2013 NFL Draft Prospects Who Were Born to Play for the New England Patriots
It will be because of their fit in the "Patriot Way."
Yes, it's a cliche term—and an overused one at that. But the "Patriot Way" symbolizes all the prerequisites head coach Bill Belichick looks for in a player: selflessness, versatility and relentless effort.
Those three traits are carried throughout New England's roster. From special teams captain Matthew Slater to All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the Patriots require all 53 men to do their job and put the team first.
Finding college players who jell with the organization's game plan is no easy task. Yet come April 25, it will be the only task at hand.
Here are six draft prospects who were born to run out of the Gillette Stadium tunnel.
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
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West Virginia's Tavon Austin is a different breed of wide receiver.
At only 5'9" and 175 pounds, Austin doesn't out-muscle cornerbacks, nor does he win many jump balls. But defenses can't stop what they can't see.
Austin is the most electrifying prospect in the 2013 draft. He's a utility man who can help out in the slot, in the backfield and even in the return game. Austin's potent repertoire puts him right up Coach Belichick's alley.
It doesn't hurt that his statistics jump off the page, either. The shifty Mountaineer racked up 114 catches for 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns during his senior season. He also added 72 carries for 643 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, as well as two touchdowns on punt and kick returns.
In a losing effort against Oklahoma on Nov. 17, Austin put together one of the most remarkable performances college football history. He produced 344 rushing yards, 82 receiving yards and 146 kick return yards. That grand total of 572 all-purpose yards was just six yards short of the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision record.
The Patriots, like the other 31 NFL teams, have a chance to catch lightning in a bottle with Austin. He may not be the next DeSean Jackson or Percy Harvin, but Austin is a matchup nightmare.
In years past, New England has used Aaron Hernadez as a running back, Mike Vrabel as a tight end, Dan Klecko as a fullback and Troy Brown as a cornerback. One can only imagine what the coaching staff would do with a Swiss army knife like Austin.
NFLDraftScout.com projects Austin as a first- or second-round draft selection, which keeps him in the realm of possibility for the Patriots. He doesn't answer the team's obvious needs in the secondary and in the pass rush, but Austin's tools are built for New England's offense.
David Amerson, CB, North Carolina State
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At 6'2", 194 pounds, North Carolina State's David Amerson is what scouts look for in a defensive back.
He's got the size and strength necessary to hamper wide receivers. On top of his physical build, Amerson has the ball skills to turn bad passes into turnovers.
A former high school safety, Amerson transitioned to cornerback as a member of the Wolfpack. The conversion didn't take long to pay off. By the end of his sophomore campaign, Amerson had amassed 13 interceptions and two pick-sixes.
He decided to leave school early after a decent junior year where he totaled 52 tackles, five interceptions and 12 pass deflections. A considerable drop off in production from 2011, Amerson's average speed and tendency to lock up on double moves likely puts his NFL future back at safety.
Considered a second- or third-round draft pick by WalterFootball.com and CBSSports.com, Amerson could be on New England's radar. His wingspan and positional flexibility strike resemblance to current Patriots free safety Devin McCourty. McCourty is quicker, but both boast long arms and the range needed to make plays on the ball.
If New England is in the market for a ball-hawking cornerback or safety at the end of Round 2, Amerson fits the need. Amerson may be a bit of a project and he's not a lock-down defender, but Coach Belichick gravitates towards cornerbacks who can play center field.
John Simon, DE/OLB, Ohio State
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NFL coaches would love to stock a roster with 53 guys like Ohio State's John Simon.
The 6'2", 256-pound outside linebacker was not only a team captain for the Buckeyes, he was the heart and soul of the defense. Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com described Simon to a tee:
Simon plays every snap as if it's his last and doesn't know how to go half speed, playing motivated and focused. He is a smart, heady player to make impact plays against the run and pass, getting his hands up at the line of scrimmage.
Coached by former Patriot linebacker Mike Vrabel, Simon is likely on New England's watch list by default. He's got value in any defensive system, according to NationalFootballPost.com's Russ Lande:
In today’s NFL where nearly half the teams play a 34 defense, Simon will be viewed as a good outside linebacker conversion prospect. While those teams that play a 43 scheme will look at him as a strong-side defensive end.
He doesn't have the speed to excel in coverage, but Simon lives in the weight room and is always striving to improve. He is the quintessential Bill Belichick player and could be targeted in Round 2 or Round 3, per CBSSports.com.
