Which Senior Bowl participants look like Patriots prototypes?

Which Senior Bowl participants look like Patriots prototypes?

The time has arrived for those obsessing over the upcoming NFL draft to obsess over heights, weights, hand sizes and arm lengths. It's not football. It's guys in their underwear, sometimes on stage, in front of a crowd, having their measurements taken. 

It's weird. It might be a little dehumanizing. But it matters. 

How much? That's up for debate. But every year, multiple times a year — at college all-star games, the combine and pro days — scouts, coaches and evaluators of all types spend time paying attention to the fractions of inches that could determine whether or not a player fits their system. 

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As we've pointed out in the past, the Patriots have a backlog of draft history more significant than any team in the NFL since there's not another operation that's been run by one individual over the last 20 years. Bill Belichick has types at certain positions. We've labeled them as "prototypes" over the years.

And while it's too early to figure out who's a prototype and who isn't — acquiring athletic testing numbers at the combine and pro days is part of the process — we can look at measurements as they start to come in and key on certain individuals for certain roles in Patriots offensive and defensive schemes.

Senior Bowl measurements were taken on Tuesday in Mobile, Ala. ahead of the week's first practices, for which Belichick is in attendance, allowing us to tear through them and key in on potential Patriots prototypes. Here are some names who stood out based on their size...

QUARTERBACK: JORDAN LOVE, UTAH STATE

Jordan Love's interception numbers in his senior season might've been a little high for Belichick's liking, and he's not out of a Power Five conference, but physically he checks every box. He's a shade over 6-foot-3, 223 pounds and he has massive hands measuring larger than 10.5 inches. In theory, that should help him get a good grip in the elements of New England.

Under Belichick, the Patriots have typically drafted quarterbacks who stand 6-foot-3 or taller and their hands usually measure larger than nine inches. Love, who was reportedly scattershot with his passes on Tuesday, is athletic and possesses plenty of arm talent, but Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is the top passer in Mobile this week.

Herbert measures in at 6-foot-6, 227 pounds with 10-inch hands. The only quarterback the Patriots have drafted under Belichick who was that tall was Ryan Mallett.

TIGHT END: JARED PINKNEY, VANDERBILT

The Patriots have drafted 14 tight ends under Bill Belichick. The "prototype" there is a bit easier to peg than those at receiver and running back, who've come in all different shapes and sizes in New England. The tight end mold falls in the 6-foot-4 range and just over 250 pounds. Big hands (about 10 inches) are preferred.

While we don't have any of those athletic testing numbers yet for Vanderbilt's Jared Pinkney, he looks like the Senior Bowl's closest thing to a prototype at this position. The SEC product — Belichick has a good relationship with the Vandy staff, inviting them to attend Patriots spring practices back in 2017 — stands 6-foot-4 and weighs in at 254 pounds, plus he has those massive mitts the Patriots like (10.6 inches).

Dayton's Adam Trautman is the next-closest prototype at this spot in Mobile. The 6-foot-5, 251-pounder has hands that measure just over 9.5 inches, and he dominated lower-level competition with 70 catches, 916 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.

DEFENSIVE END: JAVON KINLAW, SOUTH CAROLINA

One of the most explosive big-bodied defenders at the Senior Bowl, the Patriots may never even get the opportunity to draft Kinlaw at No. 23. He's thought by some experts to be a top-20 talent. But he certainly looks like he'd be a long-term answer at 3-4 defensive end in New England's scheme.

At 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, with 10-inch hands and almost 35-inch arms, he looks like he was built in a lab. And while he's quick enough to beat blockers in a one-gapping scheme, his length and power would make him a dominant two-gapping player in a defense that could use another capable 3-4 end to pair with Lawrence Guy.

Ole Miss' Josiah Coatney (6-foot-4, 309 pounds, 9.5-inch hands, 33-inch arms) is another SEC product who could interest the Patriots as a 3-4 later in the draft.

