If you're a Patriots fan, you should be paying attention to the football being played this week. It's Senior Bowl time, and for years Bill Belichick has shown an affinity for players who compete down in Mobile, Ala. this time of year.
Need evidence? Look at his drafts.
In 2020, he took four Senior Bowl alums. His first three selections were all part of the college game's premier All-Star game (Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings) and sixth-round offensive lineman Justin Herron was another participant.
In 2019, the Patriots took Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Jake Bailey. They signed undrafted rookie Senior Bowler Jakobi Meyers, too.
In 2018, they grabbed Isaiah Wynn in the first round. Duke Dawson, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Braxton Berrios also eventually headed to Foxboro after they'd competed in the Senior Bowl.
Three of their four draft picks from 2017, plus two undrafted rookies, were in the Senior Bowl.
From 2013-16, Belichick brought aboard 20 Senior Bowl participants as rookies.
There's value in watching players compete against the best, even if it's just for a few days of practices and one game.
For a player like Dugger, for instance, the Senior Bowl was massive. An elite athlete coming from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne had plenty to prove against better competition, and he passed with flying colors.
"The Senior Bowl, for me, it was huge," Dugger told me on Patriots Wednesday during his rookie season. "It was a lot . . I loved every second of it. I walked away from it seeing places I could grow, seeing that film from the Senior Bowl and seeing where I was ineffective and where I made mistakes and said, 'OK, I can take my game to a much higher level after this.' "
But what Dugger showed during that week of work was enough for Belichick to consider him the level of player worthy of a second-round selection.
"I mean with all due respect, whoever he tackled at Lenoir-Rhyne, whoever he covered at Lenoir-Rhyne, it's just a lot different here," Belichick said in December. "I mean, he never tackled Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson or [Kenyan] Drake or any of these guys. Like, there’s just a whole different [level of player].
"Now, at the Senior Bowl, I think you could see, let’s call it, comparable-level of players at a comparable point in their career. Those matchups, I think, were a lot more helpful then the matchups in college. But, in college, you could see schematically and just from an instinctive standpoint, him reading the quarterback and playing the ball and taking angles. He was certainly a contact player, but I would say the level of competition was dramatically different.
"The Senior Bowl was a much better evaluation of him against a higher caliber of player than what we saw in college. And, I would say in college, the scheme was pretty basic. Again, at the Senior Bowl, you have NFL coaches, you have NFL-type coverages, NFL-type passing game, both in practice and in the game. So, you get to see two different to different looks at it. You get to see the practice look where players are practicing against the NFL team that is coaching them, and then in the game you get to see them play against another NFL style of play, but different from that other coaching staff. So, for a player like that, I’d say that was a big opportunity for him, and we felt like it gave us a lot of insight into the player."
That's why this week matters to NFL evaluators. Particularly in a year when some players opted out of the 2020 season, or when their teams played shortened seasons. What these athletes do on the field will carry a lot of weight. Then there are the interviews, a massive part of the process we discussed on a recent Next Pats episode with Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer.
Without a combine, without that opportunity to meet with players face-to-face, the Senior Bowl becomes even more important than it's been.
Given its significance in a strange draft season, given New England's propensity for selecting Senior Bowl alums, you can almost guarantee that the Patriots will come away with a player or two from this year's game.
With that in mind, as practices get underway, here are a few names you should be keeping in mind as we get closer and closer to draft weekend . . .
QUARTERBACKS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE
Alabama's Mac Jones could help himself if he can succeed outside of the incredibly quarterback-friendly at Alabama. Georgia's Jamie Newman has plenty to prove himself after opting out of the 2020 season. He never took a snap for the Bulldogs in what would've been a massive year for his overall evaluation, playing against top-end competition in the SEC. What he showed at Wake Forest was enough to prove he has tools. But in Mobile he'll have a chance to show those tools in action against better competition.
Can't talk about tools without mentioning Texas A&M's Kellen Mond. If the Patriots don't land a quarterback at No. 15, Newman or Mond could be in play on Day 2. All three of the names above are on the same roster, working with the Carolina coaching staff, so teams will have an opportunity to gauge them against one another in practice.
