The Scouting Combine is a fact-finding mission for NFL teams as offseason plans take shape.
Although television broadcasts highlight the workouts, the combine is a hub for teams to check a few final boxes before setting their draft boards. For example, weigh-ins to get official measurements, medical checks by team doctors, and prospect interviews for some face time with the future draft picks allow clubs to complete their evaluations before prospects even take the field inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for their on-field workouts. Then, it's all about talent evaluators confirming their priors from film study.
The on-field portion of the week is often referred to as the least important element of the combine. Still, they're used to confirm what we see on film is real. For instance, a wide receiver might appear to have blazing speed. Is that backed up by his 40-yard dash time or not? If it is, great. If not, it's back to the tape to ensure your eyes aren't lying.
Despite executives often downplay the workouts in Indianapolis, the bottom line is that stocks rise and fall every year based on what transpires on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.
With the entire NFL world converging on Indianapolis this week, here are ten Patriots-related storylines we'll monitor at the NFL Combine:
1. Northwestern OT Peter Skoronski's Arm Length, Yes, Arm Length
Although it sounds antiquated to worry about arm length for offensive linemen, the reality is that Skoronski's chances of being available at the 14th overall pick might depend on his weigh-in at the combine. According to reports, the Northwestern product who wins with excellent leverage, hand technique, footwork, and savvy projects to have shorter arms under the 33-inch threshold. If that's the case, most teams will likely view him as a guard, and that could lead to him falling out of the top ten because he would no longer project as a starting left tackle. Why does arm length for offensive tackles matter? Long arms create a larger margin for error, allowing tackles to establish the first meaningful contact and keep pass-rushers from getting their hands inside their frames. The Patriots don't typically stress about things like arm length, former offensive line coach Dante Scarnnechia isn't a big believer in it being meaningful, and recent studies show very little correlation between NFL success and arm length for tackles. However, certain teams still prioritize it, and if Skoronski's arms pass the test, he'll likely be a top-ten pick.
2. Do Top OTs Broderick Jones and Paris Johnson Test Themselves Out of Pats Range?
Along the same lines, Johnson and Jones round out the consensus top-three tackles who all project as top-half of the first-round selections. This duo projects as starting left tackles at the next level, fitting the prototype with fewer concerns about body types and measurables. With that said, Johnson's athletic testing in the past hasn't been spectacular, while Jones needs a strong week in Indy to solidify his stock as the high-ceiling upside pick among the group.
Johnson checks many boxes from the ideal build, battle-tested against top edge rushers, and NFL-caliber playing strength. However, he has tested as a below-average athlete in the past, albeit at a younger age than he'll enter the NFL Draft this spring. If Johnson continues to test as a middle-of-the-pack athlete, that'll hurt his stock. As for Jones, his athleticism on the move and explosiveness out of his stance pops on film, so one would expect him to tear it up in Indy. Still, he's only made 19 starts in college, and his technique is a bit raw, so having a great workout is what he needs to lock himself into the top ten. The Patriots would be happy to come away with either of the draft's top left tackles in the first round.
3. If Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba Participates, Is He a First-Round Athletic Tester?
It's my firm belief that Smith-Njigba is WR1 in this class and is going to surprise some people with how fast he runs in the 40-yard dash. Still, right now he's a high-floor likely starter who has WR1 potential in a system that amplifies his skill set out of the slot, which could be the Patriots. If he runs like we think he might, the path for him to become a star playmaker is much easier to project. The main reason we expect him to run faster than projected is because his slower movements on tape could be more about route pacing and changing gears than a lack of speed.
Getting open isn't just about sprinting at full tilt all the time. Instead, good route runners vary their speeds and hit the gas at opportune times to create separation. Smith-Njigba's playing style, in this sense, is reminiscent of Justin Jefferson coming out of LSU. On film, it looked like Jefferson was moving in slow motion at times, but it was purposely slow to set up his routes. Ultimately, Jefferson clocked a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, ranking in the 76th percentile and definitely not slow. I'm not sure that JSN has low 4.4-speed like Jefferson, but I'm expecting him to be a main storyline coming out of the combine after testing well. Agilities too.
4. Does Boston College WR Zay Flowers Test Himself Into the First Round?
Sticking with the wide receivers, the arrow has been skyrocketing since the Shrine Bowl to the point where certain pundits are projecting Flowers as a top-20 selection. I'm not ready to put Flowers in that conversation yet, but he's an end-of-the-first-round player for me already in a similar mold as Hollywood Brown (25th overall) and Brandin Cooks (20th overall) entering the draft. Flowers's three-level route running, change of direction, and explosiveness both on vertical routes and in the open field are standout traits that should translate to the next level, especially with how open the NFL game is now offensively. Flowers is hoping to run in the low 4.3s in Indy, as he told Patriots.com in Las Vegas, and that time could move him up the board even further while making him a real first-round possibility for New England. There aren't many athletic or technical flaws to Flowers's game. Now, it's about solidifying his top-end speed as legit to quell concerns about his 5-foot-9 frame that led to issues with playing through contact.
