ECU wide receiver Justin Hardy posted an impressive 3-cone time at the combine. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
When it comes to evaluating the performance of a potential Patriot draftee at the combine, it always has to be taken as part of a bigger picture, one that includes the interview, as well a big picture snapshot of what that individual can bring to the table. But at the same time, it’s undeniable that the Patriots put more stock in some drills than others, including the 3-cone drill.
We’ve written extensively about New England’s connection with the 3-cone drill, a workout that examines a prospects quickness and agility as opposed to simple, straight-line speed. While Bill Belichick dismissed it last year as not being “football-specific,” history tells us that more often than not, the 3-cone performance plays a role in New England’s scouting process with it comes to scouting defensive backs and wide receivers.
With the understanding that anything under 6.8 is considered extremely quick, it’s easy to draw a line between the 3-cone and the Patriots scoring process. They wound up with three of the top 10 finishers in the drill from the 2013 combine — third-round pick Logan Ryan (6.69), fourth-rounder Josh Boyce (6.68) and undrafted free agent T.J. Moe (6.53). Going back through the years, Julian Edelman posted a 6.62 as a collegian. Deion Branch was 6.71. Chad Jackson checked in at 6.74. And Wes Welker was at 7.06. (That also translates to the defensive side of the football — including Ryan in 2013, Nate Ebner was also quick as a collegian with a 6.59, and Devin McCourty‘s 6.7 at the 2010 combine put him second among all cornerbacks.) Not all the times were posted at the combine, but you certainly get the idea.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the top 3-cone finishers at this year’s combine, and how they might fit with the Patriots:
1. Tennessee CB Justin Coleman: 6.61 – The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder blew away the rest of the corners in the 3-cone, beating his nearest positional competition by .16 seconds. He was at or near the top of most of the other major categories at his position, and certainly helped his draft stock with a solid performance across the board. Working primarily in a nickel capacity with Tennessee, he had the best season of his collegiate career last year with the Volts, finishing with 42 tackles, five pass breakups and a career-best four picks. While the Patriots are probably not in the market for a corner in the early-going, Coleman — known as a fast and aggressive defensive back who can play both inside and outside — would make an intriguing fit for New England if he did somehow last until the middle rounds.
2. East Carolina WR Justin Hardy, 6.63 – The 5-foot-10, 192-pounder began his collegiate career as a walk-on, but managed to become one of the more prolific receivers in the nation the last two years, catching 235 passes in his last two seasons at ECU. That included an amazing 121 receptions last year as a senior, and 387 catches for 4,541 yards and 35 touchdowns at ECU for his career, making him the FBS career leader in receptions. (He capped his senior year with the Burlsworth Trophy as the nation’s best former walk-on.) He reportedly struggled at the Senior Bowl, and is considered a mid-rounder at best. He doesn’t have overwhelming speed, but is known as a tenacious blocker and dependable target to go along with his very good footwork and agility. Like many of the other prospects in this group, if he lasts until the third day, the Patriots would likely at least consider him based on his quickness.
3. West Virginia WR Mario Alford 6.64 – This 5-foot-8. 180-pounder won’t awe anyone with his size, but his quickness could separate him from the rest of the pack. He nailed most of the speed drills at the combine, and that, combined with his college numbers (65 catches, 945 yards, 11 TDs as a senior) make him an interesting prospect. His special teams skills (he worked as a kick returner this past season for WVU, and had a 100-yard return for a touchdown against Alabama) also makes him an intriguing possibility for any team looking for speed and quickness.
4. Nebraska WR Kenny Bell 6.66 – Bell has all the physical tools, as he was one of the best at his position in the vertical jump, broad jump and 3-cone. The 6-foot-1, 197-pounder is a long-limbed prospect who had 181 catches in his four seasons with the Huskers, including 47 for 788 yards and six touchdowns last year as a senior. Regarded as an above-average blocker with good special teams skills, his 14.9 yards per catch as a collegian also suggest he’s the type of player who might be able to become a field-stretching wide receiver at the next level. His size, speed and quickness all combine to make Bell an intriguing mid-round prospect for some team.
5. Kansas ILB Ben Heeney 6.68 – A slightly undersized thumper with a big motor, the 6-foot, 231-pounder did well enough in Indy when it came to speed drills (like the 3-cone, shuttle and 40-yard dash) in his positional grouping to garner some post-combine buzz. He led the Big 12 in solo tackles as a senior with 88, and had 35 tackles for a loss in his three-plus years as a regular. While there are reported drawbacks to his game (namely in coverage), the size/speed combo can’t be overlooked. The Patriots aren’t necessarily in the market for a linebacker in the early going, but could certainly be interested if he lasts until the last day.
Best of the rest:
6. Miami WR Phillip Dorsett 6.7: The son of legendary Tony Dorsett, he’s a terrific speed threat.
7. Utah FS Eric Rowe 6.7: Rowe played both corner and safety in his collegiate career.
8. Alabama WR Amari Cooper, 6.71: One of the best receivers available, the Heisman finalist is expected to go Top 10.
9. Stanford SS Jordan Richards 6.74: His father played football at Tufts in the 1970s.
10. LSU CB Jalen Collins 6.77: Many teams who are trying to supersize their secondary in the mold of the Seahawks likely cover the 6-foot-2, Collins.
11. Texas OLB Jordan Hicks 6.78: Hicks, the only outside linebacker in the top 15, projects as a mid-round prospect.
11. UConn CB Byron Jones 6.78: See below.
13. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah 6.79: He finished as the top performer at his position in four separate drills: vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone and short shuttle.
13. Wake Forest CB Kevin Johnson 6.79: One of the top corners in the ACC, he started 41 games as a collegian and never missed a contest because of injury.
15. Memphis CB Bobby McCain 6.8: At 5-foot-9, he was one of the shortest cornerbacks at the combine.
Maybe the most intriguing prospect on the 6-15 list — at least as far as the Patriots might be concerned — is Jones. A sizable defensive back (6-foot-1 and 199 pounds), he played both corner and safety in college, and that sort of versatility is always welcomed in Foxboro. He finished his four-year career at UConn with 130 tackles and eight interceptions, including three as a junior, and while his senior season was hampered by a torn labrum, he certainly impressed as one of the winners at the combine. In addition to his stellar 3-cone time, he also broke the 2013 record set by Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins in the broad jump, becoming the first prospect to break 12 feet — he hit 12 feet, 3 inches. (It actually would have broken the world record of 12 feet, 2 inches, which was set in 1968.) He topped that off with a 44.5 vertical leap. The performance certainly was enough to land him on the radar screens throughout the league. Considered to be a mid-round pickup before the combine, his Pro Day (March 31), will certainly be worth monitoring, especially given the fact that it’s considered to be something of a down year in the draft when it comes to the defensive backs available.