NOSE TACKLE: LEKI FOTU, UTAH

One of the most physically imposing players at the Senior Bowl, Fotu measures in at 6-5, 337 pounds and would be a perfect middle-of-the-line anchor to eat up double-teams. Danny Shelton played that role for the Patriots in 2019, but he's set to hit free agency this offseason. Fotu's 10.25-inch hands and 34-inch arms helped him fight off blockers and earn first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2019.

Nebraska's Darrion Daniels (6-3, 322), Ole Miss' Jones Benito (6-1, 321) and Ohio State's DaVon Hamilton (6-4, 327) all hail from programs the Patriots respect and could be seen as potential answers to their nose tackle uncertainty.

LINEBACKER: MALIK HARRISON, OHIO STATE

Never was there a better example of what it is the Patriots are looking for from their linebackers than what happened in the 2018 draft. Looking for depth behind Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots were clearly in the linebacker market. But they waited, and waited, and waited... until pouncing on Purdue's Ja'Whaun Bentley in the fifth round.

Bentley was off draft boards of other linebacker-needy clubs that year because he was viewed as not athletic enough to fit their schemes. But in New England, the player who had a high football IQ and played heavier than 250 pounds in college was ideal. Belichick has long liked his off-the-ball 'backers big (which may narrow his options in the draft as players at that position get smaller every year in order to try to keep up with the speed deployed by opposing offenses). That's why Harrison — who checked in at 6-foot-3, 246 pounds in Mobile — lands here. He's a true middle-of-the-field type with the bulk to hold up as a "Mike" or "Will" backer in a 3-4 defense.

Curran: 

Wyoming's Logan Wilson doesn't quite have the same size (6-foot-2, 241 pounds), but he's close in that regard. Plus, he has other bullet points on his résumé (three-time captain, second-team All-American, Butkus Award finalist, high-school defensive back) that might pique Belichick's interest.

EDGE: ANFERNEE JENNINGS, ALABAMA

We couldn't get through a list of potential prototypes for the Patriots without mentioning someone from Alabama, could we? We could not.

An "edge" defender in the Patriots defense in 2019 was an outside linebacker, called a "Sam" or "Jack" in the Patriots scheme. Those players — primarily Kyle Van Noy, John Simon and Chase WInovich — slotted in between 250 and 260 pounds. They were stand-up players who could rush or drop into coverage. While most of the edge players who fit the Patriots size profile at this position are up-the-field players, there are a few who look like they might fit.

Jennings, in part because of where he played his college ball, is right at the top of the list at 6-foot-2, 252 pounds with 33-inch arms. His teammate Terrell Lewis is someone the Patriots might like better as a player, but he's bigger (6-foot-5, 258 pounds, 34-inch arms) and looks more like a 4-3 end. Two more SEC edge players who fit the mold size-wise: South Carolina's D.J. Wonnum (6-foot-5, 254 pounds, 34-inch arms) and Florida's Jabari Zuniga (6-foot-3, 253 pounds, 33-inch arms).

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Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

Core of the issue: Who makes up young Patriots nucleus for next reboot?

Editor's Note: For the first time since the 2010 offseason, the Patriots are looking at a "full" offseason, without a trip at least as far as the AFC Championship Game. Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry are detailing the challenges facing the team going forward. Read Tom's column here and click here to listen to the latest episode of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast.

*****

The football-watching world was bombarded with this particular nugget not long after the Titans scampered off the field at Gillette Stadium having moved onto the Divisional Round: It was the first time the Patriots had been eliminated as early as the Wild Card Round since 2009.

It's a remarkable note, highlighting just how dominant this decade of football has been in New England. It also serves as a window into the franchise's history and therefore could be instructive as we try to determine how exactly the Patriots will try to bounce back as they did a decade ago. 

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Two seasons after the Patriots lost that Wild Card game to Baltimore, they were back in the Super Bowl. And that Super Bowl run set off a stretch of eight consecutive seasons when Bill Belichick's team made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game.

