10 NFL Combine Participants New England Patriots Fans Should Know

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2017

10 NFL Combine Participants New England Patriots Fans Should Know

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The 2017 NFL Scouting Combine is right around the corner. The annual event is set to kick off on February 28 and will feature a total of 330 invitees.

    A handful of these draft hopefuls is going to end up with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. While the Patriots aren't likely to enter the draft with a ton of holes on the roster (they rarely do), the team will be looking to improve for the coming season, add depth and prepare for the future.

    With these goals in mind, here are 10 combine participants that Patriots fans need to become familiar with. We'll be examining players who are expected to fall in all stages of the draft and who either fill an immediate need, could provide depth at a key position or simply seem fit for Bill Belichick's style of team building.

    We're only focusing on players who have been invited to the combine, and we'll only be looking at players the Patriots have a realistic shot at drafting. While we'll leave a little wiggle room for trade possibilities, guys expected to go near the top of Round 1—like Myles Garrett, Jonathan Allen and Jamal Adams—are out.

David Njoku, TE, Miami (FL)

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    If the Patriots want a pass-catching tight end, Miami's David Njoku could fit the bill.
    If the Patriots want a pass-catching tight end, Miami's David Njoku could fit the bill.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    There's a case to be made that the Patriots should start planning for life without Rob Gronkowski. The standout tight end has an extensive injury history, and the Patriots typically want to part with a player too early rather than too late.

    Regardless of what New England plans to do with Gronk, the team has to like the idea of adding Miami product David Njoku to the tight end room. Njoku is a talented pass-catcher who could create mismatches by himself or lined up across from Gronkowski. At 64" and 245 pounds, Njoku isn't the physically intimidating receiver that Gronkowski can be, but he is a reliable, athletic playmaker nonetheless.

    Last season, Njoku amassed 698 yards and eight touchdowns on 43 receptions. Pro Football Focus (PFF College) rated him seventh among tight ends in receiving for the year.

    Njoku is widely considered one of the top two tight ends in this draft class, along with Alabama's O.J. Howard. For this reason, trading up may be required if the Patriots fall in love with the Miami product. A lot will depend on how the first round unfolds and where Howard—who was rated No. 1 overall by Pro Football Focus for the year—ends up going.

    The Patriots might also get lucky and have Njoku fall in their lap. The folks over at NFLDraftScout.com currently project him as a borderline first- or second-rounder. There's virtually no shot that New England would be able to snag Njoku in Round 2.

Tim Williams, OLB, Alabama

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    Might Alabama's Tim Williams slide all the way to pick No. 32?
    Might Alabama's Tim Williams slide all the way to pick No. 32?Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    If the Patriots are more interested in a pass-rusher in the first round—and are willing to take a bit of a risk—then Alabama's Tim Williams could be the target. If it weren't for off-field issues, Williams might be one of the first defenders off the board. However, because of possible drug issues and a gun-related arrest, he could easily slip.

    Dane Brugler of CBS Sports has Williams slipping all the way to the Patriots in a recent mock draft:

    Williams plays with speed, energy and length to skim the corner and disrupt the backfield. And with his traits, he should make an NFL team selecting in the top 15 picks very happy. However, with his questionable character and off-field baggage, Williams is a prime candidate to slip down draft boards.

    How far might Williams drop? That is anyone's guess. But if he slips to the 32nd pick, the newly crowned world champion Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick would have a tough choice to make.

    New England will have to weigh their options carefully, and meeting with Williams at the combine will be important. Charlie Campbell of Walter Football has reported that Williams may have a "Randy Gregory type" drug problem, and that could derail Williams' pro career as it has Gregory's.

    The Patriots will need to figure out if Williams loves football enough to keep himself out of trouble. The Patriots have accepted players with off-field issues in the past because they know they can provide a stable environment.

    The question here is whether Williams is willing to work to put his issues in the past. If so, the physical talent is there. Williams amassed 31 tackles, 16.0 tackles for a loss and 9.0 sacks despite starting just three of his 15 games in 2016.

Forrest Lamp, OG, Western Kentucky

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    Adding a player like Forrest Lamp could help upgrade New England's offensive line.
    Adding a player like Forrest Lamp could help upgrade New England's offensive line.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    One goal for the Patriots should be to protect quarterback Tom Brady as much as possible for the remainder of his playing career. This is why an offensive lineman should also be in play near the top of the draft.

