It's early on in the draft process but after Saturday's Senior Bowl, here are some observations of players the Patriots could be interested in when April's draft rolls around. Keep in mind that PFW will have a lot more on these prospects in the coming months. Andy Hart and I will be attending the NFL Scouting Combine and we've already begun calling college coaches to get their thoughts on certain players. If you love the Patriots and the draft, Patriots.com will once again be the place for non-stop draft coverage from now until Mr. Irrelevant hears his name called.
-I have been watching Mississippi ILB Patrick Willis closely for the last two years. I believe he's one of the best defensive players in the draft and someone who can come in and contribute for an NFL team right away. Mississippi Head Coach Ed Orgeron said he thinks Willis will be a better pro than Lofa Tatupu, who he saw a lot of when he served as the defensive line coach at USC.
Willis had a great week of practice in Mobile, where he proved to be the best inside linebacker prospect on either squad. There were questions about Willis' coverage skills but he answered some of those throughout the week by sticking to tight ends and running backs during 11-on-11 drills. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Willis also does a good job of taking on offensive linemen and shedding blockers. His had 137 total tackles as a senior and ranked third nationally in solo tackles.
In the game itself, Willis made a nice tackle on the opening kickoff but had a tough first series on defense. He was driven back by Rutgers RB Brian Leonard on a fourth-and-1 and then was pancaked by a pulling guard on the next play that allowed Penn State's Tony Hunt to score. Willis settled down after the first series and was active against the run. He made a hard tackle on Kansas State RB Thomas Clayton at the 2-yard line to force a fumble that went out of bounds. Willis had a very solid game after a slow start and should cement himself as the best inside linebacker in this draft at the combine.
-Purdue's Anthony Spencer was a defensive end in college but at 6-3, 260 pounds, he would be a good fit as an outside pass rusher in a 3-4 defense. Spencer is an excellent athlete with tremendous speed off the corner. He's also strong for his size, bench-pressing over 500 pounds.
Coming into the Senior Bowl practices, scouts questioned how Spencer would perform against bigger offensive tackles but he held his own. The knock on him at Purdue was big tackles would engulf him at times. However, standing up in the 3-4, Spencer can use his speed and quickness to combat his lack of size. He had a great week of practice, displaying a non-stop motor and pass rushing skills that could have him moving up the draft boards.
Spencer was very active during the game. On one play in the second quarter he used his speed to beat Arkansas OT Tony Ugoh badly off the ball. He recovered a Kenneth Darby fumble in the third quarter on a play when he had good penetration in the backfield. Spencer repeatedly beat his man to the outside with a quick first step, one time resulting in half a sack on Houston QB Kevin Kolb.
I spoke to Spencer's position coach at Purdue, Terrell Williams. He talked about Spencer being a complete player and possibly a good fit in New England. I will have all of Williams' comments about his former player when I do a story about Spencer after spending time with him at the combine.
-A receiver who had a good week in Mobile was Washington State's Jason Hill. At 6-1, 210 pounds, Hill has good size to go along with his blazing speed. Playing in the Pacific Northwest, some people may not know a lot about Hill but he certainly made a name for himself during Senior Bowl week.
Hill was probably the most impressive receiver on either side during the game. He had a 35-yard gain on a double reverse on the North's first drive and showed good speed and open field moves. Hill then provided arguably the most impressive play of the day when he caught a 7-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone over Tennessee CB Jonathan Wade. Hill did a good job of not giving up on the play when QB Troy Smith was moving outside the pocket and reached over the cornerback's outstretched hand to pull the ball in.
It's no secret that the Patriots need help at receiver and while Hill has improved his draft stock, he'll most likely be available in the second or third round due to the depth at the receiver position. Hill's 32 touchdown receptions at Washington State is a school record and second in Pac 10 history, so he knows how to find the end zone.
-A player we're keeping a close eye on here at PFW is Miami S Brandon Meriweather. He has some character concerns that could turn off a team like the Patriots but on the field the hard-hitting safety is a stud in the defensive backfield.
Meriweather is that rare breed of safety in the Rodney Harrison-mold where he has the speed to cover a lot of ground in coverage, as well as the ability to turn out the lights on a receiver. A physical player with a mean streak, Meriweather is very good in run support and is always around the football. He had 259 tackles and seven interceptions during his career at Miami.
The former Hurricane had an impressive week of practice and was a force once the game started. Meriweather put a big hit on Fresno State WR Paul Williams in the second quarter to prevent a completion. He was also active coming up against the run and sticking ball carriers. Meriweather broke up a pass intended for Notre Dame's Rhema McKnight on a fade route to save a touchdown when he reached in and batted the ball down. He showed good instincts in the third quarter by ripping the football away from Hunt but the referees called the running back down.
