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Analysis: Top Patriots-Related Storylines at the Senior Bowl

With Patriots.com heading down to Mobile, here are the top Patriots storylines we'll be monitoring at this year's Senior Bowl. 

Pictured are Oregon quarterback Bo Nix (left) and Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (right).
Pictured are Oregon quarterback Bo Nix (left) and Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (right).

The first tentpole event in the draft cycle is the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama this week, and Patriots.com is headed to where the draft starts for full coverage of practices.

Although the prospects participating in the Senior Bowl are top of mind, we'll also have our eyes on who will be representing the Patriots personnel department in Mobile. The expectation is Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh will lead a contingent of scouts at a popular event in New England's draft history. Last offseason, the Patriots drafted five Senior Bowlers: DL Keion White (second round), LB Marte Mapu (third), C Jake Andrews (fourth), K Chad Ryland (fourth), and punter Bryce Baringer (sixth) were all in Mobile a year ago.

Without former head coach Bill Belichick having the final say in draft decisions, we may need to adjust how the Patriots do business every April. Belichick was notorious for putting stock in the Senior Bowl because it allowed him to evaluate prospects on an even playing field against NFL-caliber competition. However, this new regime might view things differently.

It's also worth noting that the crop of players at the Senior Bowl most years aren't projected to be top-10 selections. In other words, it's unlikely that the No. 3 overall pick will be in Mobile. Instead, most prospects we'll see this week are projected day two and three selections. Still, the Patriots picks at No. 34 and No. 68 could be on this year's American and National team rosters.

In his media appearances since being promoted, head coach Jerod Mayo has been more transparent about the Patriots draft plans than his predecessor. Although there's always deception involved in how top decision-makers speak on the draft, Mayo narrowed the Pats needs down to three positions that are near the top of everyone's lists in New England:

"We're going to take the best available player for the biggest need on the team – offensive line, receiver, quarterback – pick your [choice]," Mayo told WEEI Radio recently.

With that in mind, here are the top Patriots-related storylines and players we'll be watching at the Senior Bowl as we head down to Mobile:

Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo.
Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo.

1. What is the Buzz Around League Circles About HC Jerod Mayo's Coaching Staff?

As the first major checkpoint in the offseason, the Senior Bowl often takes on a similar life as the NFL Scouting Combine, where rumors will swirl about the upcoming offseason.

Along with rumblings about draft and free agency plans, head coach Jerod Mayo's staff remains incomplete, so we could get some intel about who Mayo is targeting for certain roles. For example, after serving as the head coach with a Patriots-led staff at last year's Shrine Bowl, current wide receivers coach Troy Brown will be the offensive coordinator for the American Team at this year's Senior Bowl. Due to the lack of recent production from the wide receiver room in New England, Brown's status is up in the air.

The Patriots have reportedly interviewed six offensive coordinator candidates who remain available on the market: Rams tight ends coach Nick Caley, Texans QBs coach Jerrod Johnson, former Panthers OC Thomas Brown, former Bears OC Luke Getsy, 49ers TEs coach Brian Fleury, and Lions pass-game coordinator Tanner Engstrand. According to reports, Caley is flying in this week for an in-person meeting in the second round of interviews for the position. Caley is the current favorite. 

New England is also reportedly promoting D-Line coach DeMarcus Covington to defensive coordinator. Depending on the status of the remaining Belichick holdovers, Covington and Mayo still need to fill out the remaining defensive staff. It's unknown whether Steve Belichick, Brian Belichick, and CBs coach Mike Pellegrino will return. With former HC Bill Belichick unlikely to get a job this cycle, Mayo may keep the staff in place for a defense trending in the right direction.

We'll see what information we can gather with several Patriots staffers expected to be on the scene in Mobile.

2. Monitoring a Big Week for Washington QB Michael Penix at the Senior Bowl

It's no secret that the Patriots are in the market for an upgrade at quarterback this offseason, with former first-rounder Mac Jones and third-year QB Bailey Zappe having limited ceilings.

Starting with the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and National Championship, Penix is one of two early-round quarterback prospects who can help their stock this week. Despite a terrific season for the Huskies, Penix still has boxes to check to solidify his stock as a top prospect: have a clean medical evaluation and put a rough National Championship performance behind him.

Penix had four season-ending injuries during his six years in college, with two torn ACLs and injuries to both shoulders. With an extensive injury history, teams will want their own medical evaluations on Penix, while they'll likely discuss his football journey with him as well. On film, Penix grades out as a draftable talent in the first round. But it's possible that his injury history could see him fall down boards, maybe even further than anyone expects.

On the practice field, Michigan's relentless pressure led to a disastrous performance for Penix in the Natty. At these practices, quarterbacks are in non-contact jerseys, so we won't see how Penix truly performs under pressure. Still, he'll be playing outside a well-coordinated Washington offense, and it'll be helpful to gauge his arm talent in person. The ball seems to explode out of Penix's hand, allowing him to generate easy velocity with his release, and he was deadly accurate when kept clean at UW — it'll be fun to see him throw live.

