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The 2023 NFL Draft is still roughly two months away.
But hundreds of the top football prospects in this class will take to Indianapolis this week to showcase their talents in the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.
The eight-day event might center around these future NFLers taking part in drills, on-field workouts, measurements and more. But the scouting combine also allows NFL teams to get an up-close look at youngsters and conduct interviews with them.
It’s a crucial time on the NFL offseason calendar, with teams getting plenty of time to get to know blue-chip prospects before potentially adding them to their draft board in April.
And with the Patriots holding onto the 14th overall pick in the draft (and various areas of the roster in need of reinforcements), there are a number of intriguing players that New England fans should keep tabs on in Indianapolis.
Here are a few noteworthy names:
After a 2022 season where New England’s tackle depth was reduced to a turnstile, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if the Patriots try to find their left tackle of the future with their first-round pick.
And if Skoronski is available at No. 14, he might be hard to pass up. The Northwestern product is projected to be a polished starter from Day 1 of training camp, especially after a collegiate season where he only allowed six pressures.
But the 21-year-old offensive lineman could see his stock drop or soar, based on how his measurements read during the scouting combine. Even though Skoronski’s technique and resume speak for themselves, his size (6-foot-4) and arm length have raised concerns over his validity as a tackle at the next level.
Once considered a top-10 pick, Skoronski could drop a bit if his physical frame scares off a few teams that view him as more as guard. That would be good news for a Patriots team that will welcome him protecting Mac Jones’s blind side in the years ahead.
The Patriots will have an abundance of riches in the first round if they hone in on tackles … so long as the blue-chippers at the top of the draft board aren’t plucked up before New England is on the clock.
Jones has already been tabbed as a likely target for New England, with NFL.com’s Chad Reuter projecting the poised left tackle as New England’s first-round pick in late April.
Much like Skoronski, there are a few question marks about Jones’s frame (6-foot-4) and whether his measurements will hinder him against NFL competition. But Jones is also an athletic force who will have plenty of teams vying for his services based on raw talent alone.
If Jones puts on a show during a couple of on-field tests and drills, he could very well push himself into the top 10 of the draft board alongside Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson Jr.
If New England opts to hone in on another weapon to add to Mac Jones’s offensive arsenal, Bill Belichick and Co. will have no shortage of available options.
As much as the Patriots would likely covet a deep-threat target who can put defenses on their heels, TCU’s Quentin Johnston seems destined for a big showing at the combine, given both his 6-foot-4 frame and his straight-line speed.
But even with Johnston potentially off the board by the time the Patriots pick, a smaller wideout like Addison could offer plenty of appeal.
Even though the former Trojan isn’t the most imposing presence out on the gridiron (6-feet, 175 pounds), his route-running, hands and stop-and-go acceleration has many draft experts tabbing him as a versatile weapon in any receiving corps.
Though his size and lack of breakaway speed might have a few GMs concerned about his potential as a true No. 1 option, Addison could assert himself as a top-15 selection with some strong performances in the ten-yard split and three-cone drill.
Some Patriots fans are already very familiar with Flowers’s talents. After all, the poised wideout was one of the few bright spots on a BC team marred with instability at the quarterback position in 2022.
The former Eagle has seen his stock soar over the last few months, and it’s expected to continue to rise once he tears up the field during the combine’s 40-yard dash. Once regarded as a Day 2 option for teams looking for receiving help, Flowers could potentially rise as high as a “top-15” pick, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay.
Even with his 5-foot-9 frame, Flowers’s hands and pure acceleration should make him a very polished asset. Even if New England doesn’t snag him, it’s been impressive to see Flowers put himself on the national radar after a sterling career at Chestnut Hill.
Smith-Njigba might have the highest ceiling of any wideout projected to go in the first round.
Injuries limited Smith-Njigba to just three games and five catches in 2022, but the former Buckeye was a force during his sophomore season.
On a talented Ohio State receiving corps that featured both Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Smith-Njigba racked up a team-leading 1,606 yards to go along with nine touchdowns in 2021.
Smith-Njigba may not have the speed of a deep-threat option like Flowers and Johnston, but his skillset could make him a devastating option out of the slot.
