Phil Perry

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Here's why a lot of Patriots recent draft picks have Senior Bowl experience

Bill Belichick was there. Josh McDaniels was there. The Patriots had a large contingent down in Mobile, Ala. for this week's Senior Bowl practices (the game will air Saturday on NFL Network at 2:30 p.m.), which should come as no surprise.

Just look at how the Patriots have drafted of late. 

In 2019, they selected Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Jake Bailey -- all of whom participated in the Senior Bowl. They also signed undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers, who played in the game. 

In 2018, they grabbed Isaiah Wynn in the first round, Duke Dawson, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Braxton Berrios after they'd competed in the Senior Bowl.

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Three of their four draft picks from 2017, plus two undrafted rookies, were in the Senior Bowl. 

From 2013-16, they brought aboard 20 Senior Bowl participants as rookies.

"The great thing about the Senior Bowl is that you're seeing some of the best players," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said last spring. 

"There have actually been some underclassmen who have been incorporated into that mix. So you're seeing them against good competition and it's a different dynamic or different situation that they've been placed in. You're kind of taking them out of their environment that they've been in and kind of giving them something new and seeing how they handle it against good people."

The small-school players -- or the players who are asked to do something they didn't do much as collegians -- are the ones who have an opportunity to really land on radars during Senior Bowl work. For the Patriots, who constantly harp on the benefit of having seen players work against great competition on a regular basis when they hail from an SEC program, seeing some of the best in the country work against one another matters.

"It’s one thing if they do it against a lower-level team," Caserio said back in 2016, when asked about the Senior Bowl. "I mean, look, not all teams are created equal. Not all conferences are created equal. That’s just a fact. We can’t control that. So when you can see them actually play against really good players or good players that are at a comparable level of competition that they’re going to see every Sunday, that has to be a part of [the evaluation], no question."

The next year, the Patriots took two Senior Bowlers from smaller programs: Youngstown State's Derek Rivers and Troy's Antonio Garcia. 

"Where [the Senior Bowl] probably helps a little bit is players on a lower level that maybe haven’t competed against the same level of competition," Caserio said back in 2017. "Obviously, they’re making a big jump. . . Garcia was down there. That’s going to be a big jump in competition because this is what they’re going to be playing against. 

"With all due respect to whatever conference Youngstown State is in, there’s not a lot of NFL players in that conference. I mean, that’s just the way that it is. You’re going to have to see him against NFL competition, which the Senior Bowl is usually a pretty good indication of that because you’re talking about the top seniors in the country. It’s a part of the process. You’re not making a decision based off of that, but maybe a player who doesn’t have as much experience against that level, you’re going to see how he fares, and then you just kind of continue to move forward."

Some small-school prospects who may have caught Belichick's eye this week? 

Dayton tight end Adam Trautman was already considered one of the better tight ends in the draft class and seemed to only help his stock.

Safety Kyle Dugger -- who hails from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University -- impressed. Ditto for Division III offensive lineman Ben Bartch out of Saint John's, who saw rushers from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and other high-end programs and reportedly held his own.

Perhaps the most recent success story out of Senior Bowl week for the Patriots wasn't with a small-school prospect, though. It might've been with Shaq Mason, a guard coming out of a run-heavy system at Georgia Tech. The Patriots simply hadn't seen him do much in the way of pass protection for the Yellow Jackets.

But Mason got to the Senior Bowl, took to the coaching he received, and the Patriots took notice. 

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"The thing I’ll say about Shaq," Belichick said after drafting Mason in 2015, "is just watching him at the Senior Bowl, I mean it was only one week, but he made a huge improvement just in those, whatever it was, four or five practices, whatever it was down there. His stance is different. You could see each day progressively how he was taking to the coaching down there and his footwork and his hand placement and his body position. I know it was basic. It wasn’t like it was a big scheme thing at the Senior Bowl, but just doing things on a daily basis better than the day before, looking more comfortable doing them. And it was different than what they did at Georgia Tech."

Big school. Small school. Everyone had something to gain in Mobile this week. And that includes the Patriots. That's why -- with more time off this year than recent years -- they were well represented down there.


 

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

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.

Like the running back position in New England, the Patriots could roll into 2020 with just about the same group if they so choose.