The combine will be very important for Meriweather, especially the interview process. If he can assure NFL teams that he's matured over the last few months, he has a chance to be a first-round selection in April's draft. In regards to his play on the field, Meriweather is a physical, athletic safety that could become be a huge asset to the Patriots defense. Like I said, PFW will be following Meriweather closely over the next three months and we'll be sure to keep Patriots fans informed on his progress.
-There may be thinking out there that the Patriots won't take a running back high in this draft because they selected Laurence Maroney in the first round last year. However, looking at the team's current stable of backs, that may not be the case. Corey Dillon has possibly one more season in him and Kevin Faulk is getting up there in age as well. Don't be surprised if New England grabs another young running back on the first day of the draft.
Two backs that played well on Saturday were Hunt and Leonard. Going into the game, I told my PFW counterparts that Hunt was a guy I really wanted to watch because I think he's one of the best backs in this draft. He didn't disappoint after his 38 yards and a touchdown earned him game MVP honors.
Hunt didn't have a great week of practice but that didn't really surprise me. He's not one of those players that's going to jump out at you in practice. He also won't put up great computer numbers at the combine. However, once he puts the pads on and the whistle blows, this kid gets the job done. There's a good chance his draft stock may even slip after he runs at the combine and scouts fall in love with a blazer who looks the part in shorts and a t-shirt. In other words, Hunt is a football player and as we all know, those are the type of guys the Patriots target.
Hunt is a tough inside runner. He's always driving the pile forward to get positive yards. Hunt had the most carries (654) of any running back in Penn State history. Known for running between the tackles, during the game Saturday Hunt showed his ability to get outside and turn it upfield. North Head Coach Jon Gruden called Hunt "The Anvil" because of the way he hammers the ball inside.
The biggest concern regarding Hunt is all the carries he got in college. Because of his Dillon-like straight ahead running style, he's already taken a lot of hits and may have a short shelf life in the NFL.
Leonard, or "Mr. Patriot" as I like to call him, is a versatile player who lined up at both running back and fullback in college. This is a guy who does everything well. He's a tough inside runner, can get to the outside, blocks well and is a tremendous receiver out of the backfield. Unlike Hunt, Leonard is a very good practice player. He really turned some heads last week and is shooting up the draft boards.
Considered a RB/FB hybrid, Leonard shed 15 pounds before the Senior Bowl to show NFL scouts that he could be a primary running back at the pro level. While I don't agree with his strategy, it didn't seem to bother Leonard during the game. He converted two short runs into first downs by driving back both Willis and Florida State's Buster Davis on separate plays, two of the top inside linebacker prospects in this draft. Leonard also showed quick feet in the open field when he caught a pass on fourth down, made a defender miss, and got beyond the chains to keep the drive alive.
If there was ever a time to use the phrase "A Patriots-kind of player," this is it. Leonard has the versatility to play running back, fullback and special teams. Those kinds of skills will make the Rutgers standout a very sought after commodity come draft day.
-It was tough to get a read on the South's receivers because their offense struggled to move the football all day. However, one guy who caught my eye was Florida State's Chris Davis. At 6-0, 180 pounds, Davis will have to make his living as a slot receiver in the NFL. However, adding to his value is the fact that Davis can return punts, something that may intrigue the Patriots.
Davis is exceptionally quick in the open field and while he didn't catch a lot of passes at Florida State, he did average 13.5 yards per reception. Keep in mind that Davis played with some bad quarterbacks during his time with the Seminoles, so he could actually end up being more productive in the pros than he was in college.
The diminutive receiver had a good week of practice and caught two passes during the game, while also returning punts. Davis is most likely going to be a second day selection and is by no means a No. 1 receiver. However, Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk won't be around forever to return punts. That's probably an area where New England will look to upgrade this offseason. Watch out for receivers like Davis who have the flexibility to also serve as return men on Day 2 of the draft.
-Nebraska DE/OLB Jay Moore had a huge game for the North's defense. Moore is 6-2 and 280 pounds but he has the speed and quickness to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Moore lined up as both a standup linebacker and defensive end in Nebraska's defense. He finished his college career with 38 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 12 sacks.
Moore recorded three sacks on Saturday, although he wasn't blocked on two of them. Still, he showed good speed getting to the quarterback coming off the edge. Moore flew in untouched to sack Florida's Chris Leak in the second quarter, forcing a fumble. He came free again in the fourth quarter to sack UTEP's Jordan Palmer. Moore stripped Leak again in the fourth quarter after beating the offensive tackle to the inside. He ended up with three sacks and two forced fumbles on the day.
Bill Belichick has said in the past that trying to project a college defensive end to an NFL outside linebacker is one of the hardest things for coaches and scouts to evaluate. Moore has some experience standing up in the 3-4 but it will be up to the Patriots coaching staff to figure out if he can make the transition full-time. Moore's stock is definitely on the rise after his strong showing at the Senior Bowl.