It's understandable if you're a little behind on the draft research. The 2012 season ended just over two weeks ago, and we're already just days away from the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
My, how quickly the offseason moves along.
How about a quick way to get up to speed on the most important prospects to watch?
Glad you asked.
Positions of Need
The Patriots have quite the quandary on their hands at cornerback. Alfonzo Dennard faces six years in prison for assaulting a police officer, and Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington are both free agents.
How do the Patriots feel about Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory as the starting strong safeties next to Devin McCourty? That is the key factor in whether the Patriots need a safety or not. If they do, however, Mike Mayock and Todd McShay have both already regarded the safety position as one of the deepest and best in this year's draft.
The Patriots have lacked interior pressure for years. Next to Vince Wilfork, it's been a revolving door of Kyle Love, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor and the like. In contrast to Mayock and McShay, CBS Sports' Rob Rang said the defensive tackle group is the best in this year's draft.
With Wes Welker's contract expiring and no franchise tag in his future, the Patriots need to find long-term answers at receiver. They might like to get a bit more explosive in the passing game, with just 10 pass plays of 40 yards or more this year.
The Patriots have two first-round picks and a second-round pick at linebacker, so why is this a position of need? Well, they have been exposed by tight ends over the middle and running backs out of the backfield for a couple of years now. The Patriots could be looking to add another linebacker/safety hybrid like Tavon Wilson, with this next one being more of a linebacker than a safety.
Recent Mock Draft Selections
In catching up with some of the best top prospects drawing connections to the Patriots, a good way to get started is by looking at some mock drafts.
Here's a roundup of some of the prospects the experts have been projecting to the Patriots in the first round:
- Matt Miller, Bleacher Report: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
- Mel Kiper, ESPN: Matt Elam, S, Florida
- Todd McShay, ESPN: Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
- Bucky Brooks, NFL.com: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
- Russ Lande, NationalFootballPost.com: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
No real trend to be had there, except that almost all of them have the Patriots taking a player at a clear position of need. The exception to that is Jonathan Cooper, but the Patriots may be able to justify that if they aren't confident in Ryan Wendell as the center and would rather move Dan Connolly to that spot.
The Patriots went with a defensive end in the first round in 2012, so picking up another one seems like a stretch, but it wouldn't be the first time the Patriots have spent back-to-back first-round picks on defensive linemen.
Tavon Austin has drawn some comparisons to Welker for his ability to create big plays on short and intermediate passes over the middle, but there's a problem with that line of thinking. What would be the purpose of the Patriots moving on from Welker to Austin? It's another step in the same direction that has led to letdowns against better defenses. The Patriots need to get more explosive.
Kiper thinks Matt Elam could be the next in the Florida-New England pipeline, and Elam was part of Urban Meyer's last recruiting class, but there are better fits at safety for New England in this draft. Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien and South Carolina's DJ Swearinger are the bigger, athletic type of safeties that won't be completely overmatched with tight ends.
There is a trend among the Patriots' draft picks at wide receiver, where many of them excelled at the three-cone drill.
There's a long list of receivers the Patriots could be targeting, including West Virginia receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, California receiver Keenan Allen, Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Baylor receiver Terrance Williams, will all be under the microscope at the combine.
Who ends up going, and where, is anyone's guess right now. Austin and Allen's stocks are expected to rise a bit with strong showings at the combine, but if it's a first-round receiver the Patriots want, Williams is one name they should look most closely at.
...Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams has a lot of those same attributes. Neither player is overly big. Williams is 6'2" and about 200 pounds, so he's very lean, but he's also very fast. What Williams can do once he catches the ball is generate big plays. He has great run-after-the-catch ability, not only because of his speed, but because of his vision.
While his speed may be top-notch, his agility will be tested in the three-cone drill, and that could be enough to sway the Patriots one way or the other. They have classically targeted receivers who can run crisp routes, and there's concern that Williams may take a little to learn how to run the full route tree.
CBS Sports' scouting report of Williams indicates those are not his strengths, and not only that, but he lacks experience against press coverage, an area of concern for the Patriots over the past few years.
Stiff ankles and has more build-up speed, lacking quick-twitch start/stop explosion. Didn't see a lot of press coverage in college and at times was able to just run past defensive backs untouched.
There are certainly other players the Patriots could target in the draft, but Williams should be one receiver they'll be looking for more answers on at the combine.
The private interview is the one part of the combine that we don't get to see, and it's also the part that could have the biggest impact on the stock of several players.
After his recent arrest on DUI, the Patriots should be looking to get familiar with Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree. Bill Belichick loves his SEC linebackers, and Ogletree was recently identified as a potential fit in the first round because of his experience in coverage. He was a highly-recruited safety out of high school, and played strong safety for Georgia as a freshmen.
It's hard to fit every question into a 15-minute bubble, but in addition to getting to the bottom of his off-field issues, the Patriots could also get Ogletree up on the board to see how he does when asked to quickly process information.
Tennessee Tech wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers could be another one who has a make-or-break interview. There is little doubt about his physical capabilities, as outlined by Rob Rang of CBS Sports:
Despite playing in the ultra-physical SEC, Rogers proved too strong for most teams to consider pressing. He's also versatile, showing the ability to line up outside, as well as in the slot. While it is easy to get excited about Rogers' size-speed potential, one of his greatest attributes is simply his toughness, as he absorbed several big collisions on games viewed and never dropped a pass due to a hit while at Tennessee. Rogers is a powerful runner who fights for additional yardage and has the agility and speed to run away from the pack for explosive plays.
That being said, there have been concerns about his accountability both on and off the field. Rogers had to transfer to Tennessee Tech from Tennessee after being kicked off the team for failed drug tests.
Rogers is anticipated to be valued around the end of the second round. The Patriots would likely have to be blown away by a remarkable display of high character for them to be open to drafting Rogers where he will likely be selected.
If Kiper is right about Elam to the Patriots, they'll want to get him on the board to find out how capable he is of playing within a system. Can he be trusted to carry out assignments if asked? The Patriots put a lot of stock into how coachable a player is, and if they feel like Elam can be reined in a bit, he could end up a little higher on their board.
Who Are Fans Watching?
Paul Hyduchak says he's looking at LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
Mathieu is certainly among the prospects with the most to prove, given how far his stock has fallen in the past year-plus. He failed multiple drug tests and was arrested for possession of marijuana, and he was ultimately dismissed from LSU in August.
Beyond his character, there are also questions about his athletic ability; at just 5'9", Mathieu will have to impress in drills to prove that his size won't hinder his ability to run with the best the NFL has to offer.
The Patriots could use a cornerback, and they took a chance on cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in last year's draft. Whether that was a wise decision or not remains to be seen and depends on a jury's verdict, but they would be wise to look into another player with a checkered past.
Mike Langenstein Jr. also thinks the Patriots should look at an LSU defensive back, but he's looking at the safety position to LSU's Eric Reid.
LSU safety Eric Reid is a rare breed of safety. At 6'2" and 215 pounds, he has the size to knock around receivers who come over the middle and the ability to cover tight ends deep. ...[Reid can] keep up with slot receivers that have the quickness most safeties don't [have].
Judging by that description, Reid would be exactly the type of safety the Patriots need to put alongside McCourty, who is more of a free safety.
That being said, his tendencies as a freelancer were mentioned in NFL.com's scouting report. That very word "freelancer" earns an association to former Patriots late first-round safety Brandon Meriweather. The Patriots will have to look into whether the risk outweighs the reward and will probably get their answers in the interviews.
Who are you watching at the combine? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand or via team press releases.