We are less than a month out from the 2023 NFL Draft, a significant one for the Patriots as they look to regain their playoff form.
Whether it's lying season or not, seeing head coach Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Matt Groh chumming it up with TCU's Quentin Johnston while reportedly hosting USC wideout Jordan Addison and Zay Flowers on visits is compelling. The Pats have been reluctant to meet the asking prices for prized vets such as DeAndre Hopkins or Jerry Jeudy, so the search for that coveted top receiver is heading toward the draft.
As Groh told Patriots.com at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, instant-impact receivers are now premium commodities. Gone are the days of getting by without a true number-one receiver who dictates game plans and establishes a proper pecking order in the passing game.
The Patriots plan to improve offensively, which started with bringing back offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien immediately following a bumpy 2022 campaign, rides on a bounce-back season from third-year quarterback Mac Jones, who needs a go-to receiver to reach his potential.
New England's key figures seem to know how important it is to add a playmaker who can turn the tides offensively. Now, the tricky part is that they need to identify the right guy – buckle up.
Here is the latest buzz around the Patriots with three weeks to go before the 2023 NFL Draft:
1. Patriots Host Several Top Prospects on Reported Visits to Gillette Stadium
One important caveat of top-30 visits is that they do not indicate how teams have prospects ranked on their board. However, they're often a gauge of which position group the Patriots are focusing on the most. Here are a few of the big names reportedly visiting Foxboro:
WR Zay Flowers, Boston College - Yup, it's happening. I would try to contain my excitement, but it's the draft. Let's get excited. Flowers is a three-level playmaker with the tools to create separation with jitterbug quickness and explosive vertical double moves to produce big plays all over the field. He is also terrific with the ball in his hands after the catch. Draft Zay Flowers (projection: first round).
WR Jordan Addison, USC - With all the Flowers and Johnston buzz lately, Addison is flying under the radar for the Patriots. The USC product is a smooth receiver with few technical flaws. He eats up off coverage, flashes quick-twitch separation talent, and has decent ball skills to make catches outside his frame. But after an underwhelming combine, there are concerns about his explosiveness and smaller frame. Addison is at his best when he's schemed away from press coverage. My pro comparison is Calvin Ridley with a tad less vertical speed (projection: first round).
OT Broderick Jones, Georgia - Jones is an incredibly enticing left tackle prospect with all the physical tools to develop into a high-end starter. The Georgia product has eye-popping blocks in the open field, where he runs more like a tight end (4.93s at 311 pounds) and is fluid in his pass sets to mirror edge rushers on an island. As flashy as he can be at times, Jones only has 19 starts under his belt and isn't a finished product, especially in pass protection. He's over-reliant on a two-hand punch with iffy strike timing and a low hand carriage, making him prone to getting off-balance. With that said, the Pats don't typically pick early enough on day one to select a player with Jones's potential (projection: first round).
CB Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State - Forbes is a tough evaluation. His production is outstanding, with 14 career interceptions. Forbes makes up for a slender frame with great length and athleticism, while his size never seems to be a detriment in run support. The issue is that his man coverage technique is unrefined, overreacting to route fakes, locking his hips at the line of scrimmage in press-man, and stalling in transitions at the top of the route. Forbes fits better in a zone-heavy system that unlocks his ball-hawking tendencies, but the tools and production are enticing (projection: top 50).
OL Cody Mauch, North Dakota State - Every offensive line coach in the league wants to coach Mauch. This guy is an absolute road-grader with flashy finishes and a mean streak that represents all the great vibes of a starting lineman. He also has a sudden first step, great range, and the ability to reach the second level. But Mauch's likely transition inside to center or guard goes deeper than his arm length. He doesn't have smooth footwork and needs to refine his hand placement; the more space he gets in pass protection, the shakier it gets. As for his lacking length, making first contact is also an issue. Mauch will be a fantastic interior lineman (projection: day two).
WR Jonathan Mingo, Ole Miss - Mingo is a late riser among media pundits as a toolsy size/speed prospect with interesting versatility. The Ole Miss product ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at 6-2, 220 pounds, and that vertical burst is all over his film. Mingo has deep-threat capabilities, alignment flexibility to move around the formation, and enough lateral agility to translate inside or outside. Mingo isn't a separator at the top of routes, but he's a physical specimen with potential at big slot, flex tight end, and outside receiver (projection: 3-4th round).
2. Howe: Patriots Are 'Absolutely Intrigued' by First-Round RB Bijan Robinson, Showing Interest in Blue-Chip Running Backs
If you want a good laugh, tune into our first-round draft show for my live reaction to the Patriots selecting Texas running back Bijan Robinson. If it happens, it'll be a doozy. Robinson is garnering praise as a "generational" running back prospect with three down potential, smooth lateral cuts to stack moves together and accelerate, and exceptional contact balance to run through arm tackles and finish with power. He's a fantastic football player that any talent evaluator would be enamored with in a vacuum. I'm also very high on Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the second blue-chipper, who is shot out of a cannon with ridiculous play speed and fantastic versatility as a pass-catcher to line up in multiple spots.
However, with Rhamondre Stevenson still on his rookie deal, running back is the last of New England's worries. We also have enough data to conclude that rushing efficiency is more determined by scheme and blocking than by the player carrying the ball. Furthermore, running back targets are inherently less efficient than throwing to receivers, while here are where the final four teams in last year's playoffs finished in EPA per pass play: KC (1st), SF (4th), Cincy (5th), Philly (7th). It's a passing league and a league where running back value doesn't hold up as a difference-making position, let alone the fact that Rhamondre is a stud. Let's hope this is a smoke screen, or they're at least thinking Gibbs on day two.
