One of the few benefits of exiting the NFL season on the wrong side of the playoffs is a team’s ability to fully immerse itself into draft preparation relatively early. Whereas clubs that make the Super Bowl are a bit behind the eight ball, for example, those unable to make it into the postseason get a head start.
The New England Patriots are no strangers to beginning this process late. Most recently, however, they have entered it earlier than they would have hoped: they have not won a playoff game in four straight years, meaning their draft prep has now regularly started in early January.
Coming off an 8-9 record, this year was more of the same. What that allowed the Patriots to do, however, is take an up-close look at potential draft targets at the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Together with the Atlanta Falcons, they were invited to coach one of the two teams at the college all-star game. This allowed them to work with dozens of players for an entire week.
Among them were two who ultimately ended up in New England via the 2023 draft: offensive lineman Atonio Mafi and wide receiver Demario Douglas.
“Going into the Shrine Bowl, two guys that we identified that we certainly would like to work with,” said Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh. “Then you just get that comfort level and you really get to know the player as a person and as a player, what they can do. And being able to work Troy [Brown] and the rest of the staff out in Vegas.
“And then Troy in particular, with his prolific career as a punt returner, being able to work with Demario and all those guys, and Troy and Ross [Douglas] as wide receivers, being able to work with those guys, and then the offensive staff and kind of really being able to work with Atonio — we definitely liked those guys going into the game. We are really happy they are on our team. And so that just kind of further solidified our feelings on the players after spending a week with them.”
The Patriots did not use their traditional coaching setup for Shrine Bowl week, and instead gave wide receivers coach Troy Brown the opportunity to serve as head coach. The team’s senior coaches led by head coach Bill Belichick, meanwhile, served in a supervisory capacity.
Nonetheless, all members of the team’s staff were able to get a feel for who the team was working with — and vice versa.
“I had a really good experience getting to learn firsthand from an NFL coaching staff,” said UCLA product Mafi, who was selected in the fifth round of the draft. “Then just happening to be picked up by them is obviously a blessing. I feel like I have a little bit of a taste of what I’m getting into and I’m just excited to continue my growth with them.”
Douglas, who joined the Patriots as a sixth-round selection out of Liberty, echoed those remarks.
“I remember I had a punt return and Coach Belichick told me keep the ball you know, like rubbing my muscles,” he said about his own Shrine Bowl experience. “Very coachable things that I definitely will be bringing to the Pats. Just what the coaching staff installed in me just for transitioning from college to the NFL. ...
“I felt like I just knew how I got along so well with the staff. I’d say the staff did a great job of coaching me and making me already feel like I’m in the NFL as I was going through the process. So, I believe I’m home.”
Mafi and Douglas are two of a total of 12 players selected by the Patriots in the 2023 NFL Draft.