INDIANAPOLIS – Unlike last year's Combine, when smaller slot-type players were all the rage, the wide receiver position this year is dominated by big-bodied, speedy underclassmen.
That's good news for the Patriots. With All-Pro Wes Welkerout indefinitely with a knee injury, Randy Mossanother year older and starting to predict that this will be his last year in New England, and more question marks than answers on the rest of the depth chart, the Patriots will more than likely target at least a couple of pass catchers in April's draft. Particularly when they have four of the top 53 picks.
If they decide to select in the later rounds, there appears to be plenty there from which to choose as well.
* = underclassman
(Expected selection: Rounds 1-2)
* Golden Tate, Notre Dame (5-11, 195)
Perhaps the best hands in this year's draft. Tate proved that game after game in 2009, his junior season in South Bend that saw
him win the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver and earn several All-American honors. The high school running back-turned-collegiate wide receiver also played baseball for the Irish and was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007.
On the gridiron, he's also a talented kick/punt returner, another positive aspect of his game. But as far as the Patriots are concerned, Tate's knowledge of the New England offense, brought to Notre Dame by former head coach and erstwhile Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, could be the deal-clincher. Tate admitted as much in his Combine interview with the media.
"That's one of the reasons I accepted a scholarship to Notre Dame, because I knew the situation I was going into was that Coach Weis is a professional caliber coach, the system's got to be similar. So, I knew that I was going to have an edge when I pursued my dream of playing professional football ... He came from the Patriots, won championships, and I knew that I was going to get better and learn the game."
Asked to compare himself to any current NFL receivers, Tate named Carolina's Steve Smith and Minnesota's Percy Harvin.
* Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State (6-2, 220)
Bryant may have displayed exceptional talent at the college level, but his media Q&A at the Combine was dominated by persistent queries about his professional relationship with Deion Sanders, which led the NCAA to suspend Bryant for 10 games in 2009, likely precipitating his early entry in this year's draft. Bryant didn't appear to handle the reporters' questions nearly as deftly as he did the football when it was thrown his way in Stillwater. He was an All-American in 2008 and might have challenged Tate for the Biletnikoff had he played a full '09 slate.
Brandon LaFell, LSU (6-3, 206)
The consensus leader of this year's senior wide receivers, LaFell and his 175 career receptions for 2,517 yards and 25 touchdowns place him among the most productive receivers in LSU history.
"I compare myself to [the Arizona Cardinals'] Anquan Boldin," LaFell told reporters Friday at the Combine. "He's a big, physical receiver. He does great things after he catches the ball. I try to pattern my game after him."
* Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech (6-3, 229)
Thomas broke his foot injury while running recently and will be unable to work out for at least a few more weeks. But the junior's stock had been rising, thanks to his productivity at Georgia Tech, where he caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards last season for an eye-popping 25-yard average. Thomas hopes to be healthy enough to perform for NFL scouts prior to the draft in late April, which could determine how high he's drafted in the first round, as most observers expect he will.
* Damian Williams, USC (6-1, 195)
Some thought Williams might suffer from losing Mark Sanchez a year ago, but Williams responded well with 70 catches, 1010 yards, six TDs, plus All-PAC 10 and team MVP honors. Originally an Arkansas Razorback, Williams earned All-SEC recognition as a freshman in 2006 before transferring to Southern Cal. Clearly, he can make plays against top-flight competition, which explains why he's decided to shoot for the NFL a year early. Williams
* Arrelious Benn, Illinois (6-2, 220)
Some scouts compare him to Boldin. Benn was one of the few receivers who didn't talk to reporters at the Combine Friday.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
(Expected selection: Rounds 3-5)
Jordan Shipley**, Texas (6-0, 190)
A fan favorite among Patriots followers (if you read the Ask PFW questions we receive each week), Shipley was asked about comparisons of him to New England's Wes Welker.
"That's not a bad comparison to me," Shipley responded. "I think that guy does job as good or better than anybody in the league. It's almost like a separate position. He's in there inside, and nobody can cover him."
Shipley, who played every receiver spot in the Texas offense at one time or another in his career, could be an attractive prospect to teams like New England that value versatility.
Riley Cooper, Florida (6-4, 222)
Cooper's stock is on the rise. The dual-sport Gator turned down a minor league baseball offer last month to concentrate on football.
