Shrine Bowl Director Shares Inside Scoop On Six Patriots Rookies

Nearly half of the Patriots' draft class played in the East-West Shrine Bowl

by

May 4

The Senior Bowl has long been New England’s favorite pre-draft scouting setting, annually producing a handful of Patriots draftees.

This year was no different in that regard. First-round guard Cole Strange, fourth-round quarterback Bailey Zappe, sixth-round guard Chasen Hines and seventh-round tackle Andrew Stueber all showcased their skills in Mobile, Ala., before receiving draft-day calls from Bill Belichick, and third-round cornerback Marcus Jones was invited to the Senior Bowl but couldn’t play due to injury.

But the Patriots also showed a keen interest in college football’s other marquee all-star game during the 2022 draft process. Four members of their newly assembled 10-man draft class played in the East-West Shrine Bowl, as did two of their undrafted free agents.

Shrine Bowl director of operations and player personnel Eric Galko spoke with NESN.com on Wednesday to share his scouting reports on those six New England rookies.

West wide receiver Tyquan Thornton
Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports Images

WR Tyquan Thornton (Round 2, 50th overall)
The Patriots traded up four spots in the second round to draft Thornton, whom they hope will provide a jolt of speed to their receiver room. The Baylor product and former track star ran a position-best 4.28-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, the fastest ever by a New England draftee.

“He’s obviously a downfield speed guy, but he’s gotten a lot better over the course of his career, especially this past season at Baylor, at winning as a route-runner without necessarily using that speed,” Galko said. “He can win vertically, but he can also set up in the slant game, dig routes, comebacks. His development there is what made him a really impressive receiver, along with being much better and really effective this year, especially in the second half of the season, in the red zone. He’s become a really nuanced red-zone receiver and has the length to make good on it.”

Thornton was a departure from the type of wideouts New England typically targets, both athletically (blazing-fast 40 but lackluster agility times) and physically. At 6-foot-2, 181 pounds, he’s the lightest receiver the Patriots have drafted under Belichick.

Galko said the 22-year-old likely will need to add some heft to his slender frame to become a true outside weapon at the NFL level.

“He’s not the biggest guy and has a little bit of a slighter frame, but he doesn’t play that way at all,” Galko said. “I think if he can add 10, 15 pounds to him, the way he plays, he can absolutely be an outside receiver. So for a speed guy with that kind of length, for sure you can run go routes, but I think he’s become much more of a nuanced route-runner in the open field as well as in the red zone to be an effective starting Z or X receiver in the NFL.”

Galko also pushed back against the notion that Thornton — who was widely viewed as a Day 3 prospect entering the draft — was selected far earlier than he should have been.

“By the way, he was not a reach,” he said. “There were two teams I knew that had him as the top receiver on the board coming into Day 2, ahead of Christian Watson (who went 34th overall to Green Bay), etc. So the Patriots did not reach to get him. The Patriots were not one of those two teams, but I know of two teams who were disappointed they didn’t end up getting him where they thought they would get him.”

Arizona State DB Jack Jones
Michael Chow/Arizona Republic via USA Today Sports Images

CB Jack Jones (Round 4, 121st overall)
The second cornerback the Patriots drafted this year (after Marcus Jones at No. 85 overall), Jack Jones is regarded for his man-coverage ability and ball skills, defending nine or more passes in three of his four full collegiate seasons. But at 5-11, 171 pounds, he’s undersized for his position.

Galko views him as an immediate contributor in the slot who could become a lockdown perimeter corner if he bulks up a bit.

“Talent-wise, he is truly one of the best man-cover corners in this draft class,” Galko said. “Like, talent-wise, the impact he can have, it’s not terribly dissimilar to the kind of impact (top-five picks) Ahmad Gardner and Derek Stingley could have early in their career. I don’t say that lightly. He’s not as long or as thick as them, and I think the one thing that’s holding him back from being an elite outside corner right now (is that he needs to) add weight.

“But the stickiness in coverage, the timing, the hip fluidity, the work in the short area and vertically, he’s a plug-and-play slot corner right now. I think he’ll play that role for the Patriots as a rookie. But the outside ability is really there. Even though he is a bit slighter, he’s still going to be able to run vertically, stay really tight, play with great ball skills and balance. Really, really special talent. I think if you play his college career 10 times, eight of those times, he ends up being a first-round pick.”

Off-the-field issues in Jones’s past — most notably a 2018 arrest for breaking into a Panda Express — likely harmed his draft stock. But Galko said he thoroughly vetted the cornerback’s character and found no red flags. He also said New England director of player personnel Matt Groh had a lengthy sitdown with Jones at the Shrine Bowl, with the Patriots later hosting him at Gillette Stadium for a pre-draft visit.

“The Shrine Bowl is for the Shriner’s Hospital for Children, so we took character and background extremely seriously,” Galko said. “We did work on every single player, and there were many top players we didn’t invite because of their background or we didn’t feel comfortable with them as a person. Jack was the opposite. Jack has done everything right.

“He made, I think, a really tough mistake as a young player. He’s owned that substantially, and I think he’s kind of moved past that. And I think the most important thing for Jack is that he’s extremely authentic, and he has been very open with teams and myself and people around him about what he’s learned, what his mistake (was). … He’s a different person than he was at 18 years old.”

South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong
Erin Bormett/Argus Leader via USA TODAY Sports Images

RB Pierre Strong (Round 4, 127th overall)
The Patriots needed a successor to veteran third-down back James White — and possibly an immediate replacement, too, depending on how White looks following season-ending hip surgery — and that’s the role Galko expects Strong to play in New England.