Julian Edelman is back. Same goes for Mohamed Sanu, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. Phillip Dorsett is the lone regular contributor from the 2019 receiver room who's set to hit free agency. Matthew Slater, almost exclusively a special-teamer, is scheduled to be a free agent as well. Though Meyers showed promise in spurts throughout his rookie season, only Edelman, Sanu and Harry look like guarantees to be on the roster. 

Will the Patriots be OK with that trio as their top three?

Does Meyers make sense as the No. 4? Or does there need to be a significant upgrade talent-wise made to this unit via free agency, shuffling the depth chart and giving whoever's playing quarterback -- Tom Brady or someone else -- better weapons to work with? What was available at times last season was ugly.

BREAKING DOWN THE CURRENT ROSTER

Julian Edelman: Headed into his 34-year-old season, it's worth wondering exactly how much the Patriots will be able to depend on Edelman. He did -- despite injuries to his ribs, shoulder and knee -- put up one of the most productive seasons of his career, cracking 1,000 yards.

Mohamed Sanu: After a promising start to his Patriots career, including a 10-catch performance against the Ravens midseason, Sanu tailed off. He suffered a high-ankle sprain and had just 14 catches on 26 targets following that game in Baltimore. The Patriots dealt a second-round pick to get him so he's probably not going anywhere ahead of the 2020 season. They'll just have to hope more time in the system, and better health, yields better outcomes. 

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N'Keal Harry: The rookie first-round pick lost the first half of his season to injured reserve and had trouble finding his footing upon his return. He finished the year with 12 catches for 105 yards on 24 targets in seven games. He flashed contested-catch promise with a touchdown against the Cowboys and a leaping grab in Cincinnati that was called back due to penalty -- he was also an effective runner on end-around plays -- but the Patriots will be looking for much more consistency in Year 2. 

Phillip Dorsett: The Patriots signed Dorsett to a one-year deal last offseason, in all likelihood hoping he could reprise his 2018 role as a valuable reserve. Pressed into more regular action, he wasn't as efficient a target for Brady and by the end of the season he was ceding reps to rookies. He could return via free agency this offseason if the Patriots want a familiar face to come back and be able to fill in. But it feels as though both sides might be willing to find a fresh start. 

Jakobi Meyers: After a strong summer, Meyers didn't exactly hit the ground running, but he did end up as the team's most productive rookie wideout. He averaged 13.8 yards per catch -- 0.1 behind what Emmaunel Sanders did in San Fran and what Brandin Cooks did in Los Angeles -- and no rookie caught more contested targets (seven of 10), according to Pro Football Focus.

Gunner Olszewski: The Bemidji State product was the last to make the active roster out of camp but stuck around long enough to play in eight games before landing on injured reserve. He caught just two passes for 34 yards -- both against the Giants in Week 6 when the Patriots were hurting at the receiver spot -- but chipped in as the team's regular punt-returner before his injury. He returned 20 for 179 yards (9.0 yards per return, 20th in the NFL). 

Matthew Slater: Slater heads into free agency after another First Team All-Pro selection as a special-teamer, his fifth. He played 20 snaps in 2019 -- all as a run-blocker.

WHO IS POTENTIALLY ON THE OPEN MARKET?

Amari Cooper: This would be a Ruthian hack in free agency. Cooper might cost almost $20 million per year on whatever new deal he signs. The Patriots, though, have been bold in adding talent to their roster when they see glaring issues. Would they be this bold?

Seems unlikely that the Patriots would devote the necessary resources to land this one-time Nick Saban pupil, but it'd infuse the wideout room in New England with some much-needed, in-his-prime talent. If Tom Brady is willing to take pennies on the dollar to stick in New England with the promise that he'll have more to work with in 2020, Cooper should be the team's top-of-the-list item.

A.J. Green: The Patriots are in need of a vertical presence in the passing game. For years that was Rob Gronkowski. Hard to replicate that skill set at tight end, so it may have to be a receiver. After a year off, it's hard to know exactly how Green would fill this role . . . but it's what he's done for the majority of his career.

He'd be a much cheaper option than Cooper ($9 million per year might get it done), and he might be itching to play for a competitor. Green would make more sense than going after Emmanuel Sanders, another 30-something free agent this offseason, since the Patriots are already loaded up on interior veteran pass-catchers in Sanu and Edelman. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: FAMILIAR FACE

Danny Amendola: The Patriots might be set in the slot. But wouldn't it make sense to have a trusted option on the inside should Julian Edelman be forced to miss time due to injury? Amendola filled that role admirably in 2014 and 2016 when Edelman was healthy for the majority of the year. It allowed Amendola to sit back for portions of the year and then be used more liberally in the postseason.