Texas' Sam Ehlinger, Mr. Moxie in this year's class, will have an opportunity to impress as a thickly-built Day 3 mobile option behind center. At 6-foot-1, 222 pounds he's on the short side for the Patriots, but he's already impressed Senior Bowl folks with his professional approach to the week.
WHO IS THIS YEAR'S KYLE DUGGER?
There may not be a rookie starter coming out of the Division 2 ranks at this year's Senior Bowl, but there are plenty of non-Power 5 talents who'll get a chance to run with peers from upper-echelon programs. Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge might be the most intriguing of the group. Built like Deion Branch (5-foot-9, 188 pounds), he should run a 4.3-second 40 whenever he tests. Through one day of practice, he's one of the early standouts.
Another wideout, South Dakota State's Cade Johnson (5-10, 186), could make some noise this week working from the interior. He's a favorite of our buddy from The Football Gameplan Emory Hunt, as is Grambling State offensive lineman David Moore who checked in at a squat 6-1 and 350 pounds.
If the Patriots were more interested in watching tackles this week, North Dakota State's Dillon Radunz (6-5, 304) is worth keeping track of. He's light, but he'll have a chance to show if he can hold up against some powerful ends.
Stop me if you've heard this before: It's a deep wide receiver class. Yep, for the third consecutive year it looks like there will be capable receivers who last all the way until Day 3 of this year's draft. Not surprisingly, the crop of receiver talent at this year's Senior Bowl is already loaded. Along with Eskridge, some of the top players in this year's group include Florida's Kadarius Toney, Oklahoma State's Tylan Wallace, South Carolina's Shi Smith and Clemson's Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, who'll be given a chance to run routes and flash their ability to separate in one-on-ones.
There's also a couple of big-bodied 2020 opt-outs in Michigan's Nico Collins (6-4, 215) and Wake Forest's Sage Surratt (6-2, 215) who will give scouts fresh tape to evaluate. Collins played in an offense at Ann Arbor led in part by quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels, whose brother Josh McDaniels figures to be interested in the skill position players available this year.
Based on where they were attacked in the running game in 2020, the Patriots could use a little more pop at the end of the line of scrimmage. Good news: There's some bulked-up edge defenders ready to go at this year's Senior Bowl. Wake Forest's Carlos Basham checked in at 6-3, 281 pounds -- much thicker than most Patriots edge defenders, who typically run about 250-260 pounds these days -- but looks like an impressive athlete and should be able to push the pocket from the outside in passing situations.
Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones (6-4, 264) would offer some power on the edge, but in a Patriots scheme that appears to lean toward outside linebackers more than true hand-in-the-dirt ends, he may not be a great scheme fit. Can he cover? He may get a shot this week.
There's a physical specimen worth watching this week here, too: Florida State's Janarius Robinson has played as a stand-up outside 'backer and a defensive end and he looks like he could fit in any scheme at 6-5, 266 pounds with 36-inch arms and 11-inch hands. We'll see how he plays.
SNEAKIER PATRIOTS NEEDS
When talking about spots the Patriots' need to address in this class, quarterback always gets mentioned. As it should. So too do receiver and tight end. Makes sense. (BC's Hunter Long is the best of the tight end group in Mobile, by the way.) But what about offensive line if Joe Thuney ends up elsewhere and Marcus Cannon doesn't return? What about corner if Jason McCourty leaves via free agency and Stephon Gilmore is dealt?
Hard to miss Alabama guard Deonte Brown at 6-3, 364 pounds. Same goes for his 'Bama teammate Alex Leatherwood (6-5, 312, 34-inch arms) at tackle. At corner Syracuse's Ifeatu Melifonwu's name should ring a bell. His brother Obi was drafted in the second round with the Raiders and eventually landed on the Patriots practice squad. Ifeatu has size (6-2, 212) and will be one of the best athletes in Mobile.
UCF corner Aaron Robinson (5-11, 190), an Alabama transfer, may be one of the best players at the Senior Bowl this week regardless of position. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has him as the 39th-ranked player on his top-50 list.