Senior Bowl Preview: Players to Watch From a Patriots Perspective

The Senior Bowls’s slogan of “the draft starts in Mobile” couldn’t be more true for the Patriots.

Since 2008, Bill Belichick has selected 46 players that participated in the Senior Bowl, including their top three selections in the 2020 draft. Last January, the Pats front office watched a DII safety named Kyle Dugger, who dominated at the event and then made Dugger their top pick in April.

Following Dugger was Michigan’s Josh Uche and Alabama linebacker Anfernee Jennings, both Senior Bowl participants, and sixth-round pick Justin Herron was another pick from Mobile.

Former Patriots scout Jim Nagy is also the executive director of the Senior Bowl, so the connections are endless.

In an unprecedented offseason with no scouting combine or in-person workouts scheduled due to the coronavirus, the Senior Bowl holds even more weight than it would in a typical offseason.

Although, it’s worth mentioning that Belichick followed suit with many NFL head coaches and skipped an in-person visit to the event this year.

After watching three days of practice in Mobile, here are over 20 players to watch in Saturday’s game that kicks off at 2:30 p.m. eastern on NFL Network:

QUARTERBACKS

QB Mac Jones, Alabama

Current round projection: first round

Every time the topic of Mac Jones at 1.15 for the Patriots comes up, the vast majority of Pats fans start discussing what he can’t do. He’s not mobile enough. He doesn’t have a strong enough arm. He was playing with an all-time great supporting cast. Yet every time he steps on a football field, whether it’s at the Senior Bowl or Alabama, he makes plays. Like other quarterbacks before him, Jones is helping his draft stock with a strong week of practice in Mobile. He’s making his typical on-time and accurate passes while others down there say his command of the huddle is impressing coaches. On Saturday, Jones has a chance to prove that it wasn’t just Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle making him look good for the National champs this past season. With worse skill talent and unfamiliarity with his receivers and playbook, Jones isn’t in the perfect situation at the Senior Bowl. If he balls out, he’ll cement himself as a first-round pick (note: Jones tweaked his ankle in Thursday’s practice and might not play in Saturday’s game).

QB Jamie Newman, Wake Forest

Current round projection: 3-4 round

The Wake Forest transfer never played a down at Georgia due to the pandemic, so this is our first look at him since the 2019 season. Although he had an up and down week, Newman made a few great throws towards the end of Tuesday’s practice, both from inside the pocket and on the move that had people talking. He can make all the throws and has terrific athleticism as a dual-threat that can be used on designed run plays as well, but his throwing mechanics need a lot of work. Newman has to tweak his release and is susceptible to throwing with a narrow base, which hurts his downfield accuracy. Still, there’s a lot to like from a tools standpoint. We’ll see on Saturday if he has improved his throwing mechanics and overall accuracy.

SKILL PLAYERS

WR Kadarius Toney, Florida

Current round projection: first round

Toney is the best player at the Senior Bowl this year for my money. He has the total package of vertical speed, short-area quickness, and elite ball-carrying that led Toney to compare himself to the Saints running back Alvin Kamara. During practice, Toney’s speed and change of direction through his breaks give defenders trouble. On Saturday, his contact balance and vision as a runner will be on display. Toney could be in play as a first-round target.

RB/WR Demetric Felton, UCLA

Current round projection: 3-4 round

Felton got on my radar this week because of his explosive route running. He’s making defensive backs in Mobile look silly and doing it without much experience at wide receiver. Felton played at running back for the Bruins but projects as a do-it-all receiver in the pros. If the Patriots need to fill their pass-catching back role due to James White and Rex Burkhead’s upcoming free agencies, Felton is a potential replacement.

