Mobile, AL – The new era in New England is in full swing, with the NFL Draft front and center at this year's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
After spending time at the East-West Shrine game, another All-Star showcase for this year's draft class, the Patriots had 11 scouts on hand for the Senior Bowl led by Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh, Senior Personnel Advisor Patrick Stewart, and College Scouting Director Camren Williams. The days in Mobile consisted of back-to-back practice sessions for the American and National squads, meetings, and interviews with the prospects.
For the Patriots personnel department and head coach Jerod Mayo, the word is collaboration. At Mayo's introductory press conference, Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft detailed how they'll proceed in the roster-building process this offseason.
"We have a lot of people internally who have had a chance to train and learn under the greatest coach of all time – a man who, as a football intellect, is very special. In the short term, we're looking for collaboration," Kraft explained.
Speaking to Patriots.com at the Senior Bowl, Groh and Williams went into detail about the collaborative scouting process, how the Patriots scouts will work with the team's new coaching staff, and gave their initial impressions of the 2024 NFL Draft class.
Groh is in his 13th season with the organization and his second as Director of Player Personnel. To him, the Patriots scouting operation hasn't changed much despite changes to the coaching staff.
"Yeah, it's been great," Groh said of the collaborative process. "This is what we've always done here is get together as a group and talk things out. So, not a whole lot has changed on our end. I'm looking forward to having the staff be a part of the evaluation process as we go through free agency and the draft."
On Thursday, the Patriots announced Alex Van Pelt (offensive coordinator), DeMarcus Covington (defensive coordinator), and Jeremy Springer (special teams coordinator) as their three coordinators on Coach Mayo's staff. Groh and Williams explained how the Patriots scouts will work with New England's new coordinators to find players that fit their systems.
"We're always looking at the skill set and evaluating what kind of scheme a player will fit best in. We're trying to identify the players that'll fit in each different scheme and go from there," Groh said.
With the pre-draft circuit in the beginning stages, NFL teams aren't close to stacking their draft boards. Although a bulk of the work is done in the fall with film evaluations and in-person exposures on the scouting trail, there's still much more information to gather before the board is set. The Patriots will evaluate players in these draft showcases, get to know them more at the NFL Scouting Combine, travel to pro days, and host players on top-30 visits. Then, once they have the complete picture, teams will start stacking the board to make selections in April's draft.
"It's more just identifying good players and finding players in the right buckets and values within their skill sets and how they fit for our team," Williams told Patriots.com. "We'll have a coach that comes to us and says, hey, I want this and this position. These are the skills that I'm looking for. Then we can identify a list of players that we think fit that."
Although the goal right now is to have an open mind about all the prospects in this year's draft, Coach Mayo has highlighted three major needs for the Patriots this offseason: quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive tackle.
When asked about the direction the Patriots might go with the third overall pick, Mayo told WEEI Radio: "We're going to take the best available player for the biggest need on the team – offensive line, receiver, quarterback – pick your [choice]."
With the understanding the Patriots could target those positions, Williams gave his impressions of where the strengths are in the 2024 NFL Draft.
"There's a couple of good positions in this draft. Quarterbacks are pretty deep, tackle is deep, so there's probably different avenues to make our team better based on what's available in the draft," Williams said.
"As an organization, there's nothing more important than team success. A lot of these guys have really done a great job in leading their team, and now we get to drill down and see who they are as people as well."
- Patriots Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh
Speaking on quarterbacks in particular, Groh pointed to the experience in this year's class. Due to the COVID-19 impact on college football and the new NIL and transfer portal options, players stay in school longer. For example, Washington's Michael Penix Jr., the top-rated quarterback by many at the Senior Bowl, spent six seasons in college. Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, the other highly-rated prospect at the position in Mobile, is a fifth-year senior entering the draft.
"It's a good group. You've got guys who have played five years of college football and more for some of these guys. There's a lot of experience and success with these players, individual and team," Groh said of the quarterback class. "As an organization, there's nothing more important than team success. A lot of these guys have really done a great job in leading their team, and now we get to drill down and see who they are as people as well."