    In 2016, the biggest weakness along the offensive line was rookie guard Joe Thuney. While it's impressive that a rookie third-round pick was able to earn a starting role along the line for New England, the fact remains that Thuney was often overwhelmed. Pro Football Focus rated him just 138th overall among guards for the 2016 season while crediting him with 32 quarterback pressures.

    The Patriots may want to pull the trigger on a replacement in this year's draft, and one who might be available is Western Kentucky's Forrest Lamp.

    Lamp played tackle at the collegiate level and played well. Pro Football Focus graded him fourth overall among all tackles last season. However, many folks consider the 6'4", 305-pound prospect to be a better guard at the pro level, which is why he could fit the Patriots line.

    New England has its left tackle in Nate Solder and recently signed right tackle Marcus Cannon to a five-year extension. Guard is the area that can be improved, though Lamp's versatility along the line would be a selling point in New England.

    Lamp is trending as a borderline first- or second-round pick, but he is a player the Patriots might have to move up to secure.

Dorian Johnson, OG, Pittsburgh

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    Dorian Johnson could be another option for the Patriots at guard.
    Dorian Johnson could be another option for the Patriots at guard.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    The Patriots might also want to consider Pittsburgh's Dorian Johnson as an option to upgrade that guard spot. Johnson is more of a natural guard, and he was rated 20th overall at the position by Pro Football Focus in 2016.

    At 6'5" and 315 pounds, Johnson is a mammoth interior blocker who could help spring the interior rushing game for the Patriots almost immediately. He's rated as a second-round prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, but like a few players on this list, he might be worth trading up to get.

    Depending on how Johnson tests at the combine, his stock could easily be on the rise. As draft analyst Scott Wright recently pointed out, this draft is believed to be relatively weak at offensive tackle but loaded with interior talent. Guards like Johnson—or Lamp for that matter—could become highly coveted as teams look to upgrade their lines where they can.

    At the least, Johnson projects as a Day 2 prospect with enough potential to come in and challenge Thuney for the starting job.

Adam Shaheen, TE, Ashland

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    Patriots coach Bill Belichick has rarely shied away from lesser-known prospects.
    Patriots coach Bill Belichick has rarely shied away from lesser-known prospects.Al Bello/Getty Images

    If you've never heard of tight end Adam Shaheen, don't feel bad—plenty of folks haven't. The product of little-known Ashland University is anything but a household name. However, Shaheen is a player the Patriots, and their fans, will want to keep an eye on during the combine.

    According to NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah, Shaheen is "generating a lot of buzz" heading into the combine, and for good reason.

    Standing 6'6" and 277 pounds, Shaheen possesses the kind os size-speed advantage that should make Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels drool. This past season alone, his mismatch ability allowed Shaheen to produce 867 yards and 16 touchdowns on 57 receptions.

    The fact that Shaheen didn't play against college football's toughest competition is somewhat concerning, and it's why scouting the tight end at the combine will be important.

    "I watched him for two games and turned the tape off because I want to see him live in Indy before I develop any more of an opinion of him. I saw some things that has me very excited," one AFC personnel man told NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.

    The Patriots have not shied away from lesser-known prospects in the past, and Shaheen looks like one who could thrive under the guidance of McDaniels and Brady.

Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina

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    East Carolina's Zay Jones could be a young receiver the Patriots could build around.
    East Carolina's Zay Jones could be a young receiver the Patriots could build around.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Wide receiver isn't the biggest need for the Patriots, but it's a position the team could look at, depending on what happens with receiver Danny Amendola. According to Nicholas Goss of NESN.com, Amendola is going to have to restructure his contract if he wants to return in 2017.

    If Amendola doesn't return, the Patriots could look to add another young receiver to the mix, which is where East Carolina's Zay Jones comes into play.

    Jones is projected to be a third-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com, but his stock appears to be on the rise in a big way. Jones racked up 1,746 yards and eight touchdowns during the 2016 season, then went and turned heads at the Senior Bowl.

    Jones has the size that many of the Patriots' current receivers lack (6'2", 202 pounds) but it's his work ethic that New England could fall in love with. It's one trait that ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay praised recently.

    "Watching more ECU WR Zay Jones. Has size, burst, body ctrl and ball skills. But thing that stands out most: Dude leaves it all on the field," McShay said earlier in February, via Twitter.

    The Patriots haven't had the best recent track record of selecting Day 2 wideouts, but Jones is a guy who could change that trend.

