It has always amused me that one of Bill Belichick’s first reactions to winning the Super Bowl has been, “Well, we missed the Senior Bowl, and the combine is in three weeks, so we’re pretty behind.” It’s that type of forward-thinking mindset that has kept Belichick and the Patriots among the NFL’s elite for nearly two decades.
With the bitter taste of their first Super Bowl loss in six years still fresh, Belichick and the rest of the New England front office should be more motivated than ever to address the holes in their roster this offseason. One of the first steps in that process is evaluating NFL Draft prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine. With the combine just around the corner, let’s evaluate where the Patriots’ greatest needs lie and which players they should have their eyes on this week.
Cornerback: Donte Jackson, LSU
In case you missed it, Malcolm Butler won’t be playing for the Patriots again. Eric Rowe has held up well at times, but it is still in the team’s best interest to seek a long-term starter at the position. Enter Jackson, a small-ish corner from LSU with blazing speed. If I were to use the term “combine warrior” for any of these players, it would be Jackson. He could very well post a time in the 4.3 range in the 40-yard dash later this week. He’s not just a potential combine stud, either — Jackson plays with great fluidity and burst, boasting tremendous recovery speed. These traits could help him test well in the 3-cone drill, a noted Belichick favorite. The big knock on him is size, but smaller corners like Asante Samuel and Butler have flourished in New England’s system, so Jackson could be an intriguing fit.
Offensive tackle: Kolton Miller, UCLA
Nate Solder is a free agent, Antonio Garcia hasn’t played an NFL snap, Marcus Cannon is coming off an injury and Cameron Fleming is, well, Cameron Fleming. Needless to say, the Patriots’ tackle depth chart looks thin. If New England hopes to have Tom Brady around for as long as he’d like to be, they need to invest in protecting him. Miller is a player who has drawn comparisons to Solder for his size (6-8) and athleticism (he expects to run in the 4.9 range for the 40-yard dash this week). Unlike Solder, who was chosen 17th overall in 2011, Miller is considered a fringe day one or day two prospect, placing him squarely in the Patriots’ range of possible selections with the 31st selection. Solder may very well end up re-signing, but the team should at least be prepared to look for a replacement. Miller certainly looks the part.
Linebacker: Josey Jewell, Iowa
Bill Belichick had Jordan Richards playing a pseudo-linebacker role last season, so it should be obvious that help is needed at the position. Put simply, Jewell is a Patriots-type player. He shows great instincts on tape and, by all accounts, possesses top-tier football character. Despite being on the small side (6-1, 235) and not having the ideal athleticism for his position, Jewell is expected to hold his own at the combine. In particular, some scouts say Jewell could run faster than most expect. Perhaps New England fans should be rooting against this outcome, as such a performance could send Jewell shooting up draft boards.
Defensive end: Dorance Armstrong Jr, Kansas
The Patriots barely pressured Nick Foles during Super Bowl LII, much less sack him. This clearly ended up being one of the main reasons New England lost the game, as they were shredded by Philadelphia’s passing attack. Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise are nice players, but they’re not the double-digit sack threats that the Patriots have been missing since they inexplicably traded away Chandler Jones. Armstrong is a very intriguing prospect — he had a breakout sophomore campaign for the Jayhawks in 2016, posting 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. However, schematic changes aimed at having him focus more on stopping the run in 2017 led to a disappointing stat line (just two sacks). Armstrong is an athletic, fluid, quick-twitch player who could help himself immensely this week. The Patriots will certainly have their eye on him.
Quarterback: Kyle Lauletta, Richmond
I’ve made my love for Lauletta known already, but that doesn’t mean it needs to stop. At this time last year, I never thought I’d be scouring the Internet for Tom Brady’s potential successor, because New England already had two on the roster. Now that Belichick has traded both of them away for chump change, it’s time to find another understudy for the GOAT. Lauletta, as I mentioned in my last article, is almost too perfect for the Patriots. To recap, both his dad and uncle played at the Naval Academy, where Belichick’s father worked as a scout for decades. As if that weren’t enough, Lauletta had a huge Senior Bowl week and is majoring in leadership studies. Of course, his physical traits have some NFL scouts hesitating to crown him the second coming of John Elway. He’s not that big (215 pounds), and some scouts think he lacks the arm strength to make all of the “NFL throws.” Sound familiar? Before I get too ahead of myself, it will be critical to watch Lauletta throw the ball at the combine this week, particularly on the deep out patterns and fly routes that will test his arm strength.