He lauded the South Dakota State product’s pass-blocking prowess — a skill that, if not developed, often keeps young Patriots backs glued to the bench. Strong also scored a 65-yard touchdown on a screen pass in the Shrine Bowl, shrugging off two tacklers and outrunning several more.

“I think his two best skill sets right now for the NFL are his pass-blocking and ability as an out-of-the-backfield route-runner and explosive player, and then as an interior zone-blocking runner who will deliver on big plays,” Galko said. “So I think right now, NFL teams maybe don’t view him as this complete, three-down, 25(-carry) workhorse-type running back, but he is one of, if not the best pass-blocking running backs in this entire class.

“He showed pass-catching ability a little bit in college, a lot of it at the Shrine Bowl, and he had that big play in the game, as well — that ability to kind of run a route, catch the ball, turn upfield. And then as a zone-blocking runner, which is what he ran mostly at South Dakota State, he’s really explosive, put his foot in the ground and go upfield.”

Strong is perhaps the fastest running back the Patriots have featured during the Belichick era. He ran the 40 in 4.37 seconds — speediest of any back at this year’s combine — while also displaying top-tier explosiveness with an 84th-percentile broad jump.

Over his four-year career in the FCS, Strong averaged 7.2 yards per carry and scored 40 rushing touchdowns. He also threw six touchdown passes, giving him gadget-play potential.

“He had that great 40-yard dash time,” Galko said. “He can be very explosive. I would say from a Patriots perspective, yeah, I think he starts working a lot more on those third-down roles, maybe as more of a pass-blocking option to James White’s pass-catching option, and then slowly eats into that. But don’t be surprised if they also work him heavily in the rotation.

“He’s as explosive as Rhamondre Stevenson. Different body type, but he can kind of bring that home-run punch for a defense that’s been lulled to sleep by Damien Harris or Rhamondre. You bring in Pierre Strong for a quick inside-zone play, it could be a 60-yard run.”

DL Sam Roberts (Round 6, 200th overall)
The winner of the Cliff Harris Award as the nation’s top defensive player from outside Division I, Roberts earned a Shrine Bowl invite after starring at D-II Northwest Missouri State. He registered 47 tackles for loss in 50 collegiate games, including 18 as a senior.

“The thing that jumped out with Sam is he’s a big dude (6-5, 293 pounds),” Galko said. “He’s super wide. … The two best things he’ll do right away as a Patriots player are one, his ability to play wide and win initially with good pad level off the snap allows him a step or two on the offensive linemen and (is) really effective against especially zone (blocking), but just overall in the run-defending game. He can eat up a zone.

“In college, you can see all the time where he’s pushing zones outside. He’s allowing his linebackers to come across and scrape. He can certainly finish in the backfield and has enough explosiveness to do that, but his ability to play wide (is his strong suit). He has good initial hands; he’ll need to get a little better. But being wide, being low to the ground and winning off the snap, specifically, that’s going to allow him to be really impactful in the run game.”

Roberts also blocked five field goals/extra points in college.

“I think his skill set translates especially to run defending and field-goal blocking,” Galko said. “He’ll do the latter right away, but the former is why I think he’ll get on the field sooner than Patriots fans might expect.”

Miami Hurricanes quarterback D'Eriq King
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports Images

QB/WR/RB D’Eriq King (UDFA)
The headliner of the Patriots’ UDFA class, King played quarterback at Miami and Houston but is trying to stick in the NFL as a multipositional offensive weapon. Galko said he worked at both QB and wide receiver at the Shrine Bowl.

“He had a lot of interest,” Galko said. “I was surprised he wasn’t drafted. Teams had draftable grades on him at running back, at receiver, one team at quarterback. A couple of those teams were maybe looking to see him as a return specialist. He’s open to doing all of those things. Incredibly high-character, super-smart kid.”

King split his time between quarterback and wideout early in his college career, so the latter isn’t a brand-new position for him. He totaled 61 catches for 520 yards and three touchdowns as a collegian, with the bulk of that production coming during his first two seasons at Houston.

“He’s run routes in college,” Galko said. “He was a returner and a receiver early on in his career at Houston, so he has that experience. I know a lot of NFL scouts went back and watched that film. So he’s not an overall projection (who’s) never played receiver before. I think if he is going to be a receiver, he could adapt very quickly.”

It’s unclear exactly how the Patriots plan to deploy the 5-9, 196-pound King, whose 7.26-second three-cone time is well below their usual standard for slot receivers. They showed significant interest in him during the pre-draft process, however, hosting him for a top-30 visit and reportedly having offensive assistant Joe Judge put him through a private workout.

“I know a couple of teams — and it wasn’t the Patriots, but I would guess the Patriots have a similar mindset — believed that, in a perfect world, D’Eriq could be your third quarterback, your fourth running back, your fourth receiver and your backup return specialist and fill four roster spots with one guy,” Galko said. “I think that’s really the dream with a guy like D’Eriq King.”

Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports Images

DL LaBryan Ray (UDFA)
Ray was a five-star recruit at Alabama — the Patriots’ premier pipeline program — but a litany of injuries prevented him from ever becoming a consistent contributor for the Crimson Tide. Galko views him as a sign-and-stash candidate.

“You play his career again without injuries, (Alabama teammate) Phidarian Mathis goes second round, they’re not that dissimilar of players,” Galko said. “So maybe a redshirt year to get fully healthy on practice squad can make LaBryan Ray a steal as a five-tech in 2023.”

2022 Kentucky Derby
Previous Article

Kentucky Derby Betting History, Trends: Need-To-Know Info For Bettors

Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, forward Brad Marchand
Next Article

Bruins Odds: Ready To Double Down On B’s Series Price Vs. Hurricanes?

Picked For You