Taywan Taylor, WR, Western Kentucky

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    Taywan Taylor is another receiver the Patriots could consider in the middle rounds.
    Taywan Taylor is another receiver the Patriots could consider in the middle rounds.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    If the Patriots want to wait just a bit to add to the wideout position, a guy they might target is Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor.

    Taylor is a bit smaller that Jones (5'11", 198 pounds), but he was just as productive in 2016. Taylor caught 98 passes for 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns this past season. He is an after-the-catch producer who would fit in perfectly with New England's current offensive scheme.

    NFL Media's Lance Zierlein compares Taylor to Minnesota Vikings wideout Stefon Diggs, a player most Patriots fans would welcome on offense.

    Taylor is a possible target for Day 2 or Day 3 of the draft, as NFLDraftScout.com projects him as a third- or fourth-round pick. Much will likely depend on how Taylor performs, tests and interviews at the scouting combine.

Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida

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    Florida's Quincy Wilson seems to have the toughness to perform in New England's secondary.
    Florida's Quincy Wilson seems to have the toughness to perform in New England's secondary.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Cornerback isn't a major need for the Patriot right now either, but it could be by the time the draft rolls around. This is because starting cornerback Logan Ryan is slated to become a free agent, and the Patriots may not wish to spend the money to keep him.

    Fortunately, this year's draft is expected to be deep at the cornerback position. One guy the Patriots should keep an eye on is Florida product Quincy Wilson, who is projected to be a second-round pick by NFLDraftScout.com.

    Wilson has the size and length (6'1", 213 pounds) many NFL teams now look for at the position. He also has production on his resume—Wilson produced 33 tackles, six passes defended, 3.5 tackles for a loss and three interceptions in 2016.

    What Patriots fans will be interested in, though, is Wilson's attitude and toughness.

    "He may not be that clean with his coverage, but I would rather go to war with him over [Teez] Tabor any day. He's big, and he's tough. Tabor has more talent but Wilson just has to find the right spot because he's got the mindset to be a pro player," one AFC executive told NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.

    As Patriots fans are well aware, having the right mindset is key to thriving in New England.

Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State

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    Donnel Pumphrey just seems to have the makeup of a future Patriot.
    Donnel Pumphrey just seems to have the makeup of a future Patriot.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Running back is yet another position that the Patriots don't need to address early, especially if the team brings back LeGarrette Blount for another run. However, this shouldn't stop the Patriots from being extremely interested in San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey.

    Pumphrey is an undersized back at just 5'8" and 169 pounds. However, he has never let his size affect his ability to produce. Just last season, Pumphrey racked up  2,133 yards on the ground with a 6.1 yards-per-carry average. He also caught 27 passes for 231 yards.

    It's this receiving ability that might intrigue Belichick and Co. He has the potential to be a real threat as a pro.

    "When a running back shows as advanced an understanding for reading defenders as Pumphrey displays, that vision usually pays off in the passing game," Chris Burke of SI.com recently wrote. "Pumphrey sees the game one step ahead of those trying to tackle him."

    One could argue that the Patriots don't need another small back with receiving ability as long as James White and Dion Lewis are on the roster. One could also argue that the Patriots didn't need an extra quarterback when they drafted Julian Edelman back in 2009.

    Pumphrey just comes across as the kind of athlete the Patriots could draft and then find a role for later. He's likely to be a Day 2 or Day 3 selection at best, and New England can afford to take a gamble because of his potential upside.

Connor Harris, LB, Lindenwood

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    Connor Harris could fit in nicely with New England's linebacking corps.
    Connor Harris could fit in nicely with New England's linebacking corps.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    If there's a team that couldn't care less about where a player comes from or care more about a player's drive and dedication, it's the Patriots. This is why New England could quickly fall in love with Connor Harris from Lindenwood.

    Harris is a tad on the smaller side at 5'11" and 241 pounds, which is likely part of the reason he is considered a fourth-round prospect by NFLDraftScout.com.

    However, Harris' production strongly suggests that his size doesn't matter. Harris has racked up 633 career tackles and was named the 2016 recipient of the Cliff Harris Award as the nation's top defensive player among NCAA Division II, Division III, and NAIA programs.

    "He's a good player. He's a Division I player who happens to play Division II. I don't think he ever gets tired because he is always in on plays or right there next to them," one NFC scouting director told NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.

    The combine will be important for a player like Harris. If he can measure up favorably with players from big-boy programs like Alabama, Florida or Ohio State, his stock could rise considerably. The Patriots, who seem to love stealing talent in the latter rounds, might just hope his stock remains low.

         

    *All player measurements via NFL.com.

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