Looking back at how the Patriots rebounded from that particular early playoff exit in 2009, though quick, it clearly wasn't easy. Given the way the current roster is constructed, this particular bounce-back could be even more challenging.

WHY THE PRESSURE'S ON

There is no precise formula, of course, when it comes to building a consistent championship contender. But there is no doubt that for many years, each spring, the Patriots were able to replenish their team with key pieces brought aboard from the college ranks who helped set up the team for long-term success.

That 2009 iteration of the Patriots featured a roster in transition. Pillars of the organization — Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison — had moved on prior to the season. But there were young players, acquired in the draft, starting to assert themselves as serious contributors and leaders in their own right. And with each draft, the number of those young core players grew.

By the time the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl in 2011, they had young talents who'd been developed at One Patriot Place serving as foundational pieces, including 2008 picks Jerod Mayo and Matthew Slater, 2009 selections Sebastian Vollmer, Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman, and 2010 home-run picks Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski. Even the rookie class of 2011 had a say in the team getting to Super Bowl XLIV with first-round pick Nate Solder starting 13 games on the offensive line.

Despite going on an unprecedented run of AFC Championship Games and Super Bowl appearances — meaning Bill Belichick was generally picking near the bottom of the first round — the Patriots continued to draft well to keep their annual championship aspirations alive. Shane Vereen and Marcus Cannon, from Solder's class, ended up playing important roles in championships. Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones were bullseyes in the 2012 first round. Without a first-rounder in 2013, the Patriots still landed Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, who all contributed to title runs. In 2014, taken in the fourth round, James White ended up a key piece to the team's future.

Since then, the steady stream of cornerstone pieces arriving in the draft has slowed.

The Patriots hit on both Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, but only Mason remains on the team. The 2016 class, which saw a first-rounder wiped away due to Deflategate, is no longer represented on the Patriots roster as Joe Thuney and others are set to hit free agency. The 2017 draft class featured just four players and didn't produce a consistent starter. 

Using a draft-in-bulk approach in 2018, with nine players selected, the Patriots landed Isaiah Wynn in the first round. He looks like a quality left tackle, but he's missed three-quarters of his first two seasons due to injury. Sony Michel and Ja'Whaun Bentley are the other contributors remaining from that class. The effectiveness of the 2019 draft class is largely to be determined.

Compare that young nucleus built to help the Patriots rebound after 2009 to this one. The 2008-11 draft classes accounted for four Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pros and two second-team All-Pros through the 2011 season. The 2015-2018 classes did not account for any such honors through the 2018 season. Thuney was named a second-team All-Pro for his 2019 performance.

Even just looking at the roster without tallying up awards, the number of recently-drafted Patriots who've become core pieces and stuck is eye-opening. The team has a greater number of starting-caliber players under contract from the 2009 draft class (Chung and Edelman) than they do from the 2015 (Mason), 2016 and 2017 classes combined.

Belichick and his front-office staff have seemingly willingly gone with an older roster in recent years, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their championship window as Brady neared the end of his career. Still, that approach — unafraid to trade picks or execute pick-swap deals for proven veterans — meant a smaller investment in rookie contracts than most other teams.

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In 2018, according to OverTheCap.com, only one team had fewer cap dollars committed to players on rookie contracts than the Patriots. That year, only two teams had a lower percentage of their active roster devoted to players on rookie deals (33 players). It worked out, clearly. They won a Super Bowl.

Last year, it was more of the same in terms of their rookie-contract investment. They entered the regular season with the oldest 53-man roster in football and got out to a record-setting pace with the oldest starting defense in the NFL. No team in the league had fewer players on rookie contracts (24) and no team committed fewer dollars to rookie deals.

