FOXBORO, Mass. — When you’re preparing to add college players to your roster through the NFL draft, it helps to have someone on staff who coached — and coached against — dozens of them just last season.
That’s another benefit Bill O’Brien has brought to the Patriots since his January return to New England.
O’Brien’s primary goal is reviving the Patriots’ offense after last year’s Matt Patricia/Joe Judge-led disaster. But New England’s new offensive coordinator also has been able to provide a unique perspective ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft after serving in that same role at Alabama for the past two seasons.
“Here the last couple years at Alabama, he knows those players very well,” director of player personnel Matt Groh said Tuesday in his pre-draft news conference at Gillette Stadium. “And then he’s in the SEC, where there’s a lot of good players.
“So to be able to pick his brain on certain things — look, I certainly don’t have all the answers. We’re trying to figure out as much information about these guys going into the draft as we can, and Coach O’Brien, he’s a wealth of knowledge and has been a really, really good friend and resource for myself.”
O’Brien, who also spoke with reporters Tuesday for the first time since his hiring, was quick to note he’s “not an expert on all of college football from 2022.” But he can offer insight into one of the nation’s premier programs.
“I have a good grasp on the guys at Alabama, (and) I think a lot of them are really good, obviously,” O’Brien said. “I have a grasp on some of the teams we played in the SEC.”
Given that connection, it’s worth taking an especially close look at the Bama alums in this year’s draft class. A few who played under O’Brien and could make sense for the Patriots include:
RB Jahmyr Gibbs
The Patriots reportedly have shown interest in drafting a “blue-chip running back” this year to pair with Rhamondre Stevenson, and outside of consensus top prospect Bijan Robinson of Texas, Gibbs is the best of the bunch. He boasts 4.36 speed and superb pass-catching ability (79 catches for 909 yards and five touchdowns over the last two seasons) and has garnered comparisons to Alvin Kamara. He’s a possible second-round target for New England.
OL Tyler Steen
Like Gibbs, Steen played just one season at Alabama, transferring in from Vanderbilt last offseason. A converted defensive lineman, he started 46 games at offensive tackle in college (12 on the right side, 34 on the left) and also played guard at the Senior Bowl. Steen reportedly took a top-30 visit to the Patriots. Look for him to come off the board in Round 3 or 4.
TE Cameron Latu
Latu caught 12 touchdowns during O’Brien’s two seasons in Tuscaloosa, including eight in 2021. More than 80% of his receptions resulted in either a first down or a touchdown, per The Athletic’s Dane Brugler. There are more talented, athletic and explosive tight ends in this year’s draft, but Latu’s familiarity with O’Brien could make him a Day 3 option for New England.
There also are several Crimson Tide defenders who could pique the Patriots’ interest, including safeties Brian Branch and Jordan Battle, linebacker Henry To’oTo’o and defensive tackles Byron Young and D.J. Dale. Quarterback Bryce Young and edge rusher Will Anderson rank among the top players in this year’s draft and almost certainly will be out of New England’s range.
Even without O’Brien’s influence, the Patriots have long gravitated toward Alabama products — a byproduct of the long-standing friendship between Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. They’ve selected a total of six in the last eight NFL drafts, including one in 2019 (Damien Harris), one in 2020 (Anfernee Jennings) and two in 2021 (Mac Jones and Christian Barmore).
New offensive line coach Adrian Klemm also joined the Patriots from the college ranks, running a highly successful blocking outfit at Oregon last season. Three of his former Ducks pupils (center Alex Forsyth and guards T.J. Bass and Sala Aumavae-Laulu) are projected as Day 3 picks. Oregon also produced one of this year’s top cornerback prospects, Christian Gonzalez, who could be in play for the Patriots at No. 14 overall if he falls that far.