After spending the week in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine, here is a collection of New England Patriots-related takeaways:
1. In a departure from his typical pre-draft routine, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did not attend this year’s combine, nor did many of his top assistants.
Belichick’s absence from such a marquee event raised eyebrows, but it coincided with a recent league-wide decline in combine relevance. Multiple NFL teams chose to keep their entire coaching staffs at home rather than send them to Indy, believing their time was best spent on other matters as they prepared for free agency and the draft.
The Patriots did have a small group of coaches in attendance. Special teams coordinator Cam Achord, special teams assistant Joe Houston, cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino and former quarterbacks coach Joe Judge all made the trip, and wide receivers/returners coach Troy Brown reportedly did, as well.
New England also was represented on the scouting side by director of player personnel Matt Groh, college scouting director Camren Williams and others.
It remains unclear what Judge’s role will be for the upcoming season after the Patriots hired Bill O’Brien as their new offensive coordinator and QBs coach. His area of expertise is special teams. We also don’t yet know whether Matt Patricia will be sticking around. Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton this week said he’s considering adding Patricia to his staff.
2. The Patriots did have a heavy presence at another pre-draft showcase: the 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl, which took place last month in Las Vegas. Their staff spent a week coaching a full team of draft prospects and viewed that as an extremely valuable evaluation opportunity.
New England always has coaches and scouts at these college all-star games, but actually coaching in one had some extra benefits. One that was mentioned this week: since the Patriots planned each practice, they were able to see how each player performed in the exact drills and schedule they use during the season.
Players who were part of the Patriots-coached West Team were struck by how direct and focused Belichick and his assistants were. Two recalled a story about Belichick halting practice and restarting a special teams drill after the punt team failed to execute it properly.
This wasn’t a mid-winter Vegas vacation for the Patriots. It was serious business. And since they already drafted four Shrine Bowl alums last year (including Tyquan Thornton and Jack Jones) even without coaching that game, it would not be at all surprising to see multiple participants from this year’s edition land in New England.
One who stands out as a likely Day 3 target is North Carolina State linebacker Isaiah Moore, whom Patriots coaches reportedly “couldn’t stop raving” about. Other potential Shrine Bowl fits who were invited to the combine include Boston College wide receiver Zay Flowers, Florida safety Trey Dean, Louisiana Tech cornerback Myles Brooks, Ball State corner Nic Jones, Florida edge rusher Brenton Cox, Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher and Michigan kicker Jake Moody.
Flowers was the only player at the Shrine Bowl who is projected as a possible first-round pick.
3. The Patriots could use upgrades at wide receiver and cornerback, so it wasn’t surprising to learn they met with several top prospects at both positions this week. Wideouts Jordan Addison and Jaxon Smith-Njigba and corners Joey Porter Jr. and Christian Gonzalez — four projected first-rounders — all were among the players New England interviewed.
Gonzalez and especially Porter would add size and length to a Patriots cornerback group that lacked both this season. Drafting Porter also would make for some fun storylines given his father’s long-standing hatred of the Patriots. Both players tested well Friday, though, and could be gone by the time New England picks at No. 14.
Early-round cornerback Cam Smith, a talented man-coverage player who’s been mentored by Stephon Gilmore, also met with the Patriots, though it’s unclear how they view him after an interview that he described as “very intense” and “uncomfortable.”
Traditionally, the Patriots have not targeted cornerbacks or wideouts in the first round. The only Round 1 corner they’ve drafted under Belichick was Devin McCourty (2010), who later moved to safety. N’Keal Harry (2019) is their lone first-round receiver selection.
Offensive tackle is another clear need for the Patriots. The O-linemen aren’t scheduled to speak with the media until Saturday, so we don’t yet know which have had contact with New England. Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. and Gerogia’s Broderick Jones are considered the top tackle prospects in this year’s draft.
The Patriots aren’t lacking at edge rusher, but that didn’t stop them from interviewing several of the premier options in this class. Projected first-rounders Tyree Wilson of Texas Tech, Lukas Van Ness of Iowa and Myles Murphy of Clemson all said they met with New England at the combine.
In terms of hit rate, drafting front-seven defenders on Day 1 has been a successful strategy for the Patriots. There have been eight of those during the Belichick era, and all but one (Dominique Easley) became either superstars (Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower) or solid contributors (Ty Warren, Malcom Brown).
A Round 1 quarterback would be a major surprise, but it was interesting that the Patriots met with Florida’s Anthony Richardson, who has shades of Cam Newton in his game and could go in the top 10.
4. Nearly all of the coaches New England sent to Indy have some connection to special teams, which underscored the potential for significant change in that phase next season.
The Patriots have employed the same three primary specialists since midway through the 2019 season, but all three have uncertain futures. Long snapper Joe Cardona is set to hit free agency for the first time in his career; punter Jake Bailey was hit with a team-imposed suspension before the season finale, which could void the guaranteed money in his contract; and kicker Nick Folk turns 39 in November.
New England would like to re-sign Cardona but acknowledges the possibility of him receiving a more lucrative offer on the open market. It remains to be seen how the team will proceed with Bailey, whose sharp regression and subsequent move to injured reserve were major factors in the poor performance of the Patriots’ kicking game.
The 2020 All-Pro ranked last in the NFL in punting average and net average before landing on IR in November. His replacement, Michael Palardy, who had been out of the league since the previous season, ranked second-to-last in both punting categories and didn’t offer Bailey’s ability to consistently force touchbacks on kickoffs. Folk couldn’t replicate that, either, and the Patriots allowed three kick-return touchdowns after losing Bailey’s big leg.
The Patriots also played the final three games with an off-the-street long snapper (Tucker Addington) after Cardona went down with a foot injury. That change threw off the timing of New England’s field-goal operation, and Folk missed three of his final nine kicks.
Penalties and far-too-frequent lapses in discipline also contributed to the Patriots’ last-place finish in special teams DVOA, but losing those key pieces didn’t help.
Folk remained an above-average kicker, but the Patriots have brought in younger players to challenge him in each of the last three offseasons. Eventually, one of those up-and-comers will beat him out. Moody, who was co-MVP of the Shrine Bowl, would be a sensible Day 3 target for a Patriots team that loves drafting Michigan products.