After finishing just a win shy of reaching the Super Bowl, getting players healthy for the New England Patriots might be the biggest thing they need to get over the top.
But adding few talented young players in the 2014 NFL draft won't hurt either.
With needs at several positions outside of the core of the team's success, the Patriots could go one of several different ways early in the draft. Fans of the Pats might debate on whom the franchise should pick up early, but the needs will likely stay the same throughout.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, all scouts and coaches have their own way of evaluating players. Whether they put stock in the speed, strength or height of their vertical leap, scouts and coaches get to see everything they want from these elite prospects.
Though the Patriots have the players to get them back to the playoffs and put together another competitive run with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady leading the charge, the time is now to load up with great, young talent that can put them back in the Super Bowl.
Here is a look at several of the players at key positions that the Patriots will be taking a hard look at over the next few days, along with their combine results when they become available.
Note: All height and weight information courtesy of CBS Sports. Round info based on assorted media outlets and personal projections. Height and weight will be updated when available at the combine. Drills results courtesy of NFL.com.
Luckily for New England, the 2014 NFL draft is loaded with quality tight ends with different talents that can contribute in Brady's offense.
Whether they are looking for an athletic tight end that can make catches down the field or a great blocker that can help in the running game and protecting their prized asset behind center, the Patriots will find a plethora of options in the early and middle rounds in particular.
Here are just a few of the names that New England will likely be looking at throughout the combine.
|Jace Amaro||TE||Texas Tech||1||6'5"||265|
|Troy Niklas||TE||Notre Dame||2-3||6'6"||270|
|Crockett Gillmore||TE||Colorado State||4-5||6'6"||260|
|Marcel Jensen||TE||Fresno State||5||6'6"||259|
|Joe Don Duncan||TE||Dixie State||5-6||6'3"||268|
When it comes to the top of the crop, Eric Ebron has no difficulty opening up space for himself—a lot like Gronkowski in the open field.
Ebron made a name for himself with his athletic ability and miraculous plays, but his blocking could still use some work. As Matt Miller of Bleacher Report referenced in the video above, Ebron has drawn comparisons to both Julius Thomas and looks like a younger version of Antonio Gates.
As for his ability to make plays happen, Ebron spoke with me in October 2013 about how he deals with being double-teamed. We talked prior to his game against Miami, when he went off for eight receptions and 199 yards:
Every team just double teams me. At this point, I’ve come to expect it. But one thing teams have got to understand is that it doesn’t matter who you line up against me, I’m going to produce for my team. If you’re in my way, I’m sorry but you’re not going to stop me. I know that may sound like a cocky statement, but it’s not, it’s a confident one.
It doesn’t matter whether Miami sends their best corner, their best linebacker or their best safety. I believe my team trusts me to come through and I’ll find a way to come through for them.
Though the Pats would love to get their hands on Ebron, they might have to settle for other tight ends early in the draft. OK, maybe the word settle is a little strong with this class.
From top to bottom, nearly every tight end in this class can block, but players like Jace Amaro and Austin Seferian-Jenkins also offer great hands and can open up the field.
With either Troy Niklas or C.J. Fiedorowicz, the Pats would have a "Y" tight end they can utilize in nearly any offensive scheme. Along with any of these players, Arthur Lynch all the way down to Marcel Johnson offer good hands off the line and strength along the middle of the field.
While he's not well known, Joe Don Duncan out of Dixie State finished with 71 catches for 1,045 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Division II school. He has good hands and fights for yardage, but he has only proven himself at the lower level and will need a good showing to get more looks.
|Name||40-yd Dash (Seconds)||Bench (Reps)||Vert. Jump (Inches)
Broad Jump (Inches)
|3-Cone Drill (Secs)
||20-yd Shuttle (Secs)
||60-yd Shuttle (Secs)
Ebron left no doubt that he's one of the better athletes in the upcoming draft. The UNC product blitzed through the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds and did 24 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
It would be surprising if Bill Belichick elects to pass over this stud if he is still on the board when the Pats are on the clock. While he's not the strongest tight end that should be on the team's radar (that honor goes to Duncan who cranked out a whopping 35 reps on the bench), Ebron is a perfect fit within the New England offense.
Amaro is also worth strong consideration with a late-first round selection, as he showed some quickness and strength in Indianapolis.
With a few hefty contracts coming in the future that could put a damper on the team's salary cap, the Patriots will need to add an offensive lineman to shore up the position for the future.
