For the past couple seasons, I didn’t have a chance to get much of a jump on the prospects with Patriots potential prior to the scouting combine, since the Pats made a habit out of playing into mid-January.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, I’ve had plenty of time this season.
The scouting combine is upon us. It's an event that will have players rising and dropping all based on what they do sans pads. Still, much can be taken from the various drills and interviews that the players are put through—especially at the positions that the Patriots are likely to target.
While the loss of Tom Brady was the biggest story line of the 2008 season for the Pats, it was ultimately their defense that was the difference in them not making the playoffs.
The Pats continually gave up third-and-longs and were consistently atrocious in the red zone defensively. So look for the defense to again be the targeted side of the ball in the 2009 Draft, just as it was in 2008.
Outside linebacker and cornerback are two of the deepest positions in the 2009 Draft and two of the Patriots’ biggest needs. But I must state this disclaimer: They are not handicapped by a lack of depth at either position.
Those of us outside of Foxborough can't say how Bill Belichick sees young players like Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable at OLB or Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley at cornerback. If any of them project to make significant contributions in 2009, it would affect the decision of who the Pats will draft.
With that said, here are the top prospects to keep an eye on, divided into four handy categories. This is just a "snap shot" prior to the combine, based on college careers and performance at the Senior Bowl, so expect much of it to change by the time April rolls around.
These are the players that are currently ranked so high that the Pats won’t get a shot at them with the 23rd pick. Of course, a Matt Cassel-for-high-draft-pick trade would alter that. But barring that, these guys fall into the "Probable Goners".
Malcolm Jenkins – Cornerback (Ohio State): Davis is the top-ranked corner across the board and will likely be selected by the 10th pick.
DJ Moore – Cornerback (Vanderbilt): The best cover corner in the SEC shouldn’t last long. But if for some reason he does, with his kick return skills and coverage ability, the Pats will definitely consider him.
Aaron Curry – Linebacker (Wake Forest): Curry is the top-ranked linebacker, and could be a top-five selection. With so many 3-4 teams picking high, though, Curry will also likely be gone by the 10th pick.
Rey Maualuga – Linebacker (USC): After the Patriots success with Jerod Mayo last season, it’s doubtful that Maualuga will last past the top 15 picks. Players like him are always in demand, so look for Denver or San Diego to pounce on him.
Brian Cushing – Linebacker (USC): Cushing is a popular pick for the Pats in many mock drafts, but after he blew up at the Senior Bowl, he’s been rocketing into the top 15 of many a pundit.
He’s a weight room beast, so it’s highly unlikely his performance at the combine will do anything other than raise his stock. He could play inside or outside linebacker and is exactly the kind of player the Pats like, but I fear he’ll be long gone by 23.
Every year, there’s a collection of defensive ends that project as outside linebackers, especially for the 3-4 defense. This year has a quality crop, but the Pats interest in conversion projects is often left to the lower rounds. Most of these guys should be gone by 23 anyways.
Everette Brown – Defensive End/Linebacker (Florida State): Brown looks like this year’s Vernon Gholston. He's the top-ranked conversion guy, but we saw how that turned out last year. Guys like him rise or fall the most after the combine.
Brian Orakpo – Defensive End/Linebacker (Texas): He’s been talked about as a 3-4 OLB since his sophomore year. He’s up and down in the mock drafts, but his performance at the combine should solidify his draft status.
Aaron Maybin – Defensive End/Linebacker (Penn State): Maybin is just a sophomore, but his stock has gone straight upward since he declared for the draft. He should continue to rise but is young and will need time to develop, though he has tantalizing size and speed for an OLB in the 3-4.
Larry English – Defensive End/Linebacker (Northern Illinois): English erupted at the Senior Bowl, taking himself from second-rounder to potential top-20 pick. His strength is rushing the passer, but he played almost exclusively with his hand down at Northern Illinois.
The Bears could grab him at 18; he’s a popular Pats pick in many mocks, but he’s been rising out of the Pats' range since the Senior Bowl.
Theirs for the Taking
These are the guys that should be there at 23, and fit what the Patriots need most. There’s no way to know if these guys will receive first-round grades from the Pats scouting staff, but based on current info, it’s our best guess at this time that the 23rd overall selection will come from this group.
Alphonso Smith – Cornerback (Wake Forest): Smith has the physical make-up of a quintessential Patriots corner. You need look no further than Ellis Hobbs, Terrence Wheatley or Jonathan Wilhite to see what kind of cornerback the Patriots like for their system.
Smith is a ballhawk—he was all over the field at Senior Bowl practice, and my personal favorite draft guru Mike Mayock called him "one of the most instinctual corners" he’s ever seen in college. His performance at the combine will likely determine if the Patriots have a shot at him.
Clint Sintim – Outside Linebacker (Virginia): Unlike the conversion projects, Sintim actually has experience playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He also played for a Bill Belichick disciple, Al Groh, at Virginia.
Sintim is known to have a non-stop motor and hit like a truck. This seems like a perfect pick for the Pats, but as we know, they rarely do what you think they will.
Clay Matthews – Outside Linebacker (USC): Matthews obviously has great bloodlines and played for a top program at USC. He started out as a walk-on and worked his way up to potential first-round draft pick status.
He’s had some experience playing in space at USC, and would immediately contribute on special teams. The 23rd overall slot might be a bit of a reach at this point, but his combine performance could change that.
The Wild Cards
Trying to predict what the Patriots will do at the draft is most often foolish, but there are a couple players, if still available, that could be too tempting to pass up, even if other positions are bigger needs at the moment.
Brandon Pettigrew – Tight End (Oklahoma State): Pettigrew is far and away the best tight end in the draft, being both a receiving threat and a solid blocker. This is something the Pats haven’t had in a while, and with David Thomas and Ben Watson’s contracts expiring after 2009, tight end will quickly be a major need. With the plethora of corners and defensive ends/outside linebackers, Pettigrew just might slip into the 20's.
Tyson Jackson – Defensive End (LSU) : Jackson is one guy who is all over the place when it comes to mock drafts. Some have him in the top 10, others in the second round, so it’s hard to tell if he’ll be available or not. But with Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green both free agents after 2009, defensive end will definitely be a need for the Pats.
Jackson has the size to play end in the 3-4, and Belichick knows players with that build are rare. If you have a chance to grab one, you have to do it.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Community Leader at Bleacher Report, and also a contributor at BostonSportz.com. His Patriots blog can be viewed here, and he can be contacted at PatriotsPropaganda@gmail.com.