WR Amari Rodgers, Clemson

Current round projection: third round

Rodgers’ body type and playing style remind me of 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel. He’s built like a running back and plays mostly out of the slot where he’s dangerous every time he touches the ball. Rodgers has excellent burst, vision, and physicality as a runner and will find soft spots in zone coverage with ease. There are some question marks about separating against man coverage, but he has done that nicely this week in one-on-one drills. In his first season as a featured option in Clemson’s offense, Rodgers had 77 receptions for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns. I’d like to see him get some game reps against man coverage, but like Samuel, he has the potential to be a machine in the right system.

WR Nico Collins, Michigan

Current round projection: second round

Collins is a big, explosive, physical downfield receiver. I know Patriots fans want natural separators, but Collins has the speed and burst off the line to stack vertically and the catch radius to make acrobatic grabs. This week, he has dominated the competition at the catch point and had several impressive releases at the line. Collins likes to explode into his routes and run through press corners, and he has the girth to pull that off consistently. I’m sure he’ll make some plays on Saturday.

WR Tylan Wallace

Current round projection: third round

Wallace’s route tree was limited in Oklahoma State’s air raid offense, but he showed off his entire repertoire at the Senior Bowl. He has been one of the top performers in one-on-ones, thanks to his release package, route breaks, and burst. Wallace very seldom drifts out of his breaks and has legit vertical speed, making for easy separation. Wallace is a smooth criminal out there and deserves our attention on Saturday.

WR Shi Smith, South Carolina

Current round projection: 4-5 round

Smith is a typical slot receiver with excellent quickness at the top of his routes. The South Carolina product creates easy separation with natural change of direction skills and false breaks. It feels like he has won every one-on-one rep this week because it’s tough to cover him on an island. You’ll see him on Saturday and think of all the great slot receivers in New England’s recent history. He’s that kind of jitterbug.

WR Josh Palmer, Tennessee

Current round projection: day three

Palmer is giving me serious Malcolm Mitchell vibes. He doesn’t waste time at the line getting into his routes, has enough size and is plenty physical, and will snap off breaks that leave defenders in the lurch. Although he never broke out in the stat sheet as people expected, Palmer projects as a perfect boundary receiver in New England’s scheme. Tough, dependable hands, and a good blend of size and explosiveness to battle with press corners. He had a terrific week at practice and has a much higher ceiling than his college production suggests.

WR Cade Johnson, South Dakota State

Current round projection: 4-5 round

Although there are more highly touted receivers on the roster, Johnson is doing more to improve his stock than anyone. Johnson is sudden in his movements to create separation and is putting on a route-running clinic. His footwork at the top of routes leaves defenders in disadvantageous positions all week long. Johnson is a bit undersized but brings slot receiver and return value. A borderline draftable talent that’s performing so well that he’ll likely be a day three pick now.

TE Hunter Long, Boston College

Current round projection: 2-3 round

Several tight ends impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl, but Long is the only one that came into the week as a projected top 100 selection. The Boston College product isn’t as explosive as Kyle Pitts, for example, but he has a versatile skill set as a pass-catcher and featured run blocker. As far as Pats tight ends go, Long is the prototype: 6-5/254 pounds, good speed up the seam and after the catch, and the frame and strength to be an in-line blocking option.

OFFENSIVE LINE

OL Alex Leatherwood, Alabama

Current round projection: 1-2 round

Leatherwood had a rough week of practice at the Senior Bowl. I’m not sure if he’s dealing with an injury or something, but he got uncharacteristically beat in one-on-ones by exposing his chest and allowing pass rushers to soften the edge. Still, Leatherwood checks every box from a measurables standpoint and typically moves well for his size. We’ll see if Leatherwood fares better in the game on Saturday than he did during the week.

OL Deonte Brown, Alabama

Current round projection: 2-3 round

At 6-3, 364 pounds, Brown weighs roughly the same as Michael Onwenu at this time last year. Onwenu dropped 20 pounds before the combine, and slimming down helped his foot speed. I think Brown needs to do the same as he has more than enough blocking power and probably wouldn’t lose much if he lost a few pounds. However, his feet need to be faster to hold up against NFL pass-rushers. Even though he has similar weight question marks as Onwenu, it worked out so well for the Pats’ 2020 sixth-round pick that you could see them trying it again with Brown. I’m interested to see how he holds up in pass protection against a good group of defensive linemen.