According to OverTheCap.com, Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have 2014 salary-cap figures near almost $14.6 million. Ryan Wendell will also be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Given the current situation, the Pats will be looking at multiple interior offensive linemen and others who could help guarantee that the line doesn't take a step back in the coming years.
Taking all of this into account, here's a look at several players at the position who will be on the Pats' radar throughout the combine and during the draft process.
|Zack Martin||OT||Notre Dame||1||6'4"||308|
|Jack Mewhort||OT||Ohio State||2||6'6"||309|
|James Hurst||OT||North Carolina||4||6'5"||296|
|Seantrel Henderson||OT||Miami (Fla.)||5||6'7"||331|
The most likely first-round pick that the Pats will consider is Cyrus Kouandjio.
Perhaps one of the most talked about recruits in the class, Kouandjio is a powerful lineman who gets off the line quickly and can block down the field as well to open up the running game.
After the Alabama prospect, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Antonio Richardson and Jack Mewhort are all reliable linemen who could fill in right away. Su'a-Filo has been a force for UCLA over the last few years and would be a steal in the second round, something that Bill Belichick is always good at finding.
Also in the middle rounds, Cyril Richardson is another guard that could clog up the middle if they miss out on Su'a-Filo. As for the rest of the offensive tackles, Ja'Wuan James and James Hurst have similar frames and have been reliable throughout their college tenures.
Finally, Seantrel Henderson is a slightly larger lineman who can fill the need and might see his name climb up draft boards after the combine if he can put together a good showing.
|Name||40-yd Dash (seconds)||Bench (reps)||Vert. Jump||Broad Jump||3-Cone Drill||20-yd Shuttle||60-yd Shuttle|
The Pats will likely look at a number of these offensive lineman during the upcoming draft. Antonio Richardson boosted his stock after he cranked out an incredible 36 reps on the bench.
"Tiny" Richardson was already thought of as a physical blocker that could start shortly after entering the NFL, as the 6'6", 336-pound Volunteer has the size and skills to make an immediate impact. He's looking like a great value in the second round.
Su'a-Filo's speed also jumped off the page during the combine, which indicates that the UCLA star is a great athlete and should be capable of blocking the quicker players he will face in the NFL.
Yet another position with a ton of depth in this year's draft, the defensive tackle class is one that the Patriots will look to exploit.
Once again, several of the top talents in the class, like Louis Nix III, could already be taken once the Pats are on the clock, but there is a wealth of tackles that are nearly as athletic and fearsome on the line.
While the Patriots and Belichick might rank these players a little differently than how they are listed currently, there will be a defensive tackle taken to develop in their system and help make a playoff run.
Here is a look at the top options heading into the combine.
|Louis Nix III||DT||Notre Dame||1||6'2"||345|
|Timmy Jernigan||DT||Florida State||1||6'1"||295|
|Stephon Tuitt||DT||Notre Dame||2||6'5"||315|
|Will Sutton||DT||Arizona State||2-3||6'1"||315|
|DaQuan Jones||DT||Penn State||3||6'3"||318|
|George Uko||DT||Southern California||5||6'4"||275|
While Nix might not be an option unless he falls, Aaron Donald and Timmy Jernigan are other great gets in the first round. But if the Pats decide to trade back to get the player they want, Hageman will still be available in the second round and is just as imposing as the other tackles ahead of him.
Along with Nix, another Notre Dame lineman in Stephon Tuitt could be available late in the second round, along with Will Sutton out of Arizona State. Sutton, in particular, has proven his physicality and could be a sneaky tool for Belichick.
Later on in the draft, DaQuan Jones and Daniel McCullers are both large defensive tackles who absorb everything that comes their way and could clog up the middle for the Pats on defense.
George Uko is an underclassman who came out early from USC, but his long arms and burst off the line make him a great talent late in the draft.
|Name||40-yd Dash||Bench||Vert. Jump||Broad Jump||3-Cone Drill||20-yd Shuttle||60-yd Shuttle|
Some fans and insiders were aware that Donald was an absolute monster before the scouting combine, but the Pittsburgh product will be a household name by the time May's draft comes along due to his performance in Indianapolis.
The defensive tackle's mind-blowing athleticism should more than help to make up for his subpar for his size. He's also the kind of hard-working, blue-collar prospect that would fit excellent within Bill Belichick's defense.
If the Pats decide not to go with the consensus All-American star, Tuitt might be available in the later rounds. The Notre Dame product was only able to bench during the combine due to injury and it may negatively impact his stock come draft day.
He put up a solid 31 reps in his lone workout and could be a steal for New England in May.