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Five Things To Watch From Patriots In NFL Combine/Draft Season

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- March is just the worst, isn't it?

Oh, sure, you get March Madness toward the end of the month if you're into that sort of thing. You've technically got playoff races in the NHL and NBA, but there can really only be so much excitement in game No. 71 of the season. Spring training is nice for a few minutes but is largely unwatchable. There may be a random event or two along the way that captures your attention, but for the most part, March is the most treacherous terrain on the sports calendar.

That's a big reason why the NFL struck gold when it realized how marketable the NFL Scouting Combine could be. While on the surface, the idea of watching men in spandex run, jump and lift weights doesn't exactly sound like appointment television, the Combine nevertheless has managed to grasp the attention of millions of Americans every year. And when the draft rolls around in late April, it's the same story.

And with the Combine now in full swing, with the free agency and trade talk at full volume, and with the almighty drafting rearing its head into the picture, it's a good time to lay out what to watch for and what to expect as the Patriots proceed through a very important part of the offseason (once Bill Belichick stops taking in those Celtics games from the front row, of course).

5. O-Line Reinforcement

It is, admittedly, not the most sizzling topic to discuss. But a functioning offensive line is often the most critical unit of a successful football team, and the Patriots know that well. When the offensive line spent the 2013 season drowning, Tom Brady looked to be washed up. When the line jelled a month into the 2014 season, the Brady Renaissance was in full swing.

And while the O-line was a positive last season, it was far from being the best in the league. And considering Belichick is always looking to improve his line (he's taken multiple linemen in seven of the last 10 drafts, including two linemen in each of the last two drafts and three linemen in 2014), the weekend will be well spent getting familiar with the prospects at the Combine.

Whether Belichick aims high for a tackle-of-the-future type, or whether he goes in the middle rounds to try to hit on another guard like Joe Thuney, is difficult to predict. But with Sebastian Vollmer reportedly set to part ways with the team (and possibly retire), expect Belichick to at least desire a tackle in the upcoming draft. The Patriots were fortunate to have not only good health but also effective play from both Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon last year, but the depth at tackle is thin.

Maybe that means finding a way to move up and get Alabama's Cam Robinson (doubtful), or perhaps it's a prospect with less fanfare. Maybe he'll go the Stephen Neal route and find a really good wrestler. Who knows? But with more than a dozen tackles at the Combine, there will be plenty to choose from.

4. An Understudy For Gronk

The Patriots offense is at its best when it has two effective tight ends drawing attention to the middle of the field. The defense either has to overcommit to the 6-foot-6 Rob Gronkowski and whichever big man is likewise running routes, thus exposing itself to one-on-one matchups on shifty receivers like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola on the outside. Or it can choose to keep single coverage on the tight ends and get torn apart by Tom Brady. It's a beautiful thing, really.

And though the Patriots' offense managed to survive just fine without Gronkowski for the bulk of last season, that was largely due to Martellus Bennett's career year. As a result, Bennett is going to get overpaid for his services elsewhere, thus creating a need on the roster.

Assuming Gronkowski can stay healthy for the 2017 season (he has, after all, been healthy for two of the last three years, so it's not an insane assumption) then the Patriots would be wise to draft a tight end who can learn on the job in 2017 without having the responsibility of being a heavily relied-upon receiving option. Think of the way Malcolm Mitchell was ingrained into the receiving corps last year; he was targeted 48 times, making 32 receptions for 401 yards and four touchdowns. He got his NFL feet under him at a reasonable pace, to the point where he was likely ahead of schedule in catching six passes (on seven targets) for 70 yards in the Super Bowl.

The recovering Jake Butt is one possibility. Over his final two seasons, Butt caught a combined 97 passes for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns. He tore his ACL in the Wolverines' bowl game in January, so it's unclear how effective he'll be as a rookie, if he can even play. It's likewise hard to predict how the other 31 teams will view him, but it's a safe bet that someone will take the calculated risk to pick him up relatively early in the draft.