5. Will USC WR Jordan Addison Solidify His Stock as a Top-20 Prospect?
Looking at many boards, you'll probably see TCU wideout Quentin Johnston as the top wide receiver in this year's class. However, conversations among scouts at the showcase games often had Addison as the most-likely receiver to come off the board first. Addison's blend of acceleration, route-running, versatility, skill as a ball carrier, and production are similar to DeVonta Smith's. However, the concerns with Addison's game were his ability to finish through contact and separate on vertical routes. He won't be taking any live reps at the combine, but his 40-yard dash and ten-yard split, which measures acceleration, will be a factor in his evaluation as a potential top-20 guy. Addison doesn't appear to have elite long speed to pull away from defenders, which makes his NFL projection a bit boom-or-bust since his game depends on him being a great athlete. He also took advantage of playing in space at USC, but if he's not a dynamic mover, that will not translate as well to the pro game. A strong showing in Indy could quell those concerns and make him a prime target for the Patriots with the 14th overall selection.
6. How Explosive is Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer? Dynamic Enough to be a First-Round Option?
The Patriots currently have two starting-caliber tight ends, especially if you make the case that Jonnu Smith's usage is why he hasn't been more productive in New England. New offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien could tap into Smith's potential as an open-field athlete and ball carrier, while Hunter Henry has decent receiving production in a more traditional role. With that being said, the Patriots need a dynamic weapon that produces at a Pro Bowl level and changes how opposing defenses game plan their offense. As we know from the Gronk years, that could be a tight end.
Mayer is an intriguing two-way talent as a pass-catcher and blocker. The Notre Dame product was a versatile weapon for the Irish in terms of alignment and has excellent ball skills, quickness at the line, and a rumbling YAC style. However, his straight-line speed and acceleration at the top of his routes are not impressive. He won't run away from defenders, and his feet are a little heavy as he breaks off his routes. Mayer looks like an athlete who will run in the 4.7-range at the combine, which is average for a tight end, but maybe he will surprise us. If he has another gear that didn't necessarily show up on film, Mayer could be the missing piece to the Pats offense. Also, don't sleep on Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid. He's the most dynamic receiver in this tight end class and should test very well.
7. Keep an Eye on Alabama S Brian Branch as a Dark Horse First-Round Target
The Patriots hope that veteran safety Devin McCourty will follow suit with fellow captain Matthew Slater and return for a 14th season in 2023. But the 35-year-old McCourty inches closer toward retirement, and if he does hang it up, replacing him in the Pats secondary becomes a significant void to fill this offseason. Plus, it might not be bad to have DMac's heir in the building before McCourty retires so that he can train the next man up. Yes, the Patriots have hybrid safety Kyle Dugger on a Pro Bowl trajectory, but Dugger is at his best playing closer to the line of scrimmage as a rover or Chung-like defender.
The Patriots will need a safety who can play in centerfield and wear multiple hats in the backend, which is where the Alabama product could step into McCourty's role. Branch played the "star" position as a slot defender in Nick Saban's defense. But Branch's size (6-0, 193 pounds) and excellent play speed suggest he might transition further away from the ball in the NFL. Branch's performance against Kansas State was one of the best tapes I've seen this cycle, and his click-and-close to fly to the football screams free safety. There's a chance he'll be the best player available on New England's board when the Patriots are on the clock.
8. Depth and Size at Cornerback Should be on Full Display in Indy
We've harped on the idea of the Patriots needing to target an outside corner with the body type to play full-time on the perimeter against bigger-bodied receivers. Although it's not at the top of our needs list, the Pats can't field a secondary filled with cornerbacks under six feet tall again, and it was a testament to those players and the coaching staff that they didn't get exposed each week by bigger receivers playing above the rim on their small CBs. There's something to be said for the fact that Belichick is great at finding late-round or UDFA diamonds in the rough at the position. But throughout his tenure, the Pats head coach has gone to the veteran market to acquire higher-end talent (Revis, Talib, Gilmore). Eventually, the Pats might take a chance on a first-round corner, something they haven't done since drafting McCourty, who eventually transitioned to safety, so they don't need to pay a premium for upside.
This draft is loaded with jumbo corners in the top 100. We've previously discussed first-round targets Christian Gonzalez, Devon Witherspoon, and Joey Porter Jr., but we'll also have our eye on likely day-two talents such as Maryland's Deonte Banks and Kansas State corner Julius Brents. This is a deep cornerback draft, and many of these CBs fit the mold the Patriots need as six-foot-plus-sized players.
9. Who is at the Combine From the Patriots Coaching Staff, and What is Their Involvement?
Here's one storyline we'll monitor that isn't directly related to the prospects participating in the combine. After spending a week in Vegas at the Shrine Bowl, one would expect new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to be present in Indy. With O'Brien coming directly from the college ranks back to the pros, how much input will he have on personnel decisions? O'Brien, and the same can be said for reported hire Adrian Klemm, has the unique perspective of coaching and coaching against many of these players. Could that intel give the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick a leg up in draft evaluations this year? Although it's unclear how much say Klemm and O'Brien will have in the draft room, surely the Pats will consult with the two former college coaches to get their two cents on prospects.
10. Gauging the Veteran Wide Receiver Market as Free Agency Buzz Heats Up
The other undocumented element of the combine is the chatter that comes out of every NFL decision-maker and a large media contingent gathering for a week in Indy. Yes, some of it is just rumors that never amount to anything. But it's around this time that we hear rumblings about potential moves. The wide receiver market will be top of mind, where hopefully, we'll get some intel on which veteran pass-catchers could be available via trade.