The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
Will Patriots continue drafting NFL combine stars?
BOSTON — While it’s easy to downplay the value of watching prospects in T-shirts and shorts, the NFL’s scouting combine remains an important piece of every team’s evaluation process.
And while the Patriots haven’t necessarily been totally enamored with players who prove to be workout warriors at the combine, that doesn’t mean they haven’t drafted a few top achievers over the years.
Last season, in fact, they reeled in two of the fastest offensive players clocked at the combine.
Tyquan Thornton’s 4.28 40-yard dash was the fastest among all wideouts. It wasn’t as fast as John Ross (4.22), who still holds the record he set in 2017 for fastest 40 by a wide receiver, but it’s certainly competitive with the best. The Patriots took Thornton in the second round.
Meanwhile, Pierre Strong’s 4.37 dash was fastest among running back prospects, and 16th-fastest among all prospects. He also placed well in the vertical jump and broad jump. The Patriots took him in the fourth round.
Then, there was Marcus Jones, arguably the most versatile player in the draft as a noted special teams returner and defensive back who occasionally played receiver.
His speed also factored into the Pats selecting him in the third round. While he was limited at the combine due to shoulder problems, he was subsequently clocked with a sub-4.4.
At this stage, it’s too early to tell how Thornton, Strong and Jones are going to turn out in the NFL. But the Patriots were clearly drawn by speed last year and admitted one of their stated goals was to get faster.
What will the focus be this year? Adding even more speed? Athleticism? Toughness? Quickness?
Matt Groh, who served
two years as the Patriots College Scouting Director before being elevated to Director of Player Personnel last year, seems to go in with a plan loosely based on need, and certainly wasn't afraid to select a couple of combine studs to fill some holes.
“You've got to consider what the player does and how the player is going to help you,” Groh said following last year's draft. “You want to get tougher? You better get tough guys. You want to get faster? You better get fast guys.”
We'll see soon enough what the Patriots have in mind. But if Groh continues to see toughness and speed as key ingredients for his prototype, expect more of the same in the 2023 draft.
Between the 40 times, three-cone drills, short shuttles, bench presses, long and high jumps, the Patriots will zero in on fits at all positions at the combine, which takes place in Indianapolis this week. Baseline physical traits and intelligence have also long been a hallmark of Patriot draft picks.
For now, Groh, along with former personnel head Dave Ziegler, who was part of the 2021 draft before heading to Las Vegas last year, seem to have righted the ship after a succession of bad draft classes (2017-2019) left the talent pool pretty dry. But it can't stop here. Groh needs to hit it big again with the draft this year.
Historically, new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien has made good use of tight ends and slot receivers in his offenses. No doubt, he and Groh will be tuned into the receiver class, and perhaps even tight end, considered one of the strongest groups in the draft.
When it comes to slot guys, though, three-cone drill results have been a good predictor for the Patriots. Deion Branch (2002) and Julian Edelman (2009) were blazers in that drill.
Edelman, who wasn't invited to the combine, posted a sizzling 6.62 three-cone at Kent State's Pro Day. That would have tied him for fourth best time overall at the 2009 combine.
Chad Jackson, Josh Boyce and Malcolm Mitchell were other draft picks who excelled at the three-cone, while Brandin Cooks, who was acquired in a trade, was another. Cooks, in fact, still holds the record for best 20-yard shuttle — another measure of quickness — at the combine.
But it's not just receivers. The Pats have filled spots all over the roster with top three-cone guys, especially cornerbacks.
Elsewhere, Chandler Jones (2012) finished fourth in that drill for defensive ends with a 7.07 second time. The Pats have also drafted some great vertical leapers, as well as long jumpers.
Linebacker Jamie Collins, a freakish athlete, was good at both. Secondround picks Darius Butler (corner) and Kyle Dugger (safety), more recently, also stood out at the combine for their jumping ability. As for strength guys, the Patriots haven't been short on those, either.
Wide receiver N'Keal Harry, their 2019 firstround pick who wound up a disappointment, benched 225 pounds 27 times, tying him for the highest total put up by a wide receiver that year. Running back Shane Vereen, a 2011 pick, had 31 reps, the fifth-best bench press performance by a running back.
So while the combine isn't the be-all, end-all when it comes to picking players, it's a piece of the puzzle.
“It's not the finish line here for these prospects, but it means we're getting close,” Groh said of the combine, speaking with Patriots.com last year. “We just take all the information and evaluate it and put it together as part of the puzzle and go from there to try to make the best decisions.”