Patriots' 8 Biggest Scouting Combine Takeaways

James Christensen@@nepatriotsdraftContributor IFebruary 27, 2014

Patriots' 8 Biggest Scouting Combine Takeaways

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    The NFL Scouting Combine sets the stage for the two most exciting phases of the NFL offseason: free agency and the NFL draft. After the combine, teams have a clearer picture of who might be available when they are on the clock in May and can tweak their free-agency plans accordingly.

    The 2014 combine didn't feature any huge shake-ups but it did elucidate some areas of depth as well as some positions where talent is top-heavy.

    Here are the eight takeaways that New England Patriots fans need to be aware of.

Options Are Available at the Tight End Position

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    With Rob Gronkowski and D.J. Williams as the lone tight ends who are signed for 2014, the position was surely a focus for Bill Belichick.

    While Eric Ebron (North Carolina) proved himself as the cream of the crop at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, the New England Patriots won't have to trade up to get an impact player at the position.

    Jace Amaro (Texas Tech), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington) and Troy Niklas (Notre Dame) failed to distinguish themselves at the combine. Amaro struggled with drops and didn't run as fast as expected. Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas both had injury issues at the combine.

    All three should be available when the Patriots are on the clock in the first round, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas still on the board in the second.

    C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa), however, had a strong combine, showing off better athleticism than he showed on the field in college. He should be a Day 2 pick that will interest New England.

    Crockett Gillmore (Colorado State) highlights the tight ends who are projected as fringe Day 2 prospects.

Wide Receiver Depth Will Be Tempting

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    The New England Patriots receiver group of Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce are ready to lead—health willing—the offense in 2014. However, the depth in the 2014 NFL draft wide receiver class might make it hard for Belichick to pass on adding another young receiver.

    While the impressive Sammy Watkins (Clemson) and Mike Evans (Texas A&M) are probably out of reach, another 12-15 receivers could be major contributors as rookies.

    Marqise Lee (USC) will surely make it to trade-up territory, while the shifty and speedy Brandin Cooks (Oregon State) might be on the board when pick No. 29 comes around.

    On Day 2 of the draft, Brandon Coleman (Rutgers), Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), Paul Richardson (Colorado), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State), Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU) and Davante Adams (Fresno State) all have the ability to fill a niche in an NFL offense.

    On Day 3, value picks like Allen Robinson (Penn State), Jarvis Landry (LSU), Cody Latimer (Indiana), Michael Campanaro (Wake Forest), Bruce Ellington (South Carolina) and Donte Moncrief (Ole Miss) could make the 53-man roster as rookies.

    If the Patriots feel like they need an upgrade at the position, they will have ample opportunities to select some young talent.

Pass-Rushers Will Come at a Premium

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    While the receiver position features a great deal of depth in the 2014 NFL draft, pass-rushers will be at a premium come draft day.

    Jadeveon Clowney (DE, South Carolina), Khalil Mack (LB, Buffalo) and Anthony Barr (LB, UCLA) cemented top-15 selections with athletic workouts at the combine. Kony Ealy (DE, Missouri) and Aaron Donald (DL, Pittsburgh) also secured first-round grades from many NFL teams with strong performances.

    Dee Ford didn't work out due to injury but will likely be a first-round pick come May.

    After those six, you might have to start overpaying if you want to get after the quarterback. Scott Crichton (DE, Oregon State), Jackson Jeffcoat (DE, Texas), Will Clarke (DE, Virginia) and Marcus Smith (DE, Louisville) are all rushers who might get picked a round or two earlier than most teams would like due to positional scarcity.

A Safety Upgrade Is Possible

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    If the New England Patriots want to upgrade the safety position alongside Devin McCourty—Steve Gregory is the projected starter as of right now—they will have some options in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.

    Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) and Calvin Pryor (Louisville) both fit what the Patriots are looking for. They also should be available within range of the 29th pick. Both ran in the high 4.5 range and have exhibited the instincts and hitting ability that the Patriots defense has lacked since Rodney Harrison hung up his cleats.

    Neither Clinton-Dix nor Pryor will remind Patriots fans of Brandon Meriweather, though. Each can cover a deep half when they are not coming downhill to support the run.

    While he isn't on many radars at the moment, be cognizant of Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois). He might end up sneaking into the first round as well.

Quality Quarterbacks Are Available

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    If the New England Patriots choose to move backup quarterback Ryan Mallett this offseason—he will be a free agent next year—they will be happy to have myriad options in the early and middle rounds of the 2014 NFL draft to acquire a talented quarterback.

    Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Derek Carr (Fresno State) and Blake Bortles (Central Florida) rightly get the lion's share of the media spotlight, but a talented group of quarterbacks is swimming in their wake.

    Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), AJ McCarron (Alabama), Zach Mettenberger (LSU) and David Fales (San Jose State) are all Day 2 signal-callers with enough upside to justify a second- or third-round selection to be Tom Brady's backup.

    If the Patriots are looking for quarterbacks on Day 3 of the draft, Aaron Murray (Georgia) has the experience needed to be a solid backup, while Dustin Vaughan (West Texas A&M) has the upside to become a starter.

Versatile Offensive Linemen Abound

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    Ryan Wendell is a free agent, and Dan Connolly's cap number makes him a possible cap casualty. With that uncertainty, New England Patriots scouts were likely keeping a keen eye on the interior linemen in Indianapolis.

    They had to like what they saw from Xavier Su'a-Filo (OL, UCLA) and Zack Martin (OL, Notre Dame). They impressed at the combine with their solid frames, smooth movements and overall strength profile. It is doubtful that either will make it out of the first round.

    If the Patriots choose to wait to address the interior line, Weston Richburg (C, Colorado State), Joel Bitonio (OL, Nevada) and Billy Turner (OL, North Dakota State) could be options on Day 2 or Day 3 of the draft.

Multiple Speedy Linebackers Are Available

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    With Brandon Spikes being a free agent, the New England Patriots might choose to replace him with a speedier linebacker who is more adept in coverage. If they choose to pursue that the route, they had to be happy with what they saw at the combine.

    Telvin Smith (Florida State)—although he weighs just 218 pounds—impressed with a 4.52 40-yard dash time, while Kevin Pierre-Louis (Boston College) beat him by one-hundredth of a second.

    Jordan Tripp (Montana), Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) and Boseko Lokombo (Oregon) also had impressive workouts. Christian Kirksey (Iowa) didn't run at the combine but is certainly a target that the Patriots will watch at his upcoming pro day.

    If New England can grab a good cover linebacker in the middle rounds of the draft, it could do a better job of hiding the deficiencies of incumbents Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower.

Tweaked Free-Agency Priorities

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    There weren't too many Aqib Talibs on display at the combine. Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) had an impressive performance, but he will likely be selected long before the New England Patriots are on the clock.

    After Dennard—and perhaps Bradley Roby (Ohio State)—Keith McGill (Utah) might be one of the only defensive backs with the size, length and speed that compare with Talib. His technique, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

    With that in mind, Talib should become—if he wasn't already—the No. 1 priority for the Patriots in free agency. Julian Edelman is a good player, but he can be replaced much more easily than Talib can.

    However, with the news that the salary cap might increase past $132 million, New England might be able to sign them both.