Patriots

Prototypical Patriots: Sure-tackling safeties from Florida, Michigan look like fits

Prototypical Patriots: Sure-tackling safeties from Florida, Michigan look like fits

The Patriots have one of the deepest and most experienced safety groups in the NFL, but would it come as a shock if Bill Belichick decided to dip into that position at this year's draft?  

Because of the combination of speed and tackling ability often found in players at that position, safeties on the Patriots frequently have held important roles both defensively and in the kicking game. Take last season for example when Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung were key members of the league's top scoring defense but made significant contributions on special teams as well. Nate Ebner, a reserve safety, is one of the team's top players in the kicking game and garnered All-Pro consideration last year.

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That kind of versatility is invaluable in New England and has warranted heavy investment at the position in the past.

Between 2012 and 2015, Belichick drafted four safeties (including two second-rounders and a third-rounder), he moved Devin McCourty from corner to safety, and he re-signed Patrick Chung to become the team's Swiss Army knife box safety.

That in-the-box spot could be of particular interest for the Patriots before the draft as Chung (signed through 2018) will start the 2017 campaign at 30 years old, while Jordan Richards (18 defensive snaps last season) has served almost exclusively as a fourth-down player.

Chung highlighted the importance of the role he plays -- a hybrid safety-linebacker role that has become increasingly popular around the league -- during a recent back-and-forth with members of the media. 

"The game is changing, obviously," he said. "Guys are getting more athletic. Just the more versatile you are, man, I'm trying to tell you, it helps. It helps a lot." 

The following is a group of safeties in this year's draft class who fit the profile of what the Patriots often like in safeties who line up near the line of scrimmage: versatile, tough, aggressive tacklers, who have the athleticism to cover tight ends and backs in the passing game.

This is the second installment of a 12-part pre-draft series in which we do our best to identify Prototypical Patriots. You can find the linebackers we highlighted here.

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan, 5-foot-11, 213 pounds: Few players had a more wide-ranging set of on-the-field experiences in college. He saw time at linebacker, safety, running back and as a returner while at Ann Arbor, and his combine performance indicates he's one of the best athletes in the class -- his 4.46-second 40-yard dash, 35.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad jump were all top-10 among safeties in Indy. Critics have harped on his deficiencies in coverage -- he had just one pick for the Wolverines -- but he's still expected to go in the first or second round.

Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut, 6-foot-4, 224 pounds: In terms of his size, Melifonwu is a giant compared to what the Patriots typically use at this spot -- Chung, for example, was 5-11, 212 pounds coming out of college -- but his athletic traits seemingly would allow him to do whatever the Patriots ask. He ran a 4.4-second 40, jumped 44 inches in the vertical and 141 inches in the broad, and his length would make him an ideal matchup on tight ends. As will likely be the case with Peppers, if the Patriots want UConn's top prospect, they'll have to trade up into the first or second round. 

Justin Evans, Texas A&M, 6-feet, 199 pounds: The 4.57 40-yard dash Evans submitted at his pro day is just on the cusp of what the Patriots typically tolerate, but his 41.5-inch vertical and 129-inch broad jump are hints that he will be an explosive athlete at the next level. He missed 38 tackles in his last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus, which may be a red flag for a team like the Patriots that puts so much value on sure tackling, but perhaps with good coaching his aggressive style and quick-twitch reactions can be harnessed to make him a more dependable player in that regard.

Marcus Maye, Florida, 6-feet, 210 pounds: One of the best fits for the Patriots at this spot, Maye isn't the best athlete of the group, but he checks just about every mark that Patriots safeties have in the recent past with a 4.5-second 40, a 33.5-inch vertical, a 118-inch broad jump and a 7.1-second three-cone drill. Touted as the leader of his team's talent-laden secondary and one of the draft's best tacklers -- only missed one tackle last season, per PFF -- Maye seems ideally suited for work underneath in the Patriots secondary. That he's been invited to the draft in Philly (he passed) would indicate that he's thought of as a first or second-rounder and would require the Patriots trading up to take him. 

Josh Jones, NC State, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds: Another big-hitter whose technique could use some polishing, Jones is an intriguing fit because of his combination of size, speed and explosiveness. His 4.41-second 40, 37.5-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump and 20 bench-press reps at 225 pounds were among the best any safety posted at the combine. He played all over the field for the Wolfpack, lining up as a post safety, in the slot and at linebacker at times. Against Miami he showed he had the ability to stick with one of the draft's top tight ends, David Njoku, in coverage. 

Delano Hill, Michigan, 6-foot-1, 216 pounds: If Maye is off the board early, Hill may be a solid later-round option if the Patriots want to go down the box-safety route. An eager run-defender, Hill was PFF's fifth-most efficient tackler at the position (only four total missed tackles), and he excelled in the slot. Though he's thought to be lacking somewhat as an athlete, some of his combine numbers would suggest otherwise. He clocked a 4.47-second 40 and a 6.97 three-cone drill. 