Even with veterans such as Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins not currently counting against the 2020 roster, the Patriots are still slated to be a decidedly veteran team next season. No team has fewer players on rookie contracts at the moment (28), and no roster has a smaller percentage of players on rookie contracts making up their roster (52.8 percent). The next closest team in terms of the percentage of rostered players on rookie deals is the Saints (60.4 percent). 

The draft has breathed life into the Patriots dynasty for the better part of the past two decades. Building successful teams without drafted-and-developed contributors is possible — that 2018 roster is a good example of how a couple of low-yield draft classes doesn't have to extinguish a team's title hopes — and college players may be more difficult to successfully evaluate than ever before. But without a greater number of cost-effective impact additions from the drafted ranks, the next Patriots reboot could be Belichick's toughest yet. 

As one NFL executive familiar with the situation put it last offseason, leaning on free-agent signings and pick-for-player trades isn't the most sustainable plan of attack. If the Patriots don't start to make more of their draft-day dice rolls, they could find themselves in a real roster-building quagmire relatively quickly.

WHY THERE'S REASON FOR REBOOT OPTIMISM

Some of those roster-composition figures for the 2020 season can change. And fast.

The Patriots traded this year's second-round pick to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu, but they still have one first-rounder, three thirds (including two projected compensatory picks), a fourth, four sixths (two compensatory picks) and three sevenths. That's a dozen selections to try to add to the nine players remaining on the roster from the 2019 draft class to try to jump-start a youth movement.

And it's not as though they need each of those picks to hit in order for a wave of young talent to land this fall. In 2010, the Patriots had more established talent on the offensive side of the ball than they do at the moment — Brady was at an MVP level, Wes Welker was one of the best receivers in the league, and the offensive line was loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber players — but adding Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end took them to another level. 

A hit or two, combined with better health throughout the course of the season, could have the Patriots looking like a different offense after 2019 was one of their least-efficient seasons on that side of the ball in years. 

Plus, there's the "redshirt" factor. Belichick has openly discussed how players coming off of quiet rookie seasons can turn into critical parts. There's no shortage of those types on the roster who — either because of injury or because they were blocked by veterans ahead of them on the depth chart — have untapped potential. 

Outside of rookie punter Jake Bailey, who quickly established himself as one of the best at his position in 2019, most of that class has a chance to take the Year 2 leap in 2020.

N'Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris, Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart all got their feet wet with some game action and plenty of practice reps. Harry, who missed half the season due to injury, could benefit immensely from more time on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. Likewise, offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt — both of whom missed the season with injuries — will have a chance to earn roles this offseason.

Another point in New England's favor as it searches to reload on young talent: It has seen some of its best players come from the undrafted free agent ranks.

They've found gems in David Andrews (2015), Jonathan Jones (2016), Adam Butler (2017) and J.C. Jackson (2018) to provide the team with some of its best young talent. By their nature, undrafted rookies are gambles. But they're low-cost gambles, and another double-digit undrafted free agent class could yield a player or two upon whom the Patriots could rely. That's been their history. 

WHY THE QUARTERBACK DOMINO DETERMINES THE COURSE

How the Patriots handle 2020 could end up looking like 2010: Add a handful of capable young draft picks to a roster with established talent and a few promising young pros, and continue to build around Tom Brady. 

But is there any chance that the reboot Belichick directed in 2000 and 2001 ends up being the closer comparison? Might he make a change at the game's most important position, roll with a more cost-effective option there, and rely on a veteran-laden defense while reshaping the team to his liking?

The current iteration of the roster is unique. It's a different team and a different time. Neither 2001 nor 2010 provides perfect blueprints on how to approach this offseason. The quarterback decision, though, could dictate which way Belichick proceeds. 

If Brady ends up back in New England at a dollar figure that pays him near the top-third of quarterbacks in the NFL, then that could make it difficult to surround him with the veteran talent that would likely best accentuate his skill set. Would surrounding Brady with young players for a second consecutive season get the best out of the 43-year-old? And would that be in line with Belichick's credo of "what's best for the football team?"