" I love them both. I've been playing them so long, but eventually, there comes a time when you've got to choose," Cooper told the media Friday. "Sometimes it's after high school. Mine was after college. It was tough, but … it was a great situation to be in."
The stigma Cooper will have to overcome isn't anything he can control. The lack of production in the NFL by Florida receivers, by and large, is something he feels won't affect him.
"I'm just a little different player. I'm big, I'm physical, I'm tough, I've got good hands. I'm a little different from those guys."
Cooper is already somewhat familiar with the Patriots offense, as head coach Bill Belichick is a frequent visitor to Gainesville, where he's friendly with Gator boss Urban Meyer.
"Coach Meyer, he's smart, but he definitely gets some great ideas from Coach Belichick, for sure," Cooper observed. "Our offense is different than most. We run a lot of different routes, we adjust our routes based off the coverages every snap – a lot of things that the professional teams are talking to me about. So, I feel like I'm already ready for it."
That could be music to New England's ears.
Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati (6-0, 179)
Overcoming adversity? Gilyard's got that covered. After losing his scholarship as a sophomore when a prof accused him of cheating, Gilyard worked several jobs and slept in his car to make end meet. He was allowed back on the team as a junior and has excelled ever since. He's a kick returner as well, which could help his stock. Gilyard didn't address the media on Friday, however.
Taylor Price, Ohio (6-0, 198)
Reportedly runs the 40 in the 4.3 neighborhood. That alone puts him in elite company in this year's draft crop.
* Carlton Mitchell, South Florida (6-4, 212)
Big and fast, Mitchell appears to be climbing up many draft boards.
* Mike Williams, Syracuse (6-2, 212)
Suspended for academics in '08, the talented but troubled Williams quit the Orange football team last season. Clearly, character and maturity issues are a concern, but he still managed to lead the 'Cuse in receiving last year in just seven appearances.
Eric Decker, Minnesota (6-3, 215)
Very similar to Cooper in size, Decker is also a baseball star. His 2009 football season ended this past November, though, when Decker injured his foot. He revealed that he's having surgery next month and doctors tell him he'll be ready to play in the fall. He'll have to convince teams of that, but Decker certainly proved he can catch the football when healthy. Route-running, he told reporters Friday at the Combine, is his strength.
(Expected selection: Rounds 6-7; undrafted rookie free agents)
Seyi Ajirotutu, Fresno State (6-3, 211)
Ajirotutu is almost certainly on the Patriots radar, given his connection to Pat Hill, the Bulldogs head coach who used to be a Belichick assistant in Cleveland.
"My game? A big-man's game. I'm trying to be a big man playing a little man's game. Be quick, be fast, run crisp routes, play as hard as I possibly can," he proclaimed Friday in media interviews. But he balked initially when asked if he'd be willing to play in the slot.
"Ah … I've always played outside, so I probably want to stay there. Inside … it wouldn't hurt to try it."
Ryan Wolfe, UNLV (6-1, 205)
Another prolific receiver who injured a foot in November. But Wolfe leaves Vegas as the leading receiver in Runnin' Rebels history. He came across as very bright and well-spoken at the Combine, and was very forthcoming when asked to assess his greatest area of needed improvement.
" In my training, I'm trying to work on my press off the ball – in the Mountain West, we really didn't see too much bump-and-run, press coverage – and my separation on routes.
I'm trying to work on the tops of my routes and my foot-fires on the line."
That's exactly what teams like the Patriots like to hear. Once healthy, Wolfe said he'll go to Los Angeles to work out with former Tennessee Titans wide receiver Drew Bennett.
Stephen Williams, Toledo (6-5, 210)
Scouts must be drooling over his size, and here's how he described himself as a player.
"A mixture of Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald," he said at the Combine on Friday. "Being a deep threat, and when the ball's up in the air, jumping as high as I can and making the play. We run a lot of screens and bubbles … I caught a lot of them, too. I think I'm well versed in different plays."
Could he see himself in New England opposite Moss?
"Oh, yeah, it would be a good feeling, especially with the organization and dynasty they have, and just playing with a great quarterback and a great receiver I can learn from. It would be a great feeling."
Williams needs to work on his blocking, he added, as he overcomes a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Marc Mariani, Montana (6-0, 185)
One of the best receivers in the FCS (formerly Division I-AA).