He knows the offense. He wouldn't be looking to break the bank at this point in his career. He still holds respect for the organization, and anything he said upon his departure from New England in 2018 would be water under the bridge if Bill Belichick felt as though his receiver group would be better off with Amendola in it. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: UNDER-THE-RADAR OPTIONS

Breshad Perriman: It wasn't all that long ago that Perriman looked like the perfect Patriots reclamation project. They've had a long list of failed first-round draft picks come through their recevier room -- Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson -- and Perriman could've been the latest.

The only problem? He tore it up at the end of the 2019 season for the Bucs, finishing with career-highs in catches (36), yards (645) and touchdowns (6) while playing for his third team in his four-year career. He'd be a clever solution to New England's vertical issues, but he might've priced himself out of Patriots consideration with what he did at the end of the year.

Travis Benjamin: A much different type of vertical threat than Perriman (who stands 6-foot-2, 215 pounds), Benjamin is a mini-burner at 5-10, 175 pounds. He was placed on injured reserve in October of last season so his numbers were down across the board, but he's averaged over 15.0 yards per catch for his career and he has a wealth of return experience. He might be a cost-effective gamble at the position this offseason. 

Pharoh Cooper: The Rams took Cooper in the fourth round in 2016, and he went on to win First-Team All-Pro honors the following year for his work in the return game. For his career, he's returned 66 punts for 619 yards and 92 kicks for 2,213 yards.

The 5-foot-11, 200 pounder also finished with the eighth-best catch rate from the slot in 2019, according to PFF. He had 25 catches for 243 yards and a touchdown on the season. If the Patriots wanted some young depth in the slot, Cooper might be a good option. Sanu is in the final year of his deal and Edelman's contract runs out after 2021.

Could this former Patriots receiver's son be the next Patriots receiver?

Could this former Patriots receiver's son be the next Patriots receiver?

One way to get a feel for just how long Bill Belichick has been head coach in New England? Players who were kicking around the league in the early portion of Belichick's Patriots tenure have children Belichick has the opportunity to draft in April. 

Last week we touched on the fact that Randy Moss has a son entering the NFL Draft as a tight end out of LSU. Thaddeus Moss could end up being a mid-to-late round option for a team in need of a tight end. 

This week? Another former Patriots receiver has a son who's putting on a show in Mobile, Ala. for this week's Senior Bowl. 

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Belichick never had a chance to coach Shawn Jefferson. The longtime NFL wideout with over 7,000 career receiving yards left the Patriots via free agency for the Falcons after four years in New England.

His first year with Atlanta, 2000, was Belichick's first as head coach of the Patriots. (The two did overlap in Foxboro in 1996, when Belichick coached defensive backs under Bill Parcells.)

But might Jefferson's son end up a Patriots draft target?

Van Jefferson, from the University of Florida, has been one of the most impressive performers at his position at this year's Senior Bowl. The week's practices — thoroughly covered and broadcast by NFL Media these days — has allowed Jefferson to put his nuanced skills on display against some of the best defensive backs in the country. 

After a strong showing on Tuesday in the week's first practice, Jefferson was one of the best pass-catchers on the field again Wednesday.

Despite lacking the athleticism of some of the others at his position who will be considered first-rounders this year — it's thought to be an incredibly deep class at receiver — Jefferson has made plays this week both down the field and at the intermediate level by understanding leverage and making contested catches.

"He is a route technician on a level that has the corners tripping over themselves," The Athletic's Dane Brugler wrote this week. "And it is tough to blame them because they haven’t faced many players at the college level with Jefferson’s detailed patterns. Instead of pure speed, he relies on pace, tempo and purpose, making every step matter and tying defenders in knots."

Jefferson spent three years at Ole Miss before transferring to Florida. The 6-foot-1, 197-pounder finished his collegiate career with 2,159 yards and 16 touchdowns. He caught 49 passes for 657 yards and six scores in his final season.

Belichick and his coaching staff are in Mobile for college football's premier postseason all-star game. Perhaps what they see from the Florida wideout with some Patriots connections will push them to consider him on draft weekend to bolster a receiving corps that needed all the help it could get this season.

Or not. Jefferson's father is currently assistant head coach and receivers coach for the Jets.