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Gronk -- the horse -- will not run in the Kentucky Derby

There was more breaking Patriots news this afternoon.

This time it was related to Gronkowski, and a health scare.

But it wasn't the Gronkowski that plays for the New England Patriots.

So it is unfortunately confirmed that Rob Gronkowski's horse will not be competing in the Kentucky Derby.

The 3-year-old colt named after Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski had a “minor setback,’’ according to trainer Jeremy Noseda when he spoke to The Racing Post.

Gronkowski was unbeaten in starts, earning his place in the Kentucky Derby field.

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Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Prototypical Patriots: Hubbard, Ejiofor look like Belichick's type on the edge

Breaking down the edge defender spot is one of the reasons the Prototypical Patriots series is such an interesting one to put together.

For instance, last year, Deatrich Wise was an easy fit. His height, arm length, production (when healthy), and the conference he played in made him a perfect fit. He was Chandler Jonesian.

But Derek Rivers, who was taken one round ahead of Wise? He didn't make the "Prototypical" list. At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds at last year's combine, Rivers was nearly a full 20 pounds lighter than what Bill Belichick has typically looked for in his top-101 edge defender draft picks in New England. Not exactly the "prototype."

Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) was 6-3, 266 pounds. Jones (first, 2012) was 6-5, 266. Jake Bequette (third, 2012) was 6-5, 274. Geneo Grissom (third, 2015) was 6-3, 262. Trey Flowers (fourth, 2015) was 6-2, 266. All powerfully built. All from Power-5 conferences.

Rivers, who went to Youngstown State, was a bit of an anomaly. What did it mean? Did the Patriots see him as a player who could pack on pounds and look like his edge predecessors? Did they see him as a more versatile weapon who could play both on the line and off? Did they simply look at his outstanding athletic testing numbers (6.94-second three-cone, 35-inch vertical, 4.61-second 40 time), and say to themselves that they could work with him?

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Because Rivers suffered a season-ending injury in training camp last year, it's hard to know exactly what their plan was for him. In camp we saw him both rush the passer and play in coverage. He aligned in both two-point and three-point stances, on the ball and off.

The Rivers pick may show that the Patriots prototype is adjusting. And it may continue to adjust if the team is going to shift back to more 3-4 looks now that Matt Patricia -- who favored a 4-3 and helped change the Patriots' front in 2011, one year before he was given the coordinator's title -- is in Detroit.

Still, we generally know what a Patriots defensive end looks like. He stands between 6-2 and 6-5. He's in the 260-pound range. His arms are between 33 and 36 inches. His hands are about 10 inches. He runs the three-cone in less than 7.3 seconds. His vertical is at least 33 inches. His broad jump is about 120 inches. His 40 time is under 4.9 seconds, usually.

There's obviously much more than a list of physical benchmarks a prospect has to possess in order to be considered by the Patriots -- skill set, college production, durability and character all play a role -- but it's not a bad place to start.

Who fits that bill in this year's class? Let's take a look. They one player who likely isn't within range for the Patriots, unless he slides, would be NC State's Bradley Chubb. He's expected to go in the top-five picks and could hear his name called as early as No. 2 overall to the Giants. 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

MARCUS DAVENPORT, UTSA, 6-6, 264 POUNDS

There are plenty of knocks on Davenport. He's raw. He played against lower-level competition and was able dominate because of his superior physical gifts. His hands are small (9 1/8 inches). But he checks just about every other marker from a size and athletic testing perspective, and he's thought to be a hard worker with a high ceiling as a 4-3 defensive end. He may go as early as the teens. My hunch is that, while gifted, he isn't so off-the-charts special (4.58 40, 7.2-second three-cone, 124-inch broad, 33.5-inch vertical) that he'd be worth the Patriots trading up for. 

SAM HUBBARD, OHIO STATE, 6-5, 270 POUNDS

Again, let's go ahead and start with the negatives. He ran a 4.95-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which was a full tenth of a second slower than what Trey Flowers ran in 2015. Not good. But his 10-yard time was 1.69 seconds, which was much more in range for the Patriots. Jones ran the same 10-yard time in 2012. Wise ran a 1.68. Otherwise, Hubbard is what the Patriots want. He was productive in Urban Meyer's defense, recording 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. A high school safety -- who was headed to Notre Dame on a lacrosse scholarship! -- Hubbard is quick and explosive for his size. He jumped 35 inches in the vertical and clocked a ridiculous 6.84-second three-cone drill. On paper, Hubbard is one of the best fits for the Patriots in this class, and he could be had at the top of the second round. If his 40 time drops him into the bottom of the second or top of the third round, he'd be a steal. 