If Brady ends up back in New England at a lower dollar figure that would allow him to be surrounded by a free-agent signing or two who'd make him more comfortable — perhaps trading picks for established veterans as well — that might be "what's best for the football team" in 2020.

But what about the seasons beyond? If there is an inevitable reboot afoot, would signing Brady to that type of deal simply postpone an inevitable roster reconstruction? And might it complicate the process with cap hits pushed down the road to be dealt with in later years?

If Brady ends up elsewhere, giving way to either second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham or a low-cost veteran, there will be growing pains. Still, in theory, it would provide the team with more roster and salary-cap flexibility. As it stands right now, thanks in part to pacts signed with Antonio Brown and Michael Bennett, only three teams have more dead money on their 2020 books than the Patriots, per OverTheCap.com.

Should Brady find himself in a different uniform next season, that dead-money number will jump another $13.5 million. Re-signing Brady prior to the start of the league year will avoid that kind of cap-hit acceleration — only $6.75M hits the cap — but depending on a new deal's structure, that decision may simply postpone the inevitable.

Even Belichick would acknowledge, whatever happens with Brady isn't entirely up to him. Any contract negotiation is a two-way street, as he put it in his year-end press conference. But it'd behoove the Patriots to have an idea of how they'd like to proceed with Brady as soon as possible. That way, they could use the legal tampering period in mid-March to surround Brady with veteran pieces if he's going to be back. If not, they could sit tight, save — they're in the middle of the pack of the NFL in terms of cap space — and hope they can thrive despite undergoing a roster renaissance.

Either way, the contributions they receive from their most recent draft classes will matter. The Patriots couldn't reboot when Belichick arrived in the early aughts without quality drafts. The same was true 10 years ago after an unceremonious Wild Card Round exit. 

Compared to other seasons this decade — when they've made it at least as far as the AFC Championship Game — they have a few weeks more time to prepare for draft weekend. They have ammo. They just need to hit. 

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address running backs?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address running backs?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots finished the regular season ranked 25th in rushing (3.8 yards per carry), but don't put that all on the humans carrying the football.

As we detailed late last week, the run-blocking work of the offensive line left plenty to be desired in 2019, making some of the overall rushing numbers look paltry in comparison to the tail end of the 2018 season when the Patriots embraced more of a smash-mouth identity. 

Still, the numbers were eye-opening. Rex Burkhead was the only regularly-used Patriots running back who cracked 4.0 yards per carry (4.6), while Sony Michel (3.7) showed a lack of North-South aggression at times that resulted in more than his fair share of stuffed runs.

On a positive note for this group, two of the team's best receivers — Burkhead and James White — came out of the running back room, and they were relatively healthy for the majority of the year.

What's in store for this unit in 2020? More of the same since every back from the 2019 roster is scheduled to be back next season? Will we see some fresh faces in new roles? Let's do some digging.

Breaking down the current roster

Sony Michel: Michel wasn't bad in first-and-10 situations. He had a 49 percent success rate (7th among backs with at least 100 such carries in 2019) and averaged 4.0 yards per carry, which tied him with Todd Gurley and Dalvin Cook. Even in short-yardage spots, his numbers were fine. He converted on third-and-one or third-and-two at a 73 percent clip, which was 10th in football. He was hit often enough at the line of scrimmage that even running backs coach Ivan Fears told reporters during the season that his second-year back had to get downhill quicker, and Michel was too often a detriment in the passing game. But after getting through the season healthy, he's likely to be the team's top between-the-tackles option again in the third year of his rookie deal.

James White: Still one of the best receiving backs in the league — and among the most productive receiving backs of the last decade, when you break down the numbers — White was third in the NFL among backs in receiving yardage (646 yards), sixth in receptions (72) and tied for second in receiving touchdowns (5). He had half the number of drops (2) that Michel did ... and on 71 fewer targets (90). He's going into a contract year in 2020.