Beyond Butt, there are a number of tight ends participating in the Combine. Here's Belichick's history of drafting tight ends in his Patriots tenure:

  • Daniel Graham (first round, 2002)
  • Ben Watson (first round, 2004)
  • Rob Gronkowski (second round, 2010)
    David Thomas (third round, 2006)
  • Aaron Hernandez (fourth round, 2010)
  • Jabari Holloway (fourth round, 2001)
  • Lee Smith (fifth round, 2011)
  • Dave Stachelski (fifth round, 2000)
  • A.J. Derby (sixth round, 2015)
  • Arther Love (sixth round, 2001)
  • Andy Stokes (seventh round, 2005)

Clearly, some worked out more than others. But Belichick has not been afraid to use high picks on tight ends. So they bear watching this weekend at the Combine.

3. The Next Third-Down Back

The Patriots have a pretty good system going with their pass-catching back system. Since Kevin Faulk's career came to an end in 2011, the Patriots brought along Shane Vereen. They then drafted James White while Vereen was still on his rookie deal. They used Vereen to win Super Bowl XLIX (11 receptions, 64 yards) before letting him cash in via free agency, and they used White to win Super Bowl LI (career-high 14 catches, career-high three total touchdowns). With one more year left on White's rookie deal, it stands to reason that the Patriots might target a pass-catching, third-down back to replace White once he eventually gets overpaid in free agency.

Of course, Dion Lewis remains under contract for 2017, but his injury history plus the potential for a free-agent payday next offseason likely means the Patriots won't be relying on him for the long term. There are also a couple of potential candidates on the roster in Tyler Gaffney and D.J. Foster, but neither should be considered sure things by any stretch of the imagination. So don't be surprised if the Patriots target a scat back type of player when the draft rolls around.

In terms of who that might be with regard to Combine testing, keep an eye on Alvin Kamara, Jeremy McNichols and Kareem Hunt, to name a few. Also look out for Ohio State's Curtis Samuel, who's being considered a wideout/running back hybrid of sorts, after he rushed for 779 yards and eight touchdowns last year while also making 74 receptions for 865 yards and seven touchdowns. Belichick loves himself some versatility, and Samuel may fill that team need for a pass-catching back.

2. The Return In Jamie Collins Trade

The reaction when Bill Belichick traded Jamie Collins to Cleveland in the middle of the 2016 season was almost universal. It was, essentially, "What?"

But of course, the Patriots' defense did just fine without the dynamic playmaker, and the Patriots now have the benefit of snatching the Browns' compensatory third-round pick as the return package in the trade.

While the pick -- the 103rd overall selection -- is unlikely to become an impact player in year one, the player will nevertheless be tagged with the title of being the return for Collins.

Of course, Belichick may already have won this deal. Had the Patriots lost -- either in the divisional round, the championship game or the Super Bowl itself -- it would have been incredibly easy for any pundit or critic to point to the absence of Collins as a reason why. But winning the Super Bowl eliminates 95 percent of any criticism that could have come Belichick's way this offseason.

Still, people around here have long memories. And if Collins goes on to have a special career while 2017 Pick No. 103 fizzles out of the league in three years, people won't forget -- especially if the team decides to not pay Hightower, too.

1. Jimmy Garoppolo

If you want to watch some footage that's actually interesting from the NFL Combine, watch how bothered Adam Schefter gets when Bob Socci asks the innocuous question of why the Patriots had a shift in philosophy regarding the availability of Jimmy Garoppolo in trade talks.

"Who said there was a shift?" Schefter replied. "I personally don't think they were was ever a shift in their thinking. I don't think they were ever interested in shopping him."

It's an interesting situation, and Schefter seems 110 percent convinced that the Patriots absolutely will not trade Garoppolo.

But still ... Bill Belichick is Bill Belichick. There's not a man alive that knows exactly what Belichick is thinking or can predict what Belichick will do. And with Tom Brady seemingly intent on playing for as many as four or five more seasons, the idea of Belichick not maximizing the value of an asset in the meanwhile seems incongruous to the way he's always done business.

You should also consider the fact (not opinion) that the Patriots got hosed last year with the stripping of a first-round pick over an absolute nonsense "scandal." Belichick knows it would just chap the tushes of everyone at the NFL executive office if he could land a high first-round pick this year, just months after winning the Super Bowl. Last offseason, Bill seemed to be stockpiling former first-round picks. This year, he could make one of his own.

It will be fascinating. And while Schefter is the most reliable reporter in the business, nobody will wholly believe the Patriots are keeping Garoppolo until the first round of the draft comes to a close on April 27. In a quarterback-starved league, The Potential Of James Garoppolo™ has too much value to believe Bill won't be working to cash in.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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