INDIANAPOLIS – The 2016 NFL Combine kicked off on Wednesday as the 332 college prospects and various league coaches and decision-makers began filtering through the Faegre Baker Daniels Club inside Lucas Oil Stadium. More than 1,100 media credentials were issued for an event that continues to grow each year.
Most of the experts consider the draft to be strong in the trenches, and while Patriots Personnel Director Nick Caserio certainly agrees, he also stressed the importance of sticking with your draft board rather than focusing solely on a certain position.
"You have to go through by position and you go top to bottom across the position and across the board," Caserio said in an exclusive interview with Patriots.com. "You have to know the draft top to bottom and you don't want to draft a player because of the depth at any position where you're taking a player just because there are a lot of players at that spot. You have to look at your team and ultimately make the decision that's best for your club."
As is often the case, the large contingent of underclassmen will dominate the class, and Caserio believes that's one of the more important elements of the Combine because it offers the first real opportunity for teams to interact with the younger players.
"Like most years the underclassmen are a huge part of it," he said. "I think there are close to 100 of them and when you get here it's really your first chance to spend time with them. Like most years there are players throughout the draft, top to bottom. Some positions have a little bit more volume than others but that's just kind of the natural process. But this year is not too much different than years past."
The offseason process is obviously not exclusively about the draft, as free agency also represents a huge part of the team-building process. Caserio talked about weighing those two elements and the importance of balancing the two as part of the preparation.
As an example, the Patriots might have identified certain needs but still have to decide which avenue is best to travel in order to fill them.
"They kind of intersect," Caserio said of free agency and the draft. "The past handful of weeks, we've had our college scouts going through the combine prep and at the same time our pro scouts, Dave Ziegler and his group, they were working on the free agent portion of it and establishing the free agent board.
"It's done independently but then from my end of it with Bill [Belichick] we kind of work together and look at the draft and free agency and have a sense of the positions that are deeper and figure out which opportunity is best to fill a particular need at the time."
One of the interesting themes to come out of Wednesday's opening round of press conferences with NFL coaches and general managers was the idea of drafting with the future in mind. The Patriots have done this occasionally in the past, specifically in 2008 and 2011 when they took tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder when Matt Light was still in place and tackle wasn't necessarily a huge need, but figured to be in the near future.
Last season the Patriots took a pair of pass rushers – Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers – in the middle rounds with Chandler Jones nearing the end of his rookie contract.
Caserio explained the importance to such practices in the ever-changing world of the NFL.
"You always have to look at your team and each year you have a new team and you're essentially starting from scratch," he said. "So, there are players who are under contract and others who won't be and you're balancing off putting your team together. The focus is obviously on the upcoming season, but you have to prepare for losing a player down the road. If you're losing a player maybe we can get ahead of the curve a little bit."
Belichick has been an outspoken proponent of expanding instant replay to include all plays including penalties. When he first broached the idea several years ago, and then again last spring at the owners meetings, there seemed to be a lukewarm response.
Some liked the idea of holding the officials accountable while others felt adding further delays to the game would only slow things down further.
Judging from some early thoughts at the Combine, Belichick's idea might be getting a bit of a push.
Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio was one of the first to hit the podium on Wednesday and he mentioned that Belichick brought up the idea when he spoke to the coaches at the meetings last spring, and he shared the Patriots coach's enthusiasm for the move.
"I thought when Bill Belichick brought it up at our meetings that it made sense then and I feel even stronger about it now," Del Rio said. "I agree with Belichick."
Denver coach Gary Kubiak was asked about it about an hour later and also expressed a willingness to change the way things are done. Kubiak hasn't always been in favor of adding to the replay mechanism but ultimately he sided with Belichick as well.
"Whatever gets it right, whatever we can do to get as close to being exactly right on game day I think everybody wants," Kubiak said. "Without slowing the game down, slowing the pace down, but trying to get things right I think we're all in favor of."
Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome, a Belichick protégé, wasn't as eager to start that practice.
"We want the game officiated in the field, not in the replay booth," Newsome said in the final press conference of the opening day.
A* Boston Herald* report indicated the Patriots and free agent-to-be LeGarrette Blount have shown "mutual interest" in a new contract. Citing a source, the report added that negotiations are just underway and no deal is imminent.
Blount rushed for just 703 yards but added six touchdowns for the Patriots in 2015 before missing the last part of the season with a hip injury. He's enjoyed marginal success with New England during his two stints with the team, mostly again Indianapolis, and he could receive a modest deal to return to compete for a role in what figures to be a revamped Patriots backfield in 2016.
Mankins mulling retirement
Logan Mankins was one of the most popular members of the team during his seven years with the Patriots. After two with the Bucs, the former All-Pro guard is mulling retirement.
Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht says he's not sure which way Mankins is leading but stressed the team will be prepared either way.
"We'll be talking to Logan in the next few weeks," Licht said at the Combine. "His decision isn't going to have any sort of hindrance on what we're planning on doing for the future. You've got to build. You've got to look three years ahead, so his decision isn't going to hurt us in any way right now with what we're planning on doing."
Licht and the Bucs love the leadership the 34-year-old Mankins has provided and would love to have him back, but the decision is in Mankins' hands.
Forte far from done
One of the Patriots areas of need is running back. After watching Tom Brady record two of the team's three longest runs in the postseason, it would appear as if the time is now to add some pop to the position.
One veteran who is about to hit free agency that has drawn plenty of attention around New England is Matt Forte. The Bears running back has been one of the most versatile performers in the game during his eight-year career, rushing for 8,602 yards and 45 touchdowns while adding 487 receptions for 4,116 yards and 19 more touchdowns.
Despite Chicago's recent decision to part ways with him, head coach John Fox believes Forte will be productive wherever he winds up.
"Meeting with Matt, I don't think Matt's football is over," Fox said. "I think that's part of the reason we were pretty early and honest with him about moving forward. I think it helps him and I think Matt Forte will play more football. We wanted to give him that opportunity.
"Obviously we felt good. What allowed us to make that decision, albeit a very difficult decision, was the confidence we had in our younger RBs. I think any time a guy with Matt Forte's reputation, what he's been through with the organization, such a great, great pro, was for us in just the one year we had him and has been for a long time, it's never, never an easy decision. But at the end of the day, I think it was best for him — the timing — and best for us."