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Rex Burkhead: The issue with Burkhead has long been injuries, and he missed three more games in 2019 due to injury. But keeping him on a pitch count — he hit 20 snaps only five times in 14 games — helped make him the team's most productive back on a per-play basis. He ranked fifth in the league among backs with at least 250 snaps with a 10.3 yards-per-reception figure. He ranked 12th in football in terms of yards per rushing attempt (4.6), tied with Saquon Barkley. Like White, he's going into the final year of his deal in New England.

Damien Harris: The 2019 third-rounder out of Alabama took a "redshirt" year as a rookie. He saw just four snaps all season, all of them in a Week 7 blowout of the Jets. Fears noted throughout the season that he liked the progress Harris was making, but there simply wasn't a game-day roster spot for him most weeks because most others at the position were healthy. "You can't play them all," Fears said in October. Should Michel miss any time moving forward, Harris would likely be the "next man up." Perhaps, if the team thinks Harris provides more juice as an early-down runner, he could challenge Michel for work in that role. 

Brandon Bolden: The special-teams ace played primarily in the kicking game in 2019, but he did take 15 carries for 68 yards (a 4.5 yards-per-carry average). His speed, even in his eighth season, was good enough to serve as a consistent threat on end-around runs. He's headed into the last year of his contract in 2020.

Who is potentially on the open market?

Kenyan Drake: With every Patriots back scheduled to return in 2020, this seems like a low-priority position group to address via free agency. But Drake would be an all-purpose back who might have Bill Belichick licking his chops. The Patriots saw him twice a year for three years as a member of the Dolphins. Last season, he went from being a ho-hum performer behind a bad offensive line in Miami to one of the most explosive backs in the league in a new scheme in Arizona. He might cost more than $5 million per year as a free agent, though, and so he may be too pricey for a team like the Patriots, who aren't exactly flush with cap space.

Devontae Booker: Booker would certainly be a more cost-effective option if the Patriots were looking for a player with some all-purpose potential. That's how he was billed coming out of Utah in 2016 — the Patriots brought him in for a visit before the draft — but that potential was never realized in Denver where he became a pure special-teamer, buried behind running back Phillip Lindsay, in his fourth year. Any chance he's a buy-low option who could flourish with a little more opportunity?

Jordan Howard: If it's a big back the Patriots are after — and that seems unlikely with Michel and Harris sitting there on the roster — then Howard is among the biggest names available who'd make some sense for the Patriots. Derrick Henry and Melvin Gordon are going to be out of the team's price range, in all likelihood, but Howard could potentially help solve the team's short-yardage issues at a fraction of the cost. Their problems down by the goal line helped get them beat by the Titans in the Wild Card Round. 

Carlos Hyde: With 1,000 yards in 2019 — the first such season of his career — Hyde might be looking to go somewhere where he's considered the top guy at the position. That likely won't be in New England. The 230-pounder is about to be in his 30-year-old season.

Chris Thompson: With both James White and Rex Burkhead looking at the final years of their respective contracts, the Patriots might be after a receiving back this offseason. Thompson has quietly produced as an effective pass-catcher when healthy; he's two years removed from a 500-yard receiving season when in 2017 he averaged 13.1 yards per catch. The seven-year vet has some return experience, and after several seasons marred by injury for a moribund franchise in Washington, he may be relatively inexpensive on the open market.

Ty Montgomery: A different route to take for Belichick if it's a pass-catcher he's after. Montgomery would represent an interesting shift at the position. Instead of having a running back serve as a quality receiver — like Kevin Faulk or James White — why not just get a receiver to play running back? That's Montgomery, who came into the league as a wideout with the Packers but has changed positions and provided some passing-game punch in stops with the Ravens and Jets. He had only 45 touches last year in New York, averaging 4.28 yards per, so the idea of a receiver playing running back in today's NFL might actually be more enticing than Montgomery's talent on its own. He's an experienced kick-returner but has not returned a punt in his career.