Before the combine, Pats might have some help already here

Before the combine, Pats might have some help already here

The NFL Scouting Combine begins later this week, which means it's time for people to look to Indianapolis for their team's next wave of young contributors.

Don't be like those people. Not yet, at least. 

Before we head out to Indy, which we'll do later this week, first take a look at the young players already on the Patriots roster - ones you may have forgotten about. 

We've already taken a brief glimpse at some of them, but here's a little more on potential under-the-radar contributors for 2018. All of them have one advantage on anyone participating in the combine later this week: Experience in the Patriots system. 

Derek Rivers, EDGE, 6-foot-5, 250 pounds

Rivers, 23, missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL during joint practices with the Texans in West Virginia last summer. It was a brutal blow not only for the team -- which was in dire need of edge help -- but also a player who had impressive physical tools coming out of Youngstown State but needed seasoning against NFL-caliber talent. Just before his injury, Rivers was starting to show some progress as an athletic pass-rusher, and he was hellbent on learning anything he could, particularly from more experienced teammates like Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich (before Ninkovich's retirement). If Rivers can get back to that form next summer and continue to show improvement, he could quickly find himself in the rotation on the outside with Flowers, Deatrich Wise and others. Is Rivers the answer to all New England's pass-rushing needs? Probably not. But the team may not need a complete overhaul here if he's good to go. 

Jonathan Jones, CB, 5-10, 190

How might the conversation surrounding the corner position for the Patriots be different had Jones remained healthy for the duration of the playoffs. He suffered a lower-body injury against the Titans in the Divisional Round that landed him on season-ending IR, sapping the Patriots of one of their top-four options at that spot. If Jones was healthy, would the Patriots have felt comfortable using him in the slot -- his best role defensively -- and keeping Patrick Chung in his usual role as the tight end matchup? Even if Malcolm Butler remained benched, would Jones' presence then provide the Patriots with the flexibility to keep Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi's contributions limited to the kicking game? The general consensus is that the Patriots could add a corner to help replace Butler's role, but Jones was arguably the team's best corner at the start of 2017, and if he's healthy enough to start the season, he could play a key role inside for Bill Belichick's defense. 

Cole Croston, OL, 6-5, 315

There's a reason the Patriots held onto the Iowa product for the entirety of the season. Croston didn't play a meaningful snap all year, but Belichick was willing to utilize a roster spot to allow Croston to further develop in the system under line coach Dante Scarnecchia. (The Patriots were also able to protect Croston from being scooped up by other clubs by having him make the team out of training camp and never releasing him.) Is he a candidate to take over the left tackle spot for Nate Solder should Solder depart this offseason? That would be asking a lot. But with both LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming hitting free-agency (along with Solder), the Patriots may need a backup tackle and Croston could fit the bill. Here's what Scarnecchia had to say about Croston before the Super Bowl: "We covet three things when we look for offensive linemen: They have to be smart; they have to be tough; and they have to be athletic enough. I think he fits the bill on all three of those things. We know he fits the bill on all three of those things. Just how fast he'll develop will determine how well he does going forward in this league. We're glad we got him." Antonio Garcia and Andrew Jelks -- two tackles who spent their rookie seasons on reserve lists -- will also have shot to carve out larger roles for themselves in their sophomore years. 

Harvey Langi, EDGE, 6-2, 252

Langi's unbridled joy for playing special teams stood out during training camp. He knew that as an undrafted free agent -- albeit a highly-paid one -- he would have to find a role in the kicking game in order to earn a jersey on game days. And he relished that opportunity. What may have come more quickly than anticipated was the number of reps he received on the edge in training camp. But with a need on the outside, Belichick and his staff looked to put Langi's relentlessness to the test on defense. He earned six defensive snaps in Week 2 against the Saints before he was injured in a car accident, ending his season. Should Langi return ready to play in 2018, he could provide the Patriots with another body to handle some of the edge workload. He could also provide some relief to kick-coverage units that could be without a handful of contributors from last season. 

Practice squad returnees
After the Super Bowl, the Patriots re-signed all 10 of the practice squad players who finished the 2017 season with the team. That list included tight end Will Tye, slot receiver Riley McCarron and safeties David Jones and Damarius Travis. Over the next few weeks, plenty of space on the internet will be dedicated to the future of the tight end position in New England. Tye isn't it. But if the Patriots choose to part ways with both Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen in 2018, he could be in the mix as a No. 2. He's started 18 games for the Giants and Jets over the last three seasons. McCarron, meanwhile, impressed as a member of the Texans during training camp, and Houston coach Bill O'Brien dubbed the former Hawkeye "the Iowa Flash." The Texans released him from their practice squad in September, and the Patriots picked him up four days later. It'll be interesting to see how McCarron develops after a full offseason in the program. The undrafted rookie safety pair of Jones and Travis have good size and look like developmental box-safety types who could be special teams fits. 


Gronkowski moves up eight spots to 15th in NFL Network's Top 100

Gronkowski moves up eight spots to 15th in NFL Network's Top 100

Rob Gronkowski has jumped up eight spots in the NFL Network's Top 100 rankings - going from 23rd in 2017 to 15th this year.

Gronkowski was limited to eight games and 25 catches because of back surgery in 2016. The five-time Pro Bowl selection played in 14 games last season with 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in the regular season and 16 catches, three for TDs, in three postseason games. 

Players ranked 11th through 20th were revealed Monday night. 

Gronk is the first Patriot and highest-ranked tight end in the 2018 Top 100, which is voted on by players. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce checked in at No. 24.

They'll probably be a Patriot quarterback somewhere in the top 10 when it's revealed next week. There was one ranked No. 1 last year.  

Cooks thanks Patriots for AFC championship ring in Instagram post

Cooks thanks Patriots for AFC championship ring in Instagram post

While Brandin Cooks' tenure with the Patriots was a short one, he's still "forever grateful" for his opportunity to play in New England.

The wide receiver thanked the Patriots while showing off his AFC championship ring in an Instagram post.

Cooks was huge in the AFC Championship Game, racking up six receptions for 100 yards in the Patriots' 24-20 victory over the Jaguars.

The Pats traded Cooks to the Rams in April in a package that sent a first-round draft pick to New England, which turned into offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn.