The 2015 NFL Scouting Combine is over for draft prospects on the offensive side of the ball, and soon it will be for the defensive side. But before turning the page over for the final days in Indianapolis, some parting offensive thoughts with a New England Patriots focus.
After Initial Glance, Patriots Picked the Right Year at QB
It’s better to be a year too soon than a year too late, and from this view, picking an FCS quarterback in the second round last May applies to that philosophy. Jimmy Garoppolo was the fourth quarterback taken in the 2014 draft. And while it isn’t fair to compare where he would go in this year’s class, it is fair to think the Patriots made the right move at the right time behind 37-year-old Tom Brady.
The 2015 quarterback group hasn’t had the opportunity to prove its worth just yet, and neither has Garoppolo, despite a 19-of-27 rookie line which netted 182 yards and a touchdown. But it doesn’t appear this year’s group has an array of options behind Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
It doesn’t appear the Patriots will have to invest an early selection in finding one, either. Nevertheless, a late-round candidate the Patriots could take a closer look at is Bryan Bennett, an Oregon transfer who found a home at Southeastern Louisiana before showing well in testing and throwing drills at the combine.
Halfback Position Doesn’t Plateau
With the future of unrestricted free-agent halfbacks Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley up in the air, so are the Patriots’ plans of drafting another. New England has reportedly met with LSU’s Kenny Hilliard, Mississippi State’s Josh Robinson, South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Louisville’s Michael Dyer and Florida’s Matt Jones in Indianapolis. And whether or not a receiving or power back is looked to from here on out, the class stretches long and wide in both categories.
There may be some compelling reasons to call upon either Todd Gurley of Georgia or Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin at the end of the first round. But there shouldn’t be a plateau in talent at that juncture, especially for a team already featuring three undrafted halfbacks on the roster. New England may find Duke Johnson of Miami, Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska or Jay Ajayi of Boise State to be both quick and versatile out of the backfield. And for downhill power and then some, the organization may also find David Johnson of Northern Iowa and David Cobb of Minnesota worthwhile in the middle rounds, to name only a few.
There are many who could step in alongside 2014 fourth-rounder James White, LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden and even Tyler Gaffney to supplant the possible exits of Vereen and Ridley. Yet for a team that hasn’t drafted a halfback in the first three rounds since both impending free agents in 2011, it’s clear another doesn’t have to arrive at pick No. 32. It was 2006 when the Patriots last picked a back higher than that.
Thin Tight End Class Built on Flavor
It appears there are few clear-cut alternatives in this year’s tight end class. Maxx Williams, a 20-year-old flex-type out of Minnesota, stands atop the group and looked fluid in receiving drills, yet also ran an underwhelming 4.78-second 40-yard dash. And Clive Walford, a 6-foot-4, 251-pound Miami product, stands not far behind as a reliable blocker with modifiable athletic traits to play both inline and off.
For most of the tight end prospects after them, it’s about finding the flavor to match the offense. At 6-foot-7, Penn State’s Jesse James will remind some of former UCLA Bruin Joseph Fauria down in the red zone. The likes of Florida State’s Nick O’Leary and Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman will remind others of No. 2 tight ends with trusted hands, willing physicality and middle-of-the-road speed.
But just whom Michigan’s Devin Funchess reminds you of is much like Rorschach test. Just shy of 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Funchess ran a 4.7 40-time at the combine, which suggests his future will be more so as an offline tight end than as a full-time wide receiver. The Wolverine has been a mismatch for his catch radius, however, and he could be seen as a player who could fulfill a similar role to converted receiver Tim Wright in New England’s chameleon offense. Even so, spending a first-round pick on a player with long strides out of breaks and unsteady hands is something that will be debated.
Natural Receivers Fit the Bill after Round 1
The on-field drills at the combine are made to be about speed. Yet how that speed is used weighs more than the three-digit times remembered long after it. And that is particularly the case at wide receiver, where efficient route-running and tracking the football through to the catch are underlying vitals.
USC’s Nelson Agholor, East Carolina’s Justin Hardy, Florida State’s Rashad Greene, Miami’s Phillip Dorsett, Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and Nebraska’s Kenny Bell are six targets who did so quite well. Whether it was the quick stems, the sinking of hips through breaks, the light footwork at the top of routes, or the ability to maintain speed and show late-extending hands to see the ball in – all of whom played the part. They played the part when some others mainly looked the part, hesitated working back to the ball, and fought it into their body while running the gauntlet and the route tree.
None of the aforementioned six may ultimately be first-round picks, though they could present diversity for a team like the Patriots later on. That is, if New England puts an emphasis on rejuvenating the receiving corps beyond Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and also 2013 second-rounder Aaron Dobson.
Against New England’s Grain, Early Options Loom on Interior Line
Head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots have drafted 17 offensive linemen since 2005. But the lone first-round selections have been Colorado tackle Nate Solder in 2011 and Fresno State tackle Logan Mankins in 2005. Outside of those two, only Houston tackle Sebastian Vollmer in 2009 was selected before the fourth round.
Some of that patience could be attributed to longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who, though retired, has since returned to help in an advising capacity through April. Some of that could be attributed to finding serviceable pieces afterwards – like former Jacksonville Jaguars guard Dan Connolly in 2007 and undrafted Fresno State guard Ryan Wendell in 2008 – and developing them into starters. But this year could be a different course of action, with Connolly set to become an unrestricted free agent and Wendell entering the final year of his deal.
There are options in the top 64 picks that could reinforce the difference, should the Patriots go that route. Current line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was on the Lucas Oil Stadium field, directing drills for Florida State’s Cameron Erving and Tre’ Jackson, South Carolina’s A.J. Cann, Duke’s Laken Tomlinson and Hobart’s Ali Marpet. Each of whom could be in consideration for New England’s guard spots, and demonstrated why this week. But New England’s plans around center Bryan Stork, as well as eligible tight end Cameron Fleming, will be decided outside of Indianapolis.