According to Williams, the last aspect of Groh's answer is a major part of the evaluation process. As a quarterback, you're in a leadership position, and the cerebral nature in which you think about the game is huge. Teams haven't gotten to know these prospects beyond scouting their on-field performance so now is the time to figure them out as people and test their football IQ.
"There's a lot of talented quarterbacks. For us, it's going to be a big process. That position …there's so much about this part when we actually get to meet them. This is where quarterbacks separate themselves," Williams explained. "There are different categories within the process. There's the fall, where we evaluate the tape, and then there's the All-Star games, the combine, Pro Day workouts, the interactions, and interviews. So that position, in particular, is super important in that regard. So that's going to be a big piece to it. But, in general, it's a talented quarterback class."
At the wide receiver position, Groh echoed a sentiment he shared with Patriots.com at the NFL Scouting Combine last February. New England is lucky to be a wide receiver-needy team, as this year's rookie class is considered by many to be one of the best in recent years.
"You need to have explosive players. You look at the teams that are playing deep into the playoffs and they have explosive players, whether that's on the perimeter, or the backfield, or the tight end position. The quickest way to score points is through explosive plays. You get that by having explosive players and somebody who can get those guys the ball," said Groh.
Several receivers helped their stock in Mobile with a strong showing in practice. From this perspective, Michigan WR Roman Wilson, Florida's Ricky Pearsall, Georgia wideout Ladd McConkey, and USC receiver Brenden Rice were standouts. Without much to prove after terrific collegiate careers, top receivers such as Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State), Malik Nabers (LSU), and Rome Odunze (Washington) aren't participating in the college All-Star game circuit.
The on-field evaluation is critically important at every position, but Williams explained that the athletic testing numbers teams will gather in the coming months are vital to evaluating receivers.
"The big piece a lot of times is the testing results because that's such an athletic position. What they run in the 40, how they jump, their hands, and all those things in the pro day and workout settings, that'll be a big piece to it," Williams said.
One modern element of the Senior Bowl that's hard to miss is the emergence of player tracking data. During practices, Zebra Technologies populates the Hancock Whitney Stadium scoreboard with data from that day's session, such as top speed, ball velocity (for QBs), and other metrics from live play.
Rather than using stopwatches to time 40-yard dashes at the combine or pro days, evaluators are now looking at how fast players are moving in games, allowing them to see how speedy players are in pads while chasing the ball or being chased. The Patriots, of course, use the data. However, Williams explained that looking at the in-game tracking data in context is important.
"Zebra times are useful, but you have to put them in context. How long did it take for that player to get to top speed? You'll see a player with a 70-yard touchdown that made it to 21 miles per hour versus your short, intermediate underneath type that may not have had the opportunity to run it 70 yards. We use it. We use all those things. At the end of the day, we want players that play fast," Williams said.
Lastly, the Patriots must upgrade the offensive line for whoever is at quarterback next season. The yranked dead-last in ESPN's pass-blocking win rate metric while finishing middle of the pack in run blocking. Several prospects impressed along the offensive line in Senior Bowl practices, with Oklahoma OT Tyler Guyton and Oregon State's Taliese Fuaga standing out as potential risers.
"Where this part of the process comes in is so much a character and toughness [position]. That's the personality of the team," Williams stated. "You need to really fall in love with the offensive linemen you take, and that will be an important piece as we get more familiar with them the next couple of months."
After taking in the week's events at the Senior Bowl, the next step in the scouting process is the NFL Combine later this month in Indianapolis. Then, free agency sets the table in mid-March, followed by the pro-day circuit and top-30 visits before the 2024 NFL Draft on April 25th-27th.
The Patriots have a major offseason ahead with the third overall pick and a projected $70 million in cap space to spend in the veteran market.
For now, New England's scouts are on fact-finding missions, looking to absorb as much information as possible about the potential future Patriots in this draft class.