OL Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater

Current round projection: day three

Kyle Dugger was the DII safety at Lenoir-Rhyne that became a top 40 prospect because of a strong week at the Senior Bowl. This year, Meinerz, a division three prospect, is similarly helping out his stock and is playing on Saturday with a broken bone in his hand. Meinerz has a great base and advanced hand technique, especially given his background. He had several reps where he got inside hand positioning and anchored against rushers trying to overpower him. Plus, his run blocks are punishing defenders for coming into his path. Belichick fell in love with Dugger last year. Could Meinerz be his small school guy from the Senior Bowl in 2021?

DEFENSIVE LINE/LINEBACKER

DL Jonathon Cooper, Ohio State

Current round projection: round 3-4

Length, good initial burst out of his stance, and power into his engagements to either bull rush or set the edge, Cooper sounds like a Patriots defensive end. There were some question marks about his overall athletic ability, but he seems to be answering those this week. His first-step explosiveness off the snap is turning heads. Cooper is your typical pocket-pushing edge-setter that the Patriots love. I could easily see him in Foxboro next season.

DL Marvin Wilson, Florida State

Current round projection: third round

Wilson was a highly touted High School prospect whose collegiate career didn’t go as planned. He wasn’t too productive for Florida State, but he’s got great size, natural leverage, and quickness to be a disruptive interior rusher in New England’s system. Wilson can park himself in gaps or run in a one-gap penetrating scheme due to his size and strength. Although you don’t want it to be too early, Wilson could be the three-down nose tackle the Patriots need. The Senior Bowl will be big for him as he tries to solidify his draft stock after a slow season at FSU.

DL Marlon Tuipulotu, USC

Current round projection: 2-3 round

Tuipulotu was a draft darling for many in a deep but lacking interior DL class at the top of the draft. Tuipulotu is an excellent run defender who uses quick block recognition and lateral mobility to defeat blocks and make plays on the ball. He’ll also add a good bull rush in the pass rush and showed this week that he has some sneaky foot quickness for pass rushing. Right now, he’s slated to go in the 50-100 range.

LB Riley Cole, South Alabama

Current round projection: day three

Cole is undersized for a prototypical Patriots inside linebacker, but as a day three projection, he makes up for his lack of size with terrific instincts and block deconstruction skills. His tape is littered with plays where he’s defeating blocks to make plays on the ball, and he’s got some coverage flexibility if you line him up over the slot (overhang role). You can also see a fit for him in the kicking game at the next level. Cole reminds me of the other day three linebackers in the Patriots’ past like Cassh Maluia. Fast, physical, and always around the ball.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

Current round projection: second round

The younger brother of former Patriots defensive back Obi Melifonwu, Ifeatu has the same size (6-2) and off-the-charts athleticism as his older brother. However, the younger Melifonwu plays outside corner and has better coverage skills than his brother. Patriots fans will scream at the idea of another second-round defensive back, and I get that. For better or worse, Melifonwu fits their profile as a tools-based prospect that flashed some impressive ball skills at ‘Cuse.

CB Aaron Robinson, UCF

Current round projection: 3-4 round

Robinson is an Alabama transfer that is an excellent athlete and looks a lot like Kyle Dugger in pads. He needs to trust his feet more and avoid grabbing in man coverage, but you notice his strappy man coverage style right away. Robinson is also willing in run support and has excellent click and close from off-coverage or zone. If there were a combine this year, he’d be a star.

DB Richie Grant, UCF

Current round projection: 2-3 round

Another UCF defensive back caught my eye with a terrific week. Grant is a versatile safety that played in centerfield, split-safety coverages, and cover receivers in the slot. He’s got great range and instincts that translated into ball production last season. He could be a potential mid-round Devin McCourty replacement.

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