There were no public statements from Patriots officials, and Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio were mostly out of sight, out of mind. But the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis still had enough local elements to keep Patriots’ fans interested about what happened over the course of the week.
Alabama running back Mark Ingram talked about knowing Belichick through Nick Saban. Crimson Tide signal-caller Greg McElroy said Tom Brady was his “hero,” while Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi discussed the impact from working with Brady’s personal passing guru, Tom Martinez. Fresno State's Chris Carter talked about being tutored by Willie McGinest. Florida safety Will Hill spoke about hanging out with current Patriots (and ex-college teammates) Brandon Spikes and Aaron Hernandez. And UCLA outside linebacker/defensive end Akeem Ayers said he would be a “great fit for [the Patriots’] defense.”
As a result, even though there were no public pronouncements from the Patriots, they were on the minds of many. After all, New England (which holds three of the first 33 picks and six of the first 92 selections overall) stands to be a major power player in this year’s draft. It goes beyond the sort of players they might be interested in — the Patriots could easily affect the draft fortunes of several teams, as they have never been shy about dealing come draft weekend.
The rest of the league is well aware of how the Patriots can tip the scales come April.
“Bill Belichick and his regime never cease to amaze and surprise me at so many levels,” said Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff. “When you turn around, they are getting more draft picks and moving players. … He’s been magically in doing that over the years.”
Here are four other things we learned this past week in Indianapolis
THERE DOESN’T APPEAR TO BE ANY CHARACTER ISSUES WITH THE PLAYERS THE PATRIOTS MIGHT BE TARGETING
The group of defensive ends and defensive linemen who could transition into the Patriots system as potential pass rushers all came off as high-character guys who are well aware of what they could be stepping into if they are selected by New England. J.J. Watt, Ayers and Cal’s Cameron Jordan — three guys who have been linked to the Patriots in several mock drafts (including from our own D.J. Bean) — all knocked it out of the park in their sessions with the media, and then proceeded to do the same on the field during workouts.
The biggest winner among that group of defensive end/outside linebackers was Jordan. On the heels of a sensational performance at the Senior Bowl, he ran his 40s in the 4.7s, showing great explosiveness and agility for someone who checked in at 6-foot-4 and 278 pounds. Originally thought to be a mid to late first-round pick, it now appears that the Patriots would have to move up from the No. 17 spot if they wanted a crack at him. However, he might have to gain or lose some weight to fit.
“If I’m seen more as a three-technique, I have to add some weight. Depending on whether I’m a defensive end or not, I might have to add or gain or lose or stay,” Jordan said. “I’ve gained weight. I’ve been up around 295 at my heaviest, and then I came into college at 265. I’ve played through different weights.
“My motto is, ‘Draft me and I’ll play anywhere. I don’t care where I play. I just want to be on a team. I just want to play football.’ That’s what I love doing. That’s what I hope to continue doing,” he said. “I have shown that I can stand up. I can play the three-technique. I can play the five-technique. Like I said — put me anywhere, and I’ll play.”
Ayers — thought by NFL Network Mike Mayock to be the best fit for the Patriots — pretty much held his ground at the combine, and can easily end up in New England at 17. Ayers, a college defensive end who would transition to outside linebacker at the next level, has clearly done his homework on the Patriots.
“I think I would be a great fit for their defense,” said Ayers, who was a junior captain this past season at UCLA.
One other name to keep in mind if he’s available at No. 17 is Craig Heyward out of Ohio State. The son of former NFL running back “Ironhead” Heyward, the 6-foot-5, 294-pounder is projected as a five technique defensive end in the 3-4 alignment. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery — he didn’t work out in Indianapolis — but certainly has the pedigree, the look and the overall demeanor of a first-round pick. He’s an impressive young man, who reminded me of former Patriot defensive lineman Richard Seymour — a younger big man who appears preternaturally ready for life in the NFL.
"I want to leave a legacy of my own,” he said when asked about his father. “I don’t want to live in his shadow. He was a great player and he's always in my heart. I appreciate everything he's done. But I want to do everything by my own. I'm not asking anybody to give me a second look or anything just because my dad was ‘Ironhead.’ They all know I have a big head just like him.”
MARK INGRAM TO THE PATRIOTS? NO ONE REALLY KNOWS YET
The prospect of the Patriots going after the Alabama running back with the 17th pick in the 2011 draft is certainly tantalizing. A product of a system with a former Belichick assistant in Nick Saban at the helm, if he came to New England, he could be the bell cow in the backfield the Patriots have lacked since Corey Dillon. A Heisman winner, he rushed for 2,533 yards in his final two seasons at Alabama.
