Jamie Collins impressed the Patriots at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
As the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine approaches, the New England Patriots will be putting the finishing touches on their evaluations of their top 2014 NFL draft targets.
While actual game play always trumps drills done in spandex, the combine provides NFL teams with an easy way to compare players' athletic skills on an even playing field. In addition, the medical and personal information gathered at the combine is invaluable for teams looking for reasons to cross players off their lists of potential draft picks.
Here are eight players—including two sleepers—that Patriots fans should get to know before the combine starts.
Note: Players were selected based on scheme fit, positional need, projected availability and overall talent.
A disruptor in the interior that has the positional versatility to play outside, Ra'Shede Hageman reminds me a bit of former New England Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour. At 6'6" and 311 pounds, he has the massive frame to dominate inside—against the pass and the run—plus the quickness and long arms to set the edge and win against offensive tackles.
Hageman should lock up a first-round grade from most teams when he displays his athleticism at the combine. The Patriots, however, might be more interested in something else this coming weekend.
Expect Bill Belichick to grill Hageman over the chalkboard. He seemed to improvise at times at Minnesota, or perhaps he was unsure of his assignment. Either way, expect Belichick to have plenty of questions during their interview time.
If Hageman passes that test, trading up in the first round for Hageman wouldn't be out of the question.
A behemoth run-stopper (6'2", 345 lbs) with a kind demeanor off the field, Louis Nix III and Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork make for an easy comparison. Nix, however, has a little more snap in his pass rush than Wilfork.
Nix commands a double-team on nearly every play and has the ability to become a three-down lineman in the NFL. All of that is predicated, however, on Nix staying on the field.
Nix missed part of the 2013 season due to a knee injury, and anyone that size is going to give teams concerns about the long-term health of his knees.
Wilfork fell to the 21st pick in the 2004 NFL draft due to knee concerns, so it is conceivable that Nix would be available for New England to select with the 29th pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Depending on Wilfork's contract situation—he has a hefty $11.6 million cap number according to Over the Cap—defensive tackle could be a major area of need.
If Nix's knees check out OK at the combine, the Patriots are going to have a lot of interest.
It is no secret that the New England Patriots could use another pass-rusher. Outside of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, they struggled mightily to get pressure from the edge. Auburn's Dee Ford could be the answer they are looking for.
Ford's first step is lightning quick, and he runs the arc as well as anyone in the country. He possesses elite change-of-direction skills and should run very well at the combine. An afterthought for many, the position drills might be the most important look for New England.
At 6'2" and 240 pounds, Ford certainly isn't going to be a three-down defensive end in the NFL. With Ford looking like a likely first-round pick, the Patriots won't want to spend a high pick on someone who will only play on third down. They will want to see Ford impress during linebacker drills.
If the Patriots think Ford can see snaps at outside linebacker and shift to defensive end on passing downs, though, they've found the right value.
Zack Martin isn't flashy, but he will be boringly effective as an NFL starter for at least a decade. His solid footwork, hand placement, lateral agility and overall strength profile make him an ideal candidate to challenge for a starting spot as a rookie.
With Martin's scheme and positional versatility—he could play nearly any position on any NFL team—should propel him into the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Which position Martin plays on Sundays might be determined by what NFL teams see at the combine. Specifically, Martin's arm length is a cause for concern for teams wanting him to play tackle.
A prospect that could play left guard or right guard as a rookie, with the ability to fill in for Nate Solder or Sebastian Vollmer due to injury, Martin will be an attractive option for the New England Patriots late in the first round.
Like Martin, UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo has a lot to offer NFL teams. While Su'a-Filo has shown in college that he can contribute at tackle, he is best suited at guard inside.
His 6'3", 305-pound frame limits his ability to play on the edge, but his explosive power, quick feet and exceptional balance make him an attractive option inside—especially for a team like New England that likes to move its guards around.
If the Patriots choose not to re-sign free-agent center Ryan Wendell, Su'a-Filo could be seen as a long-term replacement. New England could use incumbent guard Dan Connolly as a bridge for a year before transitioning.
Su'a-Filo's athleticism isn't in question, so teams at the NFL combine will mostly want to talk to him in interviews. If he shows a high football IQ and a strong commitment to football, he could sneak into the back end of the first round.
A tight end that is like a third offensive tackle when blocking, Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz reminds me of Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller. Like Miller, Fiedorowicz isn't a huge receiving threat downfield but can be very effective underneath and in the red zone.
Fiedorowicz projects as the top senior tight end in the 2014 NFL draft class, but talented juniors like North Carolina's Eric Ebron and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro might push him down the board.
At the combine, look for New England to scrutinize Fiedorowicz's athleticism. The Iowa Hawkeye offense was anything but dynamic, so the Patriots might find some more receiving upside in Fiedorowicz than meets the eye if he can bust out some eye-popping numbers in Indianapolis.
If he can run the 40-yard dash in the 4.65-second range, he should solidify a second-round grade.
It is no secret that the New England Patriots love the three-cone drill at the NFL Scouting Combine. When a prospect like South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr might break the record for the event, one would figure they might take notice.
According to Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports.com, Starr aims to do just that: "I think I can blow that drill out of the water." His training time of 6.29 seconds would smash the 6.42 record set by former Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl.
Doug Kyed of NESN.com feels that Starr would be a great fit in New England.
Starr has the right size for a Patriots outside linebacker, too. Belichick typically likes linebackers who are taller than 6-foot-1 and more than 240 pounds (for pass rushers, 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds). Starr is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and played outside linebacker and defensive end at South Dakota.
He has experience rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage. Starr projects as an outside linebacker at the NFL level.
If Starr is still available, don't be surprised if Bill Belichick takes a flier on him in the sixth or seventh round.
If the New England Patriots are looking to move on from impending free-agent linebacker Brandon Spikes, getting faster, quicker and better in coverage is the way to go.
Expect Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey to impress Patriots scouts with his change-of-direction skills and explosiveness in the leaping drills. Like Jamie Collins last year, Kirksey is an elite athlete.
Kirksey may move like a safety, but he can still bring the heat as a tackler. Where Spikes was a liability in coverage, Kirksey excels. Adding him to the existing trio of Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo would give Bill Belichick plenty of different options to work with.
Kirksey is also a fantastic special teams player, excelling on the coverage units at Iowa. Being able to contribute in a second phase of the game will help propel Kirksey close to the top 100 picks of the 2014 NFL draft.
You can follow James Christensen on Twitter @NEPatriotsDraft for more Patriots and NFL Draft analysis.