The NFL Scouting Combine kicks off next week in Indianapolis after a one-year hiatus, as the best college prospects and NFL teams descend upon the city in preparation for April's draft.
The Patriots are coming off one of their best drafts in years, in which they nabbed three immediate-impact players. 2022 is just as important for New England. Without the same kind of money and space they'll need to be more targeted in free agency this year, making the draft even more critical as they look to build up their offense around Mac Jones and potentially replace some huge pieces on defense and special teams.
As always, this year's Combine class offers its own distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Lucky for the Patriots, some of their positions most in need of a youthful jolt are well stacked.
Here's an overview of those positions with some early prospects that have stood out as solid fits for New England.
Once again, the receiver class is loaded with impact playmakers. Last year, the Patriots focused on free agency to fill their receiver needs, bringing in both Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, who should both make strides in their second seasons, while Jakobi Meyers should be back after receiving a restricted free agent tag.
With the top three returning, the depth chart might not scream for a receiver addition, but with Bourne potentially the only receiver under contract past 2022, the long-term need at the spot is glaring, as is the need to elevate the offense to the next level to compete with the best teams in the NFL.
This year's group features a nice array of options that range from smooth and athletic to big and powerful and everything in between. It's hard to find a consensus ranking but the Combine should make things clearer as the testing results roll in.
The easy place to start is at Alabama, where stars Jameson Williams and John Metchie are both coming off late-season ACL tears. While they're unlikely to do much in Indy, a prognosis on their recovery time could aid decision making for teams. Metchie played with Mac Jones in 2020 and had 55 catches and six touchdowns with him. That familiarity is intriguing and unlike Williams, Metchie should still be around on day two. Williams had a breakout year and if a team is willing to wait on his recovery, they just might get the best receiver in the class.
Ohio State's duo of receivers is equally impressive with the ultra-smooth Chris Olave and the do-it-all Garrett Wilson. 40-yard dash time will be telling for both. While Wilson isn't expected to show the same breakaway speed some in the class might have, he's a balanced threat who checks a lot of Patriots boxes. Olave might lack physicality but his athleticism jumps off the field. He's a popular mock draft pick at 21st overall for good reason.
The collection of big receivers will also be under consideration, with Treylon Burks of Arkansas (6-3, 232), Drake London of USC (6-4, 210) and George Pickens of Georgia (6-3, 200) all expected to turn heads with their measurables.
For those looking for Day Two or Three prospects that could fit Penn States Jahan Dotson is a proven returner and route technician. And if you want a Wes Welker clone look no closer than UCLA's Kyle Phillips, a sure-handed slot receiver.
As always, a key testing metric to watch is the short shuttle which shows who has the quickness to get open in the NFL. But between 40 times and height/weight combinations, this group will once again headline the week in Indy.
With Trent Brown slated to hit free agency and Isaiah Wynn entering the final year of his rookie deal, tackle is an important long-term need. Keeping Mac Jones protected must be a priority with the talented array of pass rushers that are coming off the edge every week in the league.
This draft class could feature as many as five first-round tackles, with Evan Neal of Alabama a possibility for the first-overall selection. Charles Cross of Mississippi State and Ikem Ekwonu of NC State won't be far behind as all three should go well ahead of the Patriots' first selection at 21.
But two other prospects, Trevor Penning of Northern Iowa and Bernhard Raimann of Central Michigan appear slated for the second half of the first round into the second day, where the Patriots might be able to select one of them. Both have prototypical size for the position.
Penning arrived in Mobile for the Senior Bowl with bad intentions and took them out on the pass rushers throughout the week of practice. His edgy play is reminiscent of Logan Mankins, certainly a style that the Patriots like to embrace.
Raimann might even be more Patriots-y, like a combination of Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, as a European who came late to the game with outstanding size and athleticism, even starting off at tight end like Solder did. There will be a learning curve with him, but he has all the tools to be a long-time starter at tackle.
Nicholas Petit-Frere from Ohio State is another athletic left tackle prospect that could intrigue on Day 2, while Minnesota's Daniel Faalele (6-8, 360) is sure to wow with his size measurements.
J.C. Jackson faces free agency for the first time in his career and could leave a gaping hole in the Patriots secondary if he were to depart. Even still, the Patriots lacked much proven depth at corner last year, which was exacerbated by Jonathan Jones' season-ending injury and then Jalen Mills landing on the COVID list for the playoff game in Buffalo.
Even with Jackson back in the mix, the cornerback pipeline needs reinforcements, but luckily for the Patriots it's another deep cornerback class that should turn heads in Indy.
Derek Stingley from LSU tops the class in most rankings as a prototypical man cover corner, he's the grandson of former Patriot Daryl Stingley who was paralyzed in a preseason game against the Raiders in 1978.
Trent McDuffie of Washington, Ahmad Gardner of Cincinnati and Andrew Booth Jr. of Clemson make up the rest of the probable first rounders. All would be good fits for New England if they were to fall to 21st. Their testing in Indy might help flush out who is the most athletic of the bunch and separate things out a bit more than they are now.
Kaiir Elam of Florida is battle tested and has excellent size, while Roger McCreary might be the best of the Day Two corners. He had a good showing at the Senior Bowl and while he might not have true lockdown qualities, he's a tough, solid football player.
This will be one of the most telling positions this offseason, starting with the decision on Jackson. Without him, the defense could choose to continue their evolution to more zone looks that began in 2022. Just a few seasons ago they had a group of man-cover corners that ran four players deep. As those numbers have thinned it could force further evolution of the scheme.
The Patriots will face some significant questions at linebacker this offseason with Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Ja'Whaun Bentley due to hit free agency. Despite several recent draft picks waiting in the wings, none have yet emerged and there are plenty of intriguing prospects this spring who could not only step right in, but instantly upgrade the overall athleticism of the defense.
Devin Lloyd of Utah and Nakobe Dean of Georgia are two popular Patriots targets on the mock draft circuit due to their plus speed and athleticism, but their stock continues to rise, potentially putting both out of reach. But Christian Harris (Alabama), Chad Muma (Wyoming) and Darrian Beavers (Cincinnati) might be the better schematic fits given the history and style of the Patriots defense.
The testing results from the combine will help sort out the testable athleticism of the prospects, while also giving firm height and weight measurements. There's a good assortment of options that could help the Patriots get younger and more athletic at a position with big question marks this offseason.
Every Patriot fan should feel pretty great about the top of the running back depth chart, as Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson should be even better in their second season together. But rounding out the roles and depth behind them figures to be a key point of emphasis this offseason.
James White and the status of the third-down back role tops the list of questions. White returned on a one-year deal last season, but after he was lost for the season due to a hip injury, the team leaned on veteran Brandon Bolden, who, along with White, is a free agent this offseason.
This could put a high priority on the receiving backs in the draft and with this year's class, that will likely be without a Day One selection, they'll have their homework to do.
Rachaad White of Arizona State and James Cook of Georgia were two prospects from the Senior Bowl that could fit the bill. White is a versatile threat who could even line up in the slot, while Cook is similarly diverse and a polished route runner.
Alabama's Brian Robinson is willing in pass protection but not quite the same pedigree of other recent 'Bama prospects, while Missouri's Tyler Badie is such an electric player in space he could be heading full time to receiver.
While many are focusing on improving the offense simply with a dynamic wide out, a dangerous receiving back could have a similar effect. With Damien Harris heading into the final year of his deal, running back is a sneaky long-term need. The group in 2022 could look similar to 2021 but having a developmental stable, including J.J. Taylor, should be a priority.