By the time the draft rolls around, the Patriots will know just how badly they'll need an edge defender. Maybe Trey Flowers will be back. Maybe he'll land elsewhere in free agency. Maybe the Patriots will pick up a free agent of their own at the position. A lot can happen between now and late April.
But until then, they'll do their due diligence on the edge class -- as they do at every position -- understanding the possibilities that await them two months from now. It's a group that is understood to be one of the deepest at the combine in Indy this week, loaded with top-end talent that should be strewn throughout the first round.
The consensus top player here is Ohio State's Nick Bosa, who should be off the board no more than a couple of picks into draft weekend. Kentucky's Josh Allen shouldn't be all that far behind. Michigan's Rashan Gary, Mississippi State's Montez Sweat, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell, Florida's Jachai Polite, Florida State's Brian Burns and Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson are all end-of-the-line players who could hear their names called in the first 30 picks.
Even if Flowers is elsewhere, will the Patriots want to be in the mix for someone out of that crop?
Depends on who's available. They have a type.
COUNTDOWN TO THE COMBINE
Look at the players Bill Belichick drafted within the first 101 picks to play on the edge through 2016: Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) was 6-3, 266 pounds; Chandler Jones (first, 2012) was 6-5, 266; Jake Bequette (third, 2012) was 6-5, 274; Geneo Grissom (third, 2015) was 6-3, 262; Flowers (fourth, 2015) was 6-2, 266.
All were powerfully built. All came from Power-5 conferences. Deatrich Wise (6-5, 274), a fourth-round choice out of Arkansas in 2017, fit that mold as well. One of the team's third-round selections that year, Derek Rivers (6-4, 248) out of Youngstown State, had a smaller and more athletic profile.
But given how the Patriots rushed the passer in 2018 -- using powerful rushers to push the pocket against mobile quarterbacks, scheming games and blitzes using all manner of players -- it would come as no surprise if they continued the trend of supplying their front with smart, physical players who may not necessarily fit the same lean-and-bendy look that is en vogue these days.
Those players exist in this class, whether the Patriots want to find one in the first round or the fifth, and they'll have a chance to see a handful in Indianapolis this week.
Here are a few questions worth asking about this year's draft class of edge defenders ahead of the combine as we try to get a sense of which tight ends might work in New England...
WHAT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT?
As is the case with the tight ends, events like the vertical jump, broad jump and 40-yard dash will be good indicators of explosiveness for potential Patriots edge defenders. While the 40 times themselves might not mean much for these bigger-bodied linemen, the time it takes players to cover the first 10 yards of the 40 translates to "get-off" and should interest Belichick and Nick Caserio. The weigh-in will provide the Patriots some valuable information on these players as well -- not only when it comes to height and weight, but also arm length and hand size. Players with hands in the 10-inch range and arms in the 34-inch range (Wise checked in at almost 36 inches) will stand out. While the three-cone drill is frequently promoted as key for pass-rushers -- and though players like Rivers, Wise and Jones all had impressive three-cone times -- it's not the be-all end-all for the Patriots. Flowers and Grissom had relatively pedestrian three-cone times of 7.26 and 7.24 seconds, respectively, in 2015.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO GAIN?
John Cominsky from the College of Charleston is already starting to get some hype as one of the small-school prospects who could become a favorite among draftniks once the combine workouts are all said and done. At 6-foot-5, 285 pounds he cuts an imposing image, but it sounds like he's going to move like a linebacker in Indy. A high school quarterback, he's maintained plenty of athleticism despite bulking up about 70 pounds in college, according to The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. He may run in the 4.6s this week, which would have scouts salivating.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?
Kentucky's Josh Allen -- who in many places is mocked as a top-five pick -- is expected to put up some staggering testing numbers. If he doesn't, he could slip since he's viewed as somewhat of a project. But even if the combine doesn't go well for him from a testing perspective, he'll have an opportunity to re-do his workouts at Kentucky's pro day.
WHO'S THE BIGGEST FREAK?
Michigan's Rashan Gary will be considered a penetrating interior lineman by some. And depending on what he weighs in Indy, maybe that'll be a universal presumption. But even if he measures in at the 280-pound range, word is he'll have more than enough athleticism to play on the outside. At that size, if he runs in the 4.5s in the 40 and under 7.0 seconds in the three-cone drill -- numbers he reportedly posted before the season -- he won't just be the biggest freak this year. He'll be one of the biggest freaks in recent memory at the position.
WHO'S THE LOCAL GUY TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
Zach Allen out of Boston College seems to do just about everything the Patriots like in their ends. He can overpower offensive tackles against the run. He knows how to use his hands as a pass-rusher but can help collapse pockets from the edge or the interior with his strength. He has the awareness to bat down passes even when he doesn't get close enough to put a lick on quarterbacks. He plays with a consistent level of energy and effort, and he's been a disruptive special teams player on field-goal attempts, blocking one at Florida State last season. He's typically a little bigger than the Patriots have gone with on the edge at 285, but he seems to move well. The question is . . . how will he test? If he puts up relatively impressive numbers for his size, he could go late in the first round. If he doesn't, he could slide a bit, though probably not out of the second round. Even if he doesn't light up stopwatches in Indy, that may be a good thing for the Patriots. If Allen was available in the second, that would seemingly represent pretty good value.
WHO'S THE PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOT?
When you look at the program from which he came, the fact that he was a captain, his size (6-4, 277 pounds) and his length, Georgia's Jonathan Ledbetter seems like a Patriots fit on the edge. He was Kirby Smart's co-MVP on the defensive side of the ball and has plenty of experience playing in big games. Sound like a Patriot to you? He might be available on Day 2, where the Patriots are flush with picks, giving them an opportunity to draft a long-armed edge defender from the SEC for the third time in the last five years. Another player who looks like a prototype for the Patriots based on his rare length and size (6-7, 275) is Charles Omenihu from Texas. The fact that Omenihu can rush from the inside and the edge and had two productive years under coach Tom Herman, a former Urban Meyer assistant, won't hurt him in Belichick's eyes.
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