Penix's stock among fans and pundits took a hit in the National Championship Game. A big week in Mobile could reset our last impression of him before the draft.

Oregon quarterback Bo Nix (10).
Oregon quarterback Bo Nix (10).

3. Is Oregon QB Bo Nix a Serious Option for the Patriots in the Second Round?

The scuttlebutt in draft circles is that Nix could be the ideal consolation prize for teams who pass on quarterbacks at the top of the draft for the other offensive talent (MHJ, Alt, etc.).

Let's say the Patriots pass on a quarterback at No. 3, Nix will likely be available as an end of the first/early-second rounder. In his latest mock draft, The Athletic's Dane Brugler had New England taking WR Marvin Harrison Jr. third overall and Nix with the No. 34 pick – a very plausible scenario if the Patriots don't fall in love with a quarterback in the first round.

Based on film study, my current thoughts on Nix are that he combines Mac Jones's accuracy within 20 yards with Zappe's added escapability in the pocket. That sounds like a nice blend of skills for the Patriots. But the question is whether or not Nix's physical tools, mainly arm talent and mobility, are on par with their current QB room or a level above it. From this perspective, the Pats must move off these low-ceiling QBs.

The Oregon quarterback is a plus-athlete who can add yards as a runner and throw on designed bootlegs/rollouts. He has a good feel for layering throws into the middle of the field and reads deep coverage well to take his shots downfield. However, we'll need him to "wow" us with his velocity and show improvement as a downfield thrower.

There's some resemblance to Baker Mayfield and Jalen Hurts in Nix's game. But the floor, depending on the physical tools/upside, is closer to Sam Howell. I'm not sold on Nix being an upgrade over their current options, but we'll see what this week brings.

4. Do Any Sleeper Quarterbacks Stand Out for the Patriots in Mobile?

Although the Patriots must address their needs at quarterback with a premium asset, a few quarterbacks in the late-day two/day-three range will be worth watching this week.

New England's brass may feel that either Jones or Zappe suffice in this role. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to double-dip at quarterback a la Washington when they took Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins in the 2012 NFL Draft. After RG3 sputtered out due to injury following a tremendous rookie year, Washington hedged their bets nicely with Cousins, who has had a great pro career.

Tulane's Michael Pratt is the quarterback who stands out from this year's group at the Senior Bowl in the Cousins mold. Pratt is a solid anticipatory thrower with a feel for manipulating middle-of-the-field coverage and was a reliable decision-maker for the Green Wave while having a bit more size and athletic ability than the Pats current options (6-3 220). The knock is that Pratt doesn't have the necessary arm strength to drive the ball consistently downfield, so we'll see how he fares this week.

There's also South Carolina's Spencer Rattler and Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton. Rattler, who was once considered a first-round prospect, has the arm talent and is generally accurate enough to grade him out as a potential NFL starter. However, his timing and struggles against pressure have tanked his stock. Milton's nickname is "Bazooka Joe" for a reason – a huge arm that can reach targets from anywhere, but it's anyone's guess where the ball goes sometimes.

There will be some intriguing sleeper quarterbacks who could catch the Patriots eye in Mobile.

South Carolina wide receiver Xavier Legette (17).
South Carolina wide receiver Xavier Legette (17).

5. A Look at a Loaded Crop of Wide Receivers in the 2024 NFL Draft

While understanding it feels like most years are well-stocked at wide receiver, this year's draft is among the best I've covered going on seven cycles. We hear about the big three constantly, but the class rolls on ~20 deep beyond Harrison, Malik Nabers, and Rome Odunze in the top 100.

The wide receivers on the Senior Bowl roster will put on a show this week, with these eight, in particular, on my watch list: Xavier Legette (South Carolina), Ladd McConkey (Georgia), Devontez Walker (UNC), Johnny Wilson (Florida State), Malachi Corley (Western Kentucky), Ricky Pearsall (Florida), Brenden Rice (USC), and Roman Wilson (Michigan).

In order of projected draft slot, Legette, an early day-two projection, has traits that could lend themselves to a McVay-style offense as a stalky receiver with YAC ability. As a route-runner, Legette lacks nuance in his release package, and his burst off the line is pedestrian. But he's a bully who can win downfield on contested catches and vertical routes, is a tank in the open field as a ball carrier, and has the size/play strength to block.

Next, Georgia's Ladd McConkey has an injury history that will need to be vetted. But he's an explosive mover with sudden bursts to create separation, has excellent hands, and is a terrific route-runner overall. McConkey will get the stereotypical comparisons to Jordy Nelson and others, but he can fly and is extremely fluid through the top of the route.

Lastly, Tar Heels WR Tez Walker and Michigan's Roman Wilson are on my radar. It's realistic for the Patriots to pair Walker, an explosive deep threat with runaway YAC ability, with college quarterback Drake Maye. Wilson, on the other hand, gives off Amon-Ra St. Brown vibes. He's not the biggest or fastest receiver in a straight line, but he's crafty, quick, and an impact ball carrier.

This will be a fun group to evaluate, with WR-CB one-on-ones being appointment viewing at Senior Bowl practices.

6. Several Offensive Tackle Possibilities at No. 34 Enter the Fray in Mobile

Along with the day-two quarterback and wide receiver options, the Senior Bowl is loaded with offensive tackle prospects who could be in play for the Patriots at the top of the second round.

After ranking dead-last in pass-blocking win rate in 2023, New England desperately needs to upgrade its offensive line this offseason – it's as much a priority as any position group on their roster.

With Mike Onwenu and Trent Brown entering free agency, the Patriots must stop kicking the can down the road at OT, which they've done for the last 2-3 drafts. Their lack of a developmental pipeline at the position has sunk their O-Line, forcing the offense to go year-to-year at a premium position. Plus, the days when Patriots Hall of Fame coach Dante Scarnecchia could pluck any draft pick and turn them into functional starters are over. Who is coaching the line anyhow? It's all a significant issue: roster building/talent and coaching along the offensive line.

There's a strong possibility that the Patriots second-round pick could be among the tackles working out in Mobile this week. In particular, here's a group to watch: Taliese Fuaga (Oregon State), Troy Fautanu (Washington), Jordan Morgan (Arizona), Tyler Guyton (Oklahoma), Kingsley Suamataia (BYU), and Patrick Paul (Houston). The two intriguing names at this juncture are Fautanu and Suamataia.

Fautanu played left tackle for the CFP runner-ups on a Washington O-Line that won the Joe Moore Award. He is an excellent athlete, displaying high-end traits as a pass protector with smooth lateral movements and quick feet to mirror sudden changes of direction. He's also an impact blocker on the move in the run game with excellent reps in pin-pull and counter schemes. His twitchy movement skills pop off the tape. Although he has above-average length, some believe he projects best inside to guard, depending on his measurables.

As for Suamataia, there are no concerns about his size translating at tackle, standing at 6-6, 325 pounds. Suamataia has 22 career starts with extensive reps at both tackle spots. He moves well for his size, with good initial quickness out of his stance and nuanced hand usage, making him a high-end pass protector. But his height does work against him with leveraging blocks, as he plays upright at times and is seldom the lower man. We'll have to see how he holds up against NFL-level power rushers who will try to get underneath his pads.

Overall, the offensive tackles featured at the Senior Bowl are a solid group that could easily produce a day-two pick for the Patriots at a major position of need.

Texas tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders (0).
Texas tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders (0).

7. Finding a Developmental Tight End and Running Back to Add to the Pipeline

Two sneaky needs for the Patriots this offseason, where they don't have any veteran tight ends signed who played snaps for them in the 2023 season – Hunter Henry, Mike Gesicki, and Pharaoh Brown are all set to hit the open market as unrestricted free agents.

Henry is a candidate for a pre-free agency extension or franchise tag, serving as a starting-caliber tight end in the short term while they bridge the gap to the next guy. We'd also entertain bringing back Brown on a vet minimum-type deal to provide depth. Both are good bets to return to the Patriots, who need something at the position going into the draft. Tight end is a difficult position to produce as a rookie, so the Pats need vets in the room here.

Still, after passing on a loaded tight end class in 2023, for whatever reason, the Patriots don't have any developmental players in the pipeline at tight end, making it a sneaky need. Top tight end prospect Brock Bowers is not participating in the college All-Star circuit, while Texas TE Ja'Tavion Sanders will be at the Shrine Bowl. However, we will see Kansas State's Ben Sinnott, Florida State TE Jaheim Bell, and Penn State's Theo Johnson, all projected day-three picks, which is in the range we'd expect the Patriots to take a tight end in this class.

There aren't any premium running back picks in this draft, but Ezekiel Elliott is not under contract, with Rhamondre Stevenson as the only proven back on the roster. Maybe they bring Zeke back to spell Stevenson in the early-down role, but they could go younger at power back while the elusive James White replacement still hangs over this team's head.

Although we wouldn't vouch for using a premium pick at either position, the Patriots have to fill out their depth at tight end and running back.

8. Don't Forget About Defense: EDGE, Free Safety, and Boundary Corner are Needs

If the Patriots use a premium draft pick on defense, it might break me after taking three defensive players in a row at the top of last year's draft.

However, that doesn't mean you completely ignore that side of the ball.

New England's options in free agency might be better than most years to add to their strengths on defense, but they could have some needs depending on how free agency goes. For example, losing edge rusher Josh Uche and/or Anfernee Jennings would create a hole there, while the same can be said about starting safety Kyle Dugger.

My guess is the Patriots will be looking for a pass-rusher in the Uche mold, a true free safety who is more comfortable in center field, and they'll need to keep stocking outside corners. Christian Gonzalez's return will provide a big boost. But it's Gonzalez, Alex Austin, Shaun Wade, and Isiaah Bolden as far as corners with some size to play the perimeter. They could still use another rotational boundary corner that can eat up snaps.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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