Ingram, 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, is considered the best running back available in this year’s draft, and his workout numbers did nothing to dissuade people that he will be the first running back off the board in April. NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi certainly believes that Ingram gets the yards after contact that will make him “a very effective player in the league.”
“I think Mark Ingram is kind of a unique player — he’s more of a power back that’s not as big as those power backs,” Lombardi said. “And I think that every back has his own unique style and his balance is incredible and he always gets yards after contact which makes him a very effective player in the league.”
But would Ingram represent the sort of value at the running back position that would fit with the Patriots? New England is almost certainly going to undergo some changes at the position this offseason — right now, only Danny Woodhead is signed for the 2011 season — but the Patriots have only spent a first-round pick on a running back once in the Belichick era (Laurence Maroney, 2006) and New England has draft only one other running back since then (Justise Hairston in the sixth round of the 2007 draft).
And Lombardi — who worked as a personnel man in Cleveland with Belichick — doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who believes in using a high pick on a running back.
“Running backs, you can find them. Look at Chris Ivory from Tiffin College. He comes in the NFL and plays very well for the Saints. Running backs can be found,” Lombardi said. “I just think you have to buy what you can’t find in the top 10. So that’s why I would focus on that. Receivers, look at Green Bay. There’s not a first-round pick on the field. They have two twos, a seventh-round pick and a third-round pick. I think you can find those guys.”
To that end, history tells us that if the Patriots are going to go after a running back to shore up depth at the position, they look at a potential mid-rounder (DeMarco Murray? Jordan Todman? Mikel LeShoure? Roy Helu?) instead of pushing all their chips to the middle of the table on a marquee back like Ingram.
THIS GROUP OF QUARTERBACKS HAS THE GREATEST BOOM/BUST POTENTIAL OF ANY QB CLASS IN YEARS
While there are questions about the entire class, Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett alone with be worth the price of admission at the next level.
Newton, who got off on a bad foot last month when he referred to himself as an “icon and entertainer,” tried to clarify his comments in a statement before taking questions from reporters at the combine. A third-person reference aside, he impressed in his interaction with the media. He then proceeded to light it up in his workouts … until it came to throwing the football. Newton showed off a cannon for an arm, but lacked any real accuracy on the long ball. It will be interesting to see how many teams look past those problems — Newton remains undeniably charismatic and a colossal athletic talent. It remains to be seen how that will translate to the field.
“I’m just going to continuously keep working on my craft, and that's to become the best quarterback possible during this transition,” Newton said. “Obviously, everybody knows that Cam has been in a spread offense and I have been trying to work as much as possible on trying to be fluid in coming from under center, with the three-step game, the five-step, also the seven-step drop. Me and [personal coach George Whitfield, Jr.] has been working day and night in the film room, on the chalk board or on the field throwing rocks.”
As for Mallett, he stood at the podium, defiant against drug rumors for nearly 10 minutes before stalking away. The bad taste was quickly washed away when he reportedly had a good sit down with teams, and then proceeded to go out and light it up in his workout, showing a big arm and impressing many personnel men. (He did lack some touch on intermediate throws.) Mallett didn’t run, but after stumbling in his Q&A with the media, he showed why some still believe he’s a first-round talent.
“[The rumors] can keep circulating or whatever. But I can’t control them. I don’t even want to talk about them because there’s nothing I can even talk about it,” Mallett said. “Like I said, I’m not going to talk about it right now. I talked about it with teams. We’ve discussed it and everything is good.”
PLAYERS WEREN’T AS CHATTY THIS YEAR
In the past, trying to dissect which teams were interested in which players was made easier by simply asking them who they had meetings scheduled with. It didn’t mean that player was necessarily ticketed for a certain team, but it did make it easier when gauging the level of interest a team had in a player.
This year was different — it was clear players had been told not to talk too much about the teams they spoke with. When most of prospects were asked about meetings, they revealed little to nothing about what sort of interviews they had lined up, which teams they were hoping to talk to or who they had already spoken with. Whether that directive came from teams, agents or the league is not known, it made it a little harder to read between the lines when assessing the interest level some franchises might have in a player.
“I’ve talked to a plethora of teams, and it’s been pleasing just having the experience of talking to them,” Cal’s Jordan said with a knowing smile when asked about the Patriots. “The Patriots are a phenomenal team. I feel like they’re one of the good teams in the NFL. I’d just like to be part of [any] team.”
“I’m not going to discuss the teams I’ve met with,” said Watt, a player who has been connected with the Patriots. “But I have a long list of teams I’ll be meeting with.”
There were some players who would let slip an occasional team here and there — Newton did say that he met with the Cowboys, but wouldn’t say which other franchises he had spoken with — but for the most part, it was radio silence coming from players who were asked about interviews.