RASHEEM GREEN, USC, 6-4, 275 POUNDS

Another physically-impressive defensive end, Green offers some versatility. He looks like a base end on first and second downs who could kick inside to generate pressure in obvious passing situations. He has nearly 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and if the Patriots do shift to more 3-4 looks, he could potentially play as an end in those formations -- particularly if he improves his functional strength. He's a little raw and a little less athletic than the parameters set above, but he's also heavier than many Patriots ends. His 4.73-second 40 time, 32.5-inch vertical, 118-inch broad and 7.24-second three-cone are impressive for his frame, and he could be a boom-or-bust second-rounder for New England. 

DUKE EJIOFOR, WAKE FOREST, 6-3, 265 POUNDS

Making comparisons this time of year can be a little dangerous, but when it comes to Ejiofor, it's hard not to be reminded of Flowers (6-2, 265 at the combine in 2015). Ejiofor has 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, while Flowers had 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands. NFL.com's scouting report for Flowers three years ago? "Consistent with hand placement and is technically sound." NFL.com on Ejiofor? "Possesses a mature approach as a pass rusher." Neither player would be described as incredibly "quick-twitch," but Flowers has had great success as an interior rusher and Ejiofor projects similarly because of his length and power. One question mark about Ejiofor is his motor, but he dealt with an injury last season, and late in the second round he'd be worth a roll of the dice. The Patriots reportedly hosted Ejiofor on a pre-draft visit. 

ADE ARUNA, TULANE, 6-5, 262 POUNDS

It'll require some time, but if a team can find a roster spot for Aruna on special teams, and if he takes to the coaching he receivers, he could end up being a late-round find. Classic height/weight/speed prospect since he ran a 4.6-second 40 and has 34-inch arms and 10 5/8-inch hands. His three-cone was lacking (7.53 seconds), but he's explosive as all get out (38.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad) and worth a shot some time on Day 3 since he's relatively new to the sport. From Nigeria, Aruna only found his way onto a football field as a senior in high school.

IMPERFECT BUT INTRIGUING

HAROLD LANDRY, BOSTON COLLEGE, 6-2, 252 POUNDS

Landry is one of the best pass-rush prospects in this draft class. He might be the best, which could compel a team to call his name inside the top 10. He's undersized by Patriots standards, but an exception could be made if Belichick believes Landry is athletic enough to play a variety of different roles. The question is, would the Patriots be willing to trade way up in the first round to make an exception?

JOSH SWEAT, FLORIDA STATE, 6-5, 251 POUNDS

Sweat is a little light compared to other top-100 edge picks for Belichick, but he's not all that far off from Rivers. Undersized. Great athlete. Sweat ran a 4.53-second 40 and jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical. His broad was 124 inches. There are reportedly some concerns about Sweat's durability, but he could be a second-round gamble.  

UCHENNA NWOSU, USC, 6-2, 251 POUNDS

One evaluator told me that Nwosu looks like a Patriot because he offers the kind of on-the-ball, off-the-ball versatility that Belichick appreciates. Athletically, he tested in the same range as bigger players the Patriots have taken in the past (32-inch vertical, 119-inch broad). That may not help his chances. But he's long (almost 34-inch arms) and a smooth athlete. Would the Patriots view Nwosu's instincts in the passing game -- he flashed an ability to cover on tape, and he's a good enough athlete to do it -- and make him an off-the-line type? Some may see "tweener." The Patriots may see "hybrid." And if they move to more of a 3-4 defense, he'd be an ideal outside linebacker. 

KEMEKO TURAY, RUTGERS, 6-5, 253 POUNDS

Another great athlete (4.65-second 40) with long enough arms (33 3/8 inches) and big enough hands (9 5/8 inches), Turay shows good explosiveness on tape. The Rutgers connection doesn't mean what it once did for the Patriots now that Greg Schiano has moved on, but the school fit doesn't matter much in this instance. This is a relatively rare athlete who needs some polish, but if he's athletic enough to rush and cover on the outside, he could be an outside 'backer for Belichick. 

DORANCE ARMSTRONG, KANSAS, 6-4, 257 POUNDS

Size-wise, Armstrong is right there. He has almost 35-inch arms and 10-inch hands, and his height-weight combination is within the desirable range for the Patriots. Armstrong would be even more of a fit if he was just a bit more powerful and a bit more athletic. His 40 time was fine (4.87 seconds), but his explosiveness (30-inch vertical, 118-inch broad) left a little to be desired. And he plays more like a 3-4 outside linebacker than a true end (like the majority of the players listed as "Prototypes in Range"). But on Day 3? He could be worthy of a choice and given an opportunity to make the roster this summer. 

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