With the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine in the rearview, the New England Patriots stand three weeks from free agency and nine weeks from the draft. But while the latter is largely contingent on the former, most long-term plans for the organization will not be decided until April 30 through May 2.
And with that in mind, it is time for an early look at what head coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and the Patriots could be facing over seven rounds this spring.
New England currently owns the rights to seven draft selections, after acquiring a fourth-round pick in exchange for guard Logan Mankins, as well as sixth- and seventh-round picks along with linebackers Jonathan Casillas and Akeem Ayers.
Additional compensatory picks could be awarded in the middle rounds as a byproduct of the departures of cornerback Aqib Talib and linebacker Dane Fletcher. Though for now, that remains to be seen.
Here are seven other variables that also could be.
Round 1: Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Defensive End, UCLA
The 6-foot-4. 266-pound UCLA Bruin underwent two hip surgeries heading into the 2013 season and was consequently sidelined for the duration of it. But in 2014, Odiguizuwa picked up where the man he was supposed to supplant, Green Bay Packers defensive end Datone Jones, left off. The 22-year-old lined up at the seven-technique and kicked inside to the four-technique, generating pressure downhill. And although Odighizuwa’s primarily role was to set the edge and enhale the run, his 4.62-second 40-time, 39-inch vertical and 127-inch broad jump illustrated at the combine were the reasons he did much more. With consistent low-body explosion, violent power moves, and long-reaching arms to swivel around blocks, Odighizuwa netted 11.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and five pass deflections as a fifth-year senior. He bulled, straight-lined, and also ran the arc into the backfield. And he could be a candidate to do so off New England’s strong side in the long term. Odighizuwa interviewed with the Patriots at the combine.
Round 2: Nelson Agholor, Wide Receiver, Southern California
A lean 6-foot, 198-pound Trojans receiver cut from the same cloth as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee before him, Agholor glided through his routes on the way to 104 receptions, 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior. He also tacked on four punts returned for touchdowns over his final two years with the cardinal and gold, demonstrating the instincts, vision and quick feet to create. Agholor’s receiving production came out wide and heavily in the slot, but he also aligned in the backfield, flanking the quarterback in shotgun. Wherever he was, the 21-year-old proved well-versed in the route tree, sold his breaks, carried build-up speed, and tracked the football. He followed that body of work up with natural hands. He provided a sample of each in Indianapolis while running the gauntlet, as well as a 4.42 40-yard dash, before dislocating his middle finger.
Round 3: David Johnson, Running Back, Northern Iowa
The 6-foot-1, 224-pound high school receiver started as a low-level recruit and redshirted as an FCS freshman in 2010. But by the time the Clinton, Iowa finished his college career, he had amassed 4,682 rushing yards, 1,734 receiving yards and 65 total touchdowns. An upright, long-striding runner with sudden burst and excellent hands, Johnson excelled out of single-back shotgun sets, taking the exchange off-tackle and also finding the crease overhead on angle routes. That athleticism and versatility will draw its share of comparisons to Matt Forte and Charles Sims, and while Johnson may not run between the tackles with the strength his size would suggest, he can break tackles and spin out of them. Johnson landed near the top of the positional ranks at the combine, notching a 4.50 40-yard dash, a 6.82 three-cone, a 41.5-inch vertical, a 127-inch broad and also 25 bench reps of 225 pounds. He is a third-down contender who’s familiar with being more.
Round 4: B.J. Finney, Center, Kansas State
A three-time team captain with a background in wrestling and snaps played at both tackle and center, Finney checks a few boxes the Patriots have looked for in the past. The former Kansas State walk-on developed into a 52-game starter, earned all-conference honors in each of his final four years there, and capped off his resume as a finalist for the Rimington Trophy. The 6-foot-4, 318-pound lineman comes with 32-inch arms and tightness in his footwork, but also brings leverage, latching hand placement and the functional strength to finish blocks. Along the Wildcats’ front, Finney was often put on an island in wide formations and held his own in one-on-ones – notably against Oklahoma defensive tackle Jordan Phillips – as a result. He may not be a tackle nor a center at the next level; he may however, become a reliable pass protector who can mirror and anchor the movements of those across from him at guard.
Round 4: Ellis McCarthy, Defensive Tackle, UCLA
Odighizuwa’s teammate along the UCLA defensive line, the 6-foot-5, 338-pound McCarthy declared for the draft after his junior season. The two-gap defensive tackle did so having shown some wear, both in terms of stamina and with two knee surgeries. But when healthy and active, McCarthy showed he’s difficult to move off the ball as a leveraging nose and occasional 3-4 defensive end. There are concerns when it comes to pad level and also experience, as he totaled 59 tackles, six sacks, three pass breakups and a forced fumble over three seasons. Yet if it all clicks, McCarthy’s long 34-inch arms, innate strength and straight-ahead burst could be realized. Limited range, but a rotational lineman built to handle double-teams, as well as the run, in front of him.
Round 6: Ben Heeney, Linebacker, Kansas
The 6-foot, 238-pound linebacker led the Jayhawks in tackles for the last three seasons, and he also let the NCAA in solo tackles per game in 2014. Even so, Heeney is a bit of an enigma. Undersized with starting experience at middle linebacker since 2012, special teams figure to be where Heeney leaves his first NFL mark. And after running a 4.59 40-yard dash, a 6.68 three-cone and a 4.00 short-shuttle at Lucas Oil Stadium, it could be a big one. Both athletic and aggressive, Heeney has been known to fly to the football. There’s something to be said for finding players who can do so in the third phase of not only the game, but the draft.
Round 7: Jean Sifrin, Tight End, Massachusetts
Sifrin is 27 years old. He is undeveloped without the benefit of much time to be. He played at El Camino Junior College – where former Patriots wideout Kenbrell Thompkins once did – and started out at ASA College in Brooklyn the year prior. But in his one season of Division I football, the UMass tight end revealed glimpses that went against the grain of his age. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound target caught 42 passes for 642 yards and six touchdowns, and high-pointed his way into mismatches in the process. His 4.84 40-time may not be indicative of his fluidity down the seam. His 33-inch arms and 11-inch hands may be indicative of what he was able to do at the catch point. There is an element of unknown there. Yet while Sifrin is two years older than Rob Gronkowski, the final round of the draft is where minimal risk can often be worth the reward. The flex receiver met with the Patriots in Indianapolis.