolis as the Combine begins this week. It will be another opportunity for New England to familiarize themselves with plenty of draft prospects, including more of the projected top picks.
While much of the focus at the Combine is centered around the athletic testing, the interviews, off-field meetings, and medical checks are just as important for teams.
For the Patriots, here are some of the top players and storylines to watch throughout the week.
Pass catching running backs
The Patriots truly missed James White on this year’s roster. If they do not view Ty Montgomery or Pierre Strong taking over that role, they could turn to the draft to try and find someone. At the combine, several backs fit the James White mold. Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn, USC’s Travis Dye, and Oklahoma’s Eric Gray are some names to watch in that department.
Vaughn was one of the best pass catching backs in college football and is truly explosive with the football. But, he’s listed at just 5-foot-6, 176 pounds. He should impress during the drills, but we’ll see how the size checks out. Dye is another top receiving back who the team worked with at the Shrine Bowl. His level of participation could be limited due to the leg injury he suffered in November.
There are two top receivers worth watching when it comes to the athletic testing at the Combine. TCU’s Quentin Johnston (6-foot-4, 215 lbs.) is as protyprical of an X receiver as they come in terms of size. If he breaks out a low-4.4 40-yard dash, he could be the first receiver off the board come April.
It will also be worthwhile to see if Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba runs the 40-yard dash. JSN is a technician when it comes to route running and could be a great fit in the slot in New England’s offense. But, he’s not known for his straight away speed which could drop his draft stock. If he runs, he’ll likely run faster than expected which could boost his value.
While LSU’s Kayshon Boutte should impress in the athletic testing, perhaps what he does off the field will be the most important part of the week for him. Boutte is an ultra-talented receiver and top recruit out of high school but ended his collegiate career ended short due to some unconfirmed off field issues. Seeing who he meets with in Indianapolis will be noteworthy.
A No. 1 option at tight end
The Patriots’ offense needs a true No. 1 weapon in the passing game. But does it have to come at wide receiver? The old Patriots with Rob Gronkowski and reigning Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs with Travis Kelce say no.
Just because New England needs a wide receiver, that doesn't mean they should overvalue the position. None of the receivers in this class may be worth the 14th overall selection, which could open up the door for a true No. 1 weapon at tight end.
Michael Mayer is the consensus top tight end on the board, but he does not seem to be a dynamic athlete. He can do everything else (versatile, plus-blocker, etc.), but he’ll need to test well to be in consideration for the 14th overall selection. It will also be worth watching how fast the 6-foot-7 Darnell Washington from Georgia runs.
Peter Skoronski’s arms
Broderick Jones and Paris Johnson Jr. are physical freaks that should light it up in Indianapolis. That could leave Peter Skoronski as the top tackle on the board for New England at pick 14. Skoronski is perhaps the most pro-ready tackle in the draft, but there are serious questions regarding his arm length. Some predict his arms may measure under 33 inches, which could result in teams seeing him as a guard in the NFL.
As Dante Scarneccia once said: “I think that [expletive] is way overrated.”
Ja’Whaun Bentley just keeps getting better for the Patriots, but he needs his athletic counterpart next him as New England has continued to uptick their zone usage in recent years. With Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson Sr. headed towards free agency, the draft could help fill that need.
This year’s linebacker class is weaker than past classes, but there are still some interesting potential Day Two players.
Texas’ DeMarvion Overshown is one of those players. He’s the build (6-foot-4, 220 lbs.) that they’ve avoided the past few years, but he’s a freakish athlete that can do a number of things at the position. If they prefer a true MIKE linebacker, Iowa’s Jack Campbell could surprise people in the athletic testing.
Size at cornerback
You’ve heard it a lot this offseason already, but the Patriots need a boundary cornerback with some length. The team’s current tallest cornerback is Jalen Mills (6’0) and Jon Jones, who played the most snaps out wide last season, is a free agent.
Now, adding size at the position does not just mean picking a tall player like Joejuan Williams. Williams had the size but not the athleticism or speed (4.64 40-yard dash) to play at the NFL level.
Looking toward the Combine, watching how potential Day Two corners such as Maryland’s Deonte Banks and Kansas State’s Julius Brents test will be noteworthy.
Devin McCourty is still undecided if he’ll play next season and Kyle Dugger is entering a contract season. So, safety could be on the shortlist for New England in this upcoming draft.
One player who could peak their interest in the first round is Alabama’s Brian Branch. Branch played primarily in the slot for Nick Saban’s defense but perhaps projects best in the NFL as a free safety. If New England doesn't want to go safety first-round, Georgia’s Christopher Smith could be a Day Two choice who also projects as a true free safety.