INDIANAPOLIS -- At league events like the annual NFL scouting combine, the Patriots love operating in the shadows. That’s why it was no surprise that when it came time for New England director of player personnel Nick Caserio to address the media on Thursday, he eschewed the podium that reps from every other team went for, and instead opted for a small out of the way corner in the lobby of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Of course, when it comes to this year’s draft, the Patriots won’t have the luxury of laying low. New England has four picks in the first two rounds, including Nos. 27 and 31 overall, and figure to have an impact across the board. And whether it’s in free agency (which opens March 13) or in the draft, the Patriots figure to have options -- in addition to the fact that they are well under the cap, they have four picks in the first 63 choices.
Caserio said this is a draft that sets up to possibly be very attractive to New England. Even though workouts are only half-done -- defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs all still have to work out -- names like Georgia center Ben Jones, wide receivers Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers) and Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech) and defensive lineman Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State already being attached to the Patriots.
“There’s depth at more positions relative to others. I’d say receiver is a position of strength. The offensive line is a position of strength. The front seven is a position of strength,” Caserio said. “I think it's a good draft. Like every year, each position has a little more depth or balance, relative to others. That’s kind of where it is right now as we sit here at the combine.”
Here are three other things we learned this weekend in Indianapolis:
THE PATRIOTS ARE HELPING CHANGE THE GAME AT SAFETY
With so many good, young athletic tight ends in the league -- including Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the Patriots -- teams are trying to come up with new ways to try and slow them down. As a result, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some AFC East teams like the Jets, who are faced with the difficult prospect of trying to contain Gronkowski, try and grab a bigger safety somewhere in this draft. (Boise State’s George Iloka, who checks it at 6-foot-3 5/8 and 222 pounds is a possibility.) There’s also the simple fact that the Jets have a lot of question marks at the safety position going forward.
“The safety position has changed in the league, in that this idea of box safeties and deep safeties, that kind of has to go out the window now,” said NFL Films producer Greg Cosell, “because all the detached tight ends and athletic tight ends, that safety has to become a more premium position in the league, and you have to look for players who can cover, who have some size. You can’t put a 185-pound safety on Rob Gronkowski. Or Jimmy Graham. Or Jermichael Finley. Or any of those guys.”
The premiere safety in this draft is Mark Barron out of Alabama, who weighed in at 6-foot-0 and 213 pounds. Overall, that’s probably smaller than the new type of safety some teams are looking for, but someone with a positional versatility (he played strong safety and free safety last season) who could make the transition to the NFL easier.
“We played in a very difficult defense [at Alabama],” he said. “We did a lot of different schemes. As far as communicating, I had a lot to do with that on the back end. I feel like sometimes I brought some energy with the hits that I made and things of that nature. So, I did a lot of different things.”
Another supersized safety who might be more equipped to go up against the new breed of tight ends is Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith (6-foot-1 6/8, 212 pounds). He talked about the possibility of going up against NFL tight ends on Sunday.
“That’s something that I think I’m good at, and that I can bring to teams, is the ability to cover tight ends man-to-man,” he said. “It’s something I did throughout my career. In practice I got to go against Kyle Rudolph, who was a high draft pick last year [second round to the Vikings]. This past year I went against Tyler Eifert, and he’ll be picked next year. So just being around good competition and going up against it every day in practice.”
IT TOOK ONLY 4.38 SECONDS TO MAKE THE RAMS HAPPY
That’s how long it took Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III to get down the line on Sunday afternoon, as the signal-caller finished as the fastest quarterback at this year’s combine. While it change the quarterback rankings -- fellow quarterback Andrew Luck is all but assured of going first overall to the Colts in two months -- it further boosted the stock of RGIII, which was good news for the Rams.
St. Louis has the No. 2 overall pick, but the Rams already have a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford. That means they now have a ton of leverage on draft boards everywhere, and will be open for business when it comes to taking offers on that second selection from quarterback-needy teams in the top half of the draft.
“We’ve already made a significant investment in Sam (Bradford), and I think Sam has a chance to be an outstanding quarterback in this league,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher. “He just hasn’t gotten an opportunity to prove that. But being realistic, for our football team, it’s probably not one of our top needs right now. It doesn’t mean to say the value’s not there because literally (Griffin’s) value, I think, is at 1 or 2.”
Griffin didn’t throw in Indianapolis, nothing that he’ll wait until his Pro Day on March 21. Franchises like the Browns (fourth overall), the Buccaneers (a possibility at No. 5), the Redskins (sixth) and Dolphins (eighth) all figure to make a push for the Heisman winner.
“I’ve definitely heard, it seems like there’s a rumor, that there’s two good quarterbacks in this draft,” Rams general manager Les Snead said, tongue in cheek. “We’re going to be prepared for all options -- especially if multiple teams think that there are two good quarterbacks, and one goes first.”
LOOKING TO ROOT FOR A LOCAL GUY? TRY SHAWN LOISEAU
The linebacker out of Merrimack College is aiming to be the next small-school star to make it to the NFL. The 6-foot, 244-pounder is on the field in Indianapolis with the most elite prospects in the game and hoping to catch the eye of an NFL coach or GM.
“My goal since I’ve been seven years old, my dream has been to play in the NFL and growing up it’s always been my dream,” Loiseau said. “And then, coming into college, I was overlooked, my senior year I was Massachusetts player of the year -- I led my team to 13-0 (record) and a state championship and not one school came knocking, not even one offered me to walk on.”
As a result, he landed at Merrimack, where he became a two-time conference player of the year. He helped the Warriors win the Northeast 10 conference in 2009. All the while, he never stopped thinking about the fact that he never got any offers to play high-level college football.
“I never stopped thinking about it; it just made me want to work harder,” he said. “I have a huge chip on my shoulder. I’m always competing against the guys I can’t see, just being overlooked and being told that I can’t do things and people laughing at me – when I tell people I want to play in the NFL I’ve always had people laugh at me, like, ‘Yeah, Shawn, that’s a good joke.’ But to me it’s been something that’s realistic, just a lot of hard work that I’ve been putting in.”
The Shrewsbury native would love a chance to play for New England.
“Big Patriots fan. I love the Patriots. I grew up watching the Patriots, my family are all Patriots fans,” he said. “That would be unreal. That would be awesome. My family’s like, ‘Shawn if you go to Patriots it would be unreal, we’d be at every game.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, where were you in college and high school? You never came to my games then, now you want to come to my games. I was only down the road, it’s not like you had to travel far.’”