If you flip on the 2021 Senior Bowl this Saturday, there’s a very good chance you’ll be watching at least one future New England Patriot.
College football’s premier all-star game is a valuable pre-draft resource for Bill Belichick and his staff, with New England drafting at least one Senior Bowl alum each year since 2008 (and 46 total during that span).
Last year, each of the Patriots’ top three draft picks (safety Kyle Dugger and linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings) played in the Senior Bowl. And this year’s edition carries even greater importance with the league essentially canceling the NFL Scouting Combine due to COVID-19
Which players should Patriots fans have their eyes on this Saturday? We’ve already written about Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who impressed in practice this week before suffering an ankle injury that could keep him out of Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network). Jones, a potential first-round prospect, told reporters he met with Patriots scouts Wednesday night.
Here are a few others:
WR D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan
Eskridge didn’t receive much national recognition playing in the Mid-American Conference, but he was one of the stars of Senior Bowl week. His speed, suddenness and acceleration jump off the screen. A very good route-runner, he averaged 23.3 yards per catch this season. Eskridge didn’t participate in Thursday’s practice, though, so it’s unclear whether he’ll suit up Saturday.
WR Kadarius Toney, Florida
Perhaps the best overall prospect in Mobile, Toney showed off his freaky athleticism this week, though he did drop a few passes on Wednesday. A former high school quarterback, Toney played all over the field in college — the Gators’ official roster listed his position as “athlete” for his first three years — but didn’t truly break out until this season, when he caught 70 passes for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns. If the Patriots want him, they might need to take him in the first round.
WR Cade Johnson, South Dakota State
One of a few intriguing small-school prospects at this year’s Senior Bowl, Johnson showed off excellent route-running, toughness and slot skills this week. He also made a sweet one-handed catch on a deep ball.
Johnson was incredibly productive at the FCS level, racking up 2,554 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
RB/WR Demetric Felton, UCLA
Want versatility? Felton split time between running back and receiver in Senior Bowl practices and stood out in both roles, using some eye-popping route-running skills to separate from defenders. Draft analysts have compared the UCLA Swiss Army knife to Nyheim Hines and Antonio Gibson, and he’s certainly boosted his stock this week.
The Patriots could be in the market for a new pass-catching back with James White set to hit free agency.
WR Josh Palmer, Tennessee
If you couldn’t tell by now, this is another talented receiver class. Palmer never cracked 500 receiving yards in three years as a collegiate starter, but he flashed in 1-on-1s this week, creating separation in a variety of ways.
Other wideouts of note include South Carolina’s Shi Smith, Michigan’s Nico Collins, Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace, Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt and Clemson’s Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell. Receiver is an obvious need for the Patriots.
TE Hunter Long, Boston College
If the Patriots choose to dip back into the tight end draft pool this year, there’s an impressive one who played just down the road. Long led all FBS tight end in receptions (57) this season and ranked second in receiving yards (685) behind Florida’s Kyle Pitts. Pitts is a first-round lock. Long won’t go that high but could hear his name called on Day 2. (The former BC star reportedly was limited in Thursday’s practice, putting his game status in question.)
TE John Bates, Boise State
A late invite to the Senior Bowl, Bates is a former track star with solid blocking chops. He also was heavily involved as a pass-catcher during a red-zone period Thursday.
C/G Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater
Meinerz’s exposed belly was a hit on social media, but this Division III product was no sideshow. He spent the week burying D-linemen from Power Five programs.
Meinerz could end up being this year’s version of Dugger, who proved at the 2020 Senior Bowl he could hang with the big boys despite his D-II pedigree. He reportedly plans to play Saturday even after breaking his hand in practice.
OT Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
The Patriots could have needs at center, guard and tackle this offseason depending on what happens with David Andrews, Joe Thuney and Marcus Cannon. Leatherwood was the starting left tackle on the best offensive line in college football this season. Some have projected him as an NFL guard, but at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds with 34 3/8-inch arms, he has the size to play outside at the next level. New England has selected Alabama players in each of the last two drafts and four of the last six.
G Deonte Brown, Alabama
The Patriots veered from their usual M.O. of drafting smaller interior O-linemen when they selected jumbo-sized Mike Onwenu in the sixth round last year. Brown is similarly massive, weighing in at 6-foot-3, 364 pounds this week. He’s a powerful, powerful dude.
EDGE Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame
Hayes seemed to be in the backfield a lot this week, using speed to beat some blockers and power to overcome others. The Patriots had too many replacement-level edge rushers in their rotation this season, so this is a definite position of need.
DL Cam Sample, Tulane
Sample doesn’t fit the Patriots’ ideal size profile at 6-foot-3, 274 pounds, but he registered some decisive victories in 1-on-1s, showing great quickness off the line.
DBs Aaron Robinson and Richie Grant, UCF
Robinson and Grant showed some feistiness and physicality in individual drills against receivers, which resulted in a few last-second pass breakups. Robinson, a cornerback, played at Alabama as a freshman in 2016, which is always notable when discussing potential Patriots targets. Grant is a safety.
CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse
Former Patriots safety Obi Melifonwu was tall, long and athletic. His younger brother has many of the same traits with seemingly better coverage skills.