3. Pats Brain Trust Gets to Know First-Rounder Quentin Johnston at TCU Pro Day
As we mentioned in the intro, Belichick and Groh were all smiles chatting with Johnston at TCU's Pro Day last week. I'm on the record with my feelings about Johnston as a prospect. His vertical route-running is intriguing, winning over the top and snapping off vertical stems on comeback-style routes. Johnston also has flashes after the catch, especially running through contact. That type of outside receiver could balance out the offense. However, there's way too much overlap with past whiffs like N'Keal Harry for my liking. Johnston ran in the low-4.5's at his Pro Day, fast for his size but not elite speed, and doesn't separate on horizontal cuts (unders, slants, digs). He also struggles with high-pointing the ball down the field, failing to play to his 6-foot-3 frame. I prefer the separators, but the Pats have met with Johnston several times.
4. Report: Pats Privately Met with WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Paris Johnson at Ohio State
According to the MMQB's Albert Breer, the Patriots contingent in Columbus met privately with two very strong possibilities with the 14th overall pick. The Buckeye duo reportedly met with assistant wide receivers coach Ross Douglas (JSN) and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm (Johnson).
Smith-Njigba is a fantastic route runner with excellent short-area quickness, angular cuts through his breaks, route pacing, and hands to roll immediately into YAC mode. His 2021 tape is the best collection of games in this class. Smith-Njigba lacks vertical speed and true game-breaking burst, but JSN is an Edelman clone with a first-round pedigree. Assuming good health, he will catch 100-plus passes in a season before the end of his rookie contract.
As for Johnson, I'm starting to gravitate toward him as my OT1 because he has the fewest red flags in this class. Johnson has the prototypical size, explosive feet with smooth slides and changes of direction, and solid functional power at the position with two-plus season's worth of starts against high-end competition. My only concern with Johnson's film is that he's late to fire his hands and carries them too low, allowing rushers into his frame, testing his anchor, and limiting his run-blocking power. But that's very coachable.
Fans should be ecstatic if the Patriots walk away from the first round with either Buckeye.
5. Popular Mock Draft Choice CB Devon Witherspoon Hosts Private Pro Day
Witherspoon is becoming a consensus pick for the Patriots in the first round among mock drafters. The Illinois cornerback is an absolute firecracker on the field. He's constantly around the ball, flying around seeking contact and making plays on the football when he's targeted in coverage. Witherspoon gets beat more at the line of scrimmage than the narratives suggest, but he's smooth down the field and transitions easily to stick with receivers in man coverage. Witherspoon has lockdown corner potential, but his best trait right now is his physical finishes on the ball. It's also worth mentioning that his size (5-11, 181 pounds) would make him a top-20 outlier for a team that doesn't traditionally draft corners on day one. I wouldn't knock the Pats for taking him, but I wouldn't be jumping for joy.
6. Will the Patriots Draft a Quarterback? If so, Who?
Reports surfaced from ProFootballTalk that the Patriots shopped Mac Jones this offseason, which seems unlikely. Still, there's an unproven element that head coach Bill Belichick has fed into by not committing to Jones at numerous points. Although we don't buy that the Pats are actively shopping Jones, their actions suggest they're not all-in, leading to another draft where they might take a quarterback. If they select a QB, I'd say it'll be in the Zappe-range early on day three. Here are a few options, including thoughts on popular pick Hendon Hooker, who is projected to go inside the top 50:
Hendon Hooker, Tennessee - Hooker is a bit misunderstood as a passer. He's much more efficient operating in a quick-game style scheme where he's throwing in rhythm to the short and intermediate areas of the field. His deep passing was elevated by the scheme and weapons like Jalin Hyatt rather than him being an accurate vertical thrower. Hooker also tends to hold the ball for too long, which gets him into trouble (see fumble vs. LSU), and is coming from an unconventional offense. Due to his ACL recovery, advanced age (25-year-old rookie), and needed development, the timeline doesn't match up with Hooker for a Hurts-style hedge (projection: round two, NFL comparison: Marcus Mariota).
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA -The Patriots worked with the talented five-year collegiate starter at the Shrine Bowl, coming away very impressed with his mental makeup and improved passing mechanics. DTR is a plus-athlete with great arm talent and has improved each year as a processor. He routinely finds leveraged throws to avoid help or robber coverage against man structures. Although he occasionally loses zone droppers, he is making strides as a passer from the pocket while adding out-of-structure playmaking and designed quarterback runs. Thompson-Robinson feels like their mid-round dart throw on a high-upside mobile QB, if there's one (projection: 4-5th round, NFL Comparison: Tyrod Taylor).
Jaren Hall, BYU - Hall is another toolsy quarterback prospect with a live arm, plenty of mobility, and an innate ability to create out of structure and throw off-platform. Hall is more flash than consistency at this stage, but he makes "wow" throws from the pocket (example: hitting a deep out from the far hash vs. Oregon) and throws on the move with a flick of the wrist. He's a true developmental prospect coming from an offense that hasn't necessarily translated to the pro game for other quarterbacks, but Hall could be worth the dice roll (projection: 5-6th round, NFL Comparison: discount Kyler Murray).
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