With the 2014 NFL combine officially underway, general managers, coaches and scouts were abound inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday and Sunday, the annual testing facility for the nation's top college prospects.
On Saturday, offensive lineman and tight ends showcased their abilities in the 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill and broad jump, as well as a 225 lb. bench press and various blocking and route-running drills. From a Patriots perspective, the evaluation of what is widely believed to be a very deep tight end class bears watching; Rob Gronkowski is in the midst of rehabbing a serious injury for the third consecutive offseason and the Patriots would be wise to have a legitimate contingency plan for him, regardless of what his recovery timetable looks like.
The general consensus among personnel experts and media members alike was an under-whelming showing from some of the nation's highest rated tight ends. Washington's Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, a prototypical blocking tight end with great size and above average pass-catching skills, was unable to perform at all due to a pre-existing foot injury. A consensus first round draft prospect who could very easily be off the board in the first ten picks, North Carolina's Eric Ebron was also limited due to health reasons. After posting a very respectable 4.6 second 40-yard dash on his first effort, Ebron appeared to pull up lame on his second attempt and chose not to participate in any pass-catching drills. The injury appears minor and should have no affect on Ebron's draft status if he can have a solid performance at North Carolina's pro day on March 25.
A number of early mock drafts have Texas Tech's Jace Amaro sliding to the Patriots at pick no. 29, which would give New England another matchup problem to pair with Gronkowski at the tight end position and squeeze production out of the two tight end "12" formation that Brady ran so efficiently before Aaron Hernandez' dismissal from the club. The Red Raider was hot and cold on Saturday; he finished among the top five at his position in both the 40-yard dash and bench press, with a solid 28 reps, but wasn't as fluid a route-runner as some scouts had hoped and also struggled to consistently catch the football. His several noticeable drops shouldn't affect his draft stock too much, but if he slides at all, don't be surprised for New England to tab him as a "value" pick in the second round.
Offensive line may be less of a perceived need for New England, who did a good job overall at protecting Tom Brady this past season. But for the first time in over a decade, the team won't be able to lean on the masterful coaching of Dante Scarnecchia, who has called it a career after 32 seasons in the NFL. New England is in good shape on the outside, with Nate Solder playing out his rookie contract and the massive Sebastian Vollmer returning from a gruesome leg break, but the Pats could use an upgrade at both right guard and center. Connolly didn't have a great season and with his projected cap hit of over $3 million this upcoming season, it wouldn't be shocking to see him cut loose as a cap casualty. Center Ryan Wendell is smart and has good technique, but at just 6'2" and 300 pounds, he's an undersized player at the position who was prone to getting thrown around a bit, particularly by Denver tackle Terrance Knighton in the AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots will likely fill more pressing needs with their first two picks (assuming they stand pat in the first round), but according to draft experts, there's tons of value to be had for O-line prospects in the middle of the draft. Two players who could fill a role for New England at a reasonable cost are Russel Bodine and Gabe Ikard. Bodine, a North Carolina product, is a center/ guard swingman who showed off his strength with a combine best 42 reps on the bench press. Ikard demonstrated a lot of skills that head coach Bill Belichick rates highly, including the best OL times in both the 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill, which are much more applicable measurements for lineman than the forty yard dash. Ikard currently looks like a mid-round prospect at a position that could use some healthy competition this offseason.
The combine continues Monday with defensive players hitting the field for agility and foot-work drills. After a disappointing 21 reps on the bench, expect all eyes to be on the highly scrutinized JaDeveon Clowney out of South Carolina.
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