If the Patriots are not able to retain Jakobi Meyers in free agency, Smith-Njigba could be a logical solution if New England is looking for a dependable option that can move the chains for Mac Jones.
The Patriots already have a pretty promising young crop of corners in both Marcus Jones and Jack Jones. But if Jonathan Jones ends up signing elsewhere in free agency, New England might need to add another major piece in its secondary.
Thankfully, several big-bodied corners should be available in the first round when the Patriots are on the clock.
Frankly, New England couldn’t go wrong with many of the options available at the position, be it Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez or Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr.
But Devon Witherspoon was tabbed by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. as a likely fit for New England in one of his earlier mock drafts.
“Will the Patriots bring back free agent corner Jonathan Jones? That could determine what Bill Belichick & Co. do here, because this is a strong cornerback class in the back half of Round 1,” Kiper wrote. “There could be a run on defensive backs in the 20s. Witherspoon is my top-ranked corner, a long and physical player who shut down an entire side of the field for the Fighting Illini. He also is not afraid to stick his head in and make a tackle.”
Witherspoon is the perfect blend of size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) and technique at the cornerback position, with the former Fighting Illini earning All-American honors last season. Along with his three interceptions, Witherspoon posted 14 pass breakups and allowed a completion rate of just 34.9 percent, per Pro Football Focus.
Much like New England’s current group of corners, the safety position is already pretty accounted for with contributors like Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger in place.
But if Devin McCourty does opt to hang up his cleats this offseason, New England could target arguably the best safety in this draft class in Branch.
Branch is about as polished as they come at the position. Last season, Branch recorded 90 tackles (14 for a loss) and snagged two interceptions with the Crimson Tide.
With his textbook tackling and ability to read the opposing offense, Branch was rarely a liability during his reps in Tuscaloosa. According to PFF, Branch was knocked for just four missed tackles over his three seasons in the SEC.
If New England wants to add some heft along the defensive line, they could get an up-close look at a Boston native in Clark this week.
Clark, who hails from Dorchester and attended Brighton High School, was a force at nose tackle during his collegiate career at Coastal Carolina. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound lineman has the physical stature that can make him a run-clogging regular at the next level.
As expected, Clark’s football fandom while growing up revolved around Foxborough.
“Wilfork, Gronkowski, Edelman, of course, Tom Brady, LeGarrette Blount, Sony Michel, just growing up watching those guys,” Clark told Mike Dussaul of Patriots.com. “The 2004 Super Bowl was the earliest I could remember and from then on I started paying more attention to football as I got older. Definitely seeing them play on Sundays and win championships was what motivated me to play football early on, but early on I just wanted to have fun.”
The Patriots investing draft capital in key special teamers? Unheard of!
Yes, Nick Folk has been fantastic as New England’s kicker over the last four seasons. But at 38 years old, New England might need to be proactive when it comes to finding a future option at the position.
Moody ended his five-year career at Michigan as arguably the best kicker in Wolverines history.
After taking home the Lou Groza Award as college football’s top kicker in 2021, Moody led the nation with 29 made field goals, and set single-season program records for made field goals (29), PATs (60), points scored (147), and 40-plus yard field goals in a season (10) in 2022.
Add in a 59-yard field goal in Michigan’s Fiesta Bowl loss to TCU, and Moody is expected to be the top kicker in this upcoming draft class.
Adding another pass-rushing force may not be at the top of New England’s to-do list this offseason, not with Matt Judon and Josh Uche still expected to torment offensive lines in 2023.
But if a physical force like Iowa’s Van Ness is available, he might be too good to pass up.
Measuring out at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Van Ness wreaked havoc on the edge with the Hawkeyes, recording 13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. Van Ness is also a versatile player who earned reps at defensive tackle, defensive end, and even starred on special teams at Iowa.
Speaking on Wednesday morning at the Scouting Combine, Van Ness told reporters that he’s expected to meet with the Patriots the following day.
“That would be an amazing opportunity,” Van Ness said of playing for the Patriots, per NESN.com’s Dakota Randall. “And if Coach Belichick took the opportunity on me, I’d really be looking forward to a fun career.”
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