Notre Dame tight end John Carlson. AP Photo.
INDIANAPOLIS - Chances are, the Patriots will pick a tight end in April's NFL Draft.
In eight previous Drafts here in New England, head coach Bill Belichick and player personnel boss Scott Pioli have chosen a TE every year, last season being the lone exception.
What's more, injuries and age were a factor at the position for the Patriots last season. Promising second-year man David Thomas landed on IR, missing the entire season, while veterans Benjamin Watson and Kyle Brady missed several games due to injury. Brady's role was predominantly as an extra blocker in the running game, while Watson caught most of the passes thrown the tight ends' way.
Is there a player in the upcoming Draft who might fit in New England's system? And if so, where might the Pats select him? The first step in answering those questions came Thursday in Indianapolis, where the best college TEs in the nation met with the media at the NFL's annual Scouting Combine.
None of the players had yet worked out for scouts, so their stocks are likely to rise or fall based on those performaces. But at this point, here's our best guess at which prospects may wind up getting a call from the Patriots in April.
While USC's Fred Davis (6-3, 250) is widely considered the top tight end in this year's crop, perhaps Notre Dame's John Carlson (6-5, 251), who played in New England's offense under Irish head coach and former Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, would be quicker to adapt.
"It was beneficial to play under coach Weiss, obviously. He used that quite a bit," Carlson said of Weis' New England-style offense at Notre Dame.
"He had a lot of success when he was coordinator there. The first couple of years at N.D., he had a veteran group, and what he did at New England translated well. I feel fortunate to have learned under him for three years."
Some draft observers are currently projecting Carlson as a 2nd-round choice, but a strong performance at the Combine could catapult him into the first round. If he lasts into the second round, he might be too tempting for the Pats to pass up.
He's intelligent (majored in history, minored in anthropology, with a GPA just fractions shy of a 4.0) athletic (he fielded a few basketball offers coming out of high school), and well-spoken. And the fact that he's familiar with the offense is a bonus.
"I played conventional tight end for the most part," Carlson added. "Coach Weiss moved me around a bit. I think, being that the Patriots run the same offense, I might know some of the terminology and basics."
Another possibility in rounds one or two is Texas A&M's Martellus Bennett (6-7, 248), one of the many juniors who chose to leave school early for the fame and fortune of the NFL.
"New England would be fun," Bennett said with a wide grin when asked to speculate on where he might fit best in the NFL.
Belichick and his staff may have fun finding a role for the big Bennett, who says his route-running technique is where he needs the most improvement. Otherwise, he feels he's ready to take the next step.
"Running after the catch," he replied to a question about his greatest strength, "and I think I can block – I know I can block defensive ends in the NFL."
Clearly not lacking in confidence and an admitted ham for the cameras, Bennett would probably be asked to take a more humble approach if chosen by the Pats.
Versatile is a term that's ascribed to many a Patriot. It's also an adjective that best describes Michigan State's Kellen Davis (6-6, 262).
Though mostly a tight end in his years in East Lansing, Davis also played a reserve role at defensive end, and on special teams as well.
"Yeah, it's definitely something that can help me in the long run," he predicted, particularly his experience on the D-line.
"Oh, I mean it helps a lot. Just knowing the techniques, and what their reaction will be to whatever I do as a tight end. Information is power in this game. The more you can get, the better you'll be.
"A few scouts even talked about me just playing defense. I'm just ready to make the jump, whether it's offensively or defensively. Having the opportunity to play both ways in the NFL would be great."
He added that he "loves" playing on special teams. Sounds like the kind of player New England always looks for.
"Yeah, I've met with the Patriots a few times, met with their scouts," Davis revealed. "Had a pretty good conversation with them."
Tennessee's Brad Cottam (6-8, 271) has already spoken to some members of the Patriots scouting department, too.
"I talked to them at the Senior Bowl," he said Thursday. "I talked to a couple of people there."
And it's easy to see why. He's enormous, yet fleet afoot.
"That's what makes me a little bit unique, being 270 and still being able to run fast. I think that's huge."
So why is Cottam considered a mid-round choice at this point? Likely because of his injury history.
"I've kind of had an injury-plagued career," he admitted. "That's a big question with me is my durability. Today we had all the medical testing and everything went fine for me. So I think that question is kind of being erased for me now. All this is maybe a little more important for me, missing nine games of my senior season. There might be a little more emphasis. They might be watching me a little more closely."
Most recently, Cottam is coming off a broken wrist, which forced him to miss most of his senior season at Tennessee.
"It was one of those ones where you didn't know if you were going to miss the whole season or not. I was able to come back and finish strong with a touchdown in the Outback Bowl and I was able to score in the Senior Bowl. I had a great week of practice. Everything has been uphill since the injury."
Late-rounders and sleepers
J.J. Finley (6-6, 254) of Oklahoma is someone to keep in mind, a converted QB who's athletic and big. Maryland's Joey Haynos (6-7, 262), a former high school basketball star who always preferred football, is also a candidate.
But if you're thinking sleepers, remember the name Kolo Kapanui (6-3, 268).
This native Hawaiian started out at USC, but an injury and a red-shirt year left him discontent. He ended up at a Division II school – West Texas A&M – but clearly feels he measures up well with his top-shelf peers, especially after having played with some of them at Southern Cal. He certainly has the size to block pro defenders, but he thinks his strength is in his pass-catching ability.
All he needs, he feels, is some guidance to become a legitimate NFL player.
"I told the scouts, I never had a true TE coach," Kapanui explained. "It's always, 'OK do some drills with the O-line, then some drills with the receivers.' You're always in that middle, that hybrid position. Just being with an NFL position coach would elevate my game even more."