We’re 48 hours away from the annual meat market known as the NFL Combine.
Coaches and front office personnel are gearing up to descend upon Indianapolis and observe the latest crop of college players hoping to jump into the pros.
(Literally. Players are judged on how far they can jump. Because a decent long-jump score is a necessary attribute in every NFL prospect).
Anyway, the Combine is when the scouting process really ramps up for most teams ahead of the draft at the end of April. The areas of need for the Patriots are pretty easy to identify (defense, defense, defense, receiver) so who should Belichick and company be watching this week? Some options:
Xavier Rhodes, Defensive Back, Florida State
Since the Patriots hold the 29th pick in this year’s draft, they will want to focus on players like Rhodes who have late first or early second round talent. Rhodes, a junior, has experience at corner and safety and checks in at 6’2” and 215-lbs. That means he’s a big corner. Big is good. It’s imposing, it gets in your face and it gives a good deal of range to a player’s game. All things the Patriots need in their backfield. The plus on Rhodes though is that he’s a great athlete with good ball skills and awareness. There’s room for growth, as with all prospects, but he’s physical and is willing to press hard at the line and challenge receivers. New England needs an attitude adjustment on defense and Rhodes could be a part of that.
Robert Lester, Defensive Back, Alabama
Belichick loves Nick Saban. Lester spent the last four years in Birmingham learning from him. This is a player the Patriots could get in the third or fourth round but who makes plays. He’s not as physical as Mark Barron was before him, but he’s got great ball skills. His strength is playing the pass and the Patriots have been woeful against the pass for years. Lester has a reputation for working hard and work ethic is as critical as anything in the Pats system. He’s not a superstar by any means, but there’s a lot of upside for him under Belichick’s tutelage.
Chris Harper, Wide Receiver, Kansas State
The receiver position for the Patriots seems very fluid right now. Is Wes Welker coming back? What about Deion Branch? Donte Stallworth? Who will they target in free agency? There are plenty of question marks. Harper isn’t one. He’s a big (6’1”, 228lbs) physical runner who has explosive playmaking abilities. He led the Wildcats in catches his previous two seasons and he brings that rougher, in-your-face attitude the Patriots desperately need in their finesse offense.
Denard Robinson, Wide Receiver, Michigan
Hear me out on this one. The Patriots are all about players who bring versatility to their schemes. Julian Edelman was a quarterback they turned into a wide receiver they turned into a punt returner. With a guy as athletic as Robinson, the possibilities are endless for what they could do offensively. While he won’t be challenging Tom Brady’s back up for playing time at quarterback, he brings the threat of the throw with him. Plus, he’s elusive from the backfield. Line him up in a two-back set and see what happens. Try his hand at returning kicks. If he shows he’s got good hands at the Combine, line him up as your third or fourth receiver.
It’s hard to say where Robinson will fall because he’s essentially entering the Combine at a completely different position than the one he played in college, but the Patriots should do their homework. He could have a lot to offer their bland offensive sets.