Brian Winters, OG/OT, Kent State
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Kent State offensive lineman Brian Winters plays with grit. It comes from his background in wrestling.
The 6'4", 310-pound blocker lettered three times in wrestling during his high school days, according to KentStateSports.com. That mean streak continued in his football career, as Winters started every game over his four years with the Golden Flashes.
Although he never missed a game, Winters fought through plenty of pain. Rob Rang of CBSSports.com explains:
Showed his toughness in playing through a left shoulder dislocation (third game of the season) that left him at what he described as "70 percent." The injury originally occurred during the state wrestling tournament during his sophomore year of high school and ultimately required surgery following the 2011 season.
When it comes to durability, Winters is reminiscent of Patriots left guard Logan Mankins, who played the entire 2011 season on a torn ACL. When it comes to his history of wrestling, Winters is reminiscent of former Patriots right guard Stephen Neal.
But regardless of the comparisons, Winters is a talented lineman in his own right. He wins the leverage battle on a regular basis and uses his hands well to keep pass-rushers at bay.
Winters can line up at both tackle spots, but OptimumScouting.com's Eric Galko points out that he "lacks ideal kick slide ability and lateral balance." Because of this, his most probable NFL position is guard.
Bleacher Report NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller ranks Winters No. 101 on his big board. If that projection holds true, he could be an option for the Patriots in Round 3 or Round 4 if a trade is made.
Conner Vernon, WR, Duke
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Conner Vernon wasn't heavily recruited out of high school and opted to play football at Duke, a basketball powerhouse.
According to Daniel Carp of DukeChronicle.com, it's not a decision that the humble wide receiver regrets:
I definitely wouldn’t have had the career I did if I wasn’t at Duke, and I absolutely believe that. Duke gave me an opportunity that I don’t think other schools would have given me right from the beginning. I’m thankful for that.
Despite lacking imposing size and breakaway speed, Vernon has proven to be one of the most productive receivers in college football.
Over the last four years, the 6'1", 193-pound target totaled 283 receptions for 3,749 yards and 21 touchdowns. As a result, he is now the Atlantic Coast Conference's all-time leader in catches and receiving yards.
Although he doesn't do anything extraordinary, Vernon finds a way to get open due to his sound route running and nimble footwork. He knows how separate from coverage over the middle and has a good pair of hands to go along with it.
Vernon is not a potent vertical threat. Instead, he is a complementary wideout who can work underneath like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman have for the Patriots. Vernon is built in New England's mold, which makes him worth New England's consideration as a Day 3 selection.
However, the Patriots would likely have to swap picks to get him. New England doesn't own any picks in Round 4 through Round 6, and CBSSports.com projects Vernon as a fifth-round pick.
Kenneth Tate, SS/OLB, Maryland
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At 6'4", 220 pounds, Maryland's Kenneth Tate is the size of a strong safety with the skill set of an outside linebacker.
Recruited as a wide receiver, Tate was converted to safety as a freshman in 2008. But it wasn't until 2010 that he really established himself in the Terrapins defense. That season, Tate totaled 100 tackles, three interceptions, seven pass deflections and four forced fumbles.
Expected to rise even further as a senior in 2011, Tate moved to "Star" linebacker—an outside linebacker/safety position. Unfortunately, the team captain suffered a season-ending knee injury four contests into the year and sought a medical hardship from the NCAA.
Granted a redshirt senior season in 2012, Tate moved to strong-side linebacker, where he missed the first three games due to injury. He did get back on track, however, making 42 tackles, four sacks and four pass deflections in nine games.
Tate's best fit in the NFL is as a coverage linebacker. He's not big enough to fend off offensive linemen at the next level, but he's perfect for defending tight ends and slot receivers in a hybrid front. The Patriots haven't found a true coverage backer since Gary Guyton left following the 2011 season. Tate fits the bill.
The Patriots have dabbled with safety/linebacker hybrids before. The most notable was special teams linebacker Don Davis, who started two games at free safety in 2004.
Tate has overcome a bout with the injury bug and adapted to whatever his coaching staff has thrown at him. But with question marks apparent, Tate is rendered a seventh-round pick or an undrafted free agent by CBSSports.com. His low draft stock would give the Patriots a great chance of nabbing him with one the franchise's two picks in Round 7.