Lazar: Ten Things We Learned in 2021 Senior Bowl From Patriots Perspective

Several prospects in the upcoming NFL draft stood out in Saturday's game and throughout the week.

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Former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores was showered in Reese’s peanut butter cups following a 27-24 win for the National Team over the American Team in the 2021 Senior Bowl.

The week’s events in Mobile provided NFL evaluators with an extended look at some of the draft hopefuls in a loaded 2021 class.

Although Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wasn’t in attendance, New England has drafted 46 players that participated in the Senior Bowl since 2008, so we know Belichick and his staff were paying attention.

The game is the best snapshot we have this year without an NFL Scouting Combine, so here are ten things we learned from a Patriots perspective in this year’s Senior Bowl:

1. Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond Wins Senior Bowl MVP, Pats Fit?

My initial impression of Mond after watching his Texas A&M tape was that there were plenty of NFL plays, but he was too slow through his reads and struggled mightily under pressure.

Mond threw the ball well in practice and continued to make great passes into tight coverage on his first read and threw receivers open along the sideline on Saturday.

Plus, he checks the traditional scouting boxes for NFL evaluators, such as playing in a pro-style system under Jimbo Fisher, a strong work ethic and high IQ, and 71 career passing touchdowns to 27 interceptions.

On a touchdown pass to Clemson’s Amari Rodgers, Mond looks off the safety in the middle of the field to give Rodgers a chance to get up the seam and then puts it in a perfect spot with plenty of zip to beat the safety coming over the top.

Earlier, Mond saw the outside corner sitting over the top of his receiver and threw Trevon Grimes open on a back-shoulder fade.

One solid performance at the Senior Bowl shouldn’t erase his college tape, but Mond made a strong case to be the top quarterback off the board after the “big six” (Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, Lance, Jones, Trask).

With the current value of quarterbacks in mind, I could see Mond going in the fourth round.

2. Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman’s Stock Drops

There’s some intrigue but plenty of uncertainty surrounding Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, who sat out the 2020 season after transferring to Georgia due to the pandemic.

Newman is a dual-threat with plenty of athleticism on designed quarterback runs and extended plays. He also has a strong arm and is a steady field-reader on underneath zones and deep balls.

During Senior Bowl practices, Newman struggled with consistency as he did at Wake Forest. But we saw flashes of his ability to create from inside the pocket with a good sense of pressure on Saturday.

Here, Newman stays at a good depth in the pocket to slide up against initial interior pressure. Then bobs and weaves to find space and wait for his tight end to clear the underneath linebacker to move the sticks on third down.

Although that was a good play, Newman struggled to find a rhythm and get the ball out in a timely fashion taking five sacks, which is pretty consistent with his 2019 tape at Wake Forest.

To be fair, the play-calling was a bit wonky for Newman’s ideal playing style on Saturday. Still, his flashes don’t outweigh the struggles for me, and I wouldn’t touch him until mid-day three.

3. Louisville WR Dez Fitzpatrick a Potential Vertical Threat Target

There’s a strong case that Louisville wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick helped himself more than any other player in Mobile this week, and that carried over to Saturday’s contest.

Fitzpatrick has legit vertical speed and uses that initial burst to get defenders on their heels.

On this third-and-five play, Fitzpatrick runs a speed out against Ifeatu Melifonwu. Fitzpatrick’s vertical stem forces Melifonwu to backpedal in off-man coverage, and Fitzpatrick snaps the route off in front of Melifonwu with some toe-drag swag to stay in bounds.

Fitzpatrick wowed scouts during one-on-one drills where his vertical route-running was terrific and made defensive backs suffer from his transitions at the top of routes.

After his Senior Bowl performance, Fitzpatrick is at the top of my list of prospects to review.

4. Pittsburgh EDGE Patrick Jones is a Potential Day Two Target

There was tons of buzz surrounding Jones heading into the week, but he was quiet during practices and struggled at times in one-on-one drills.

However, Jones finally flashes his explosiveness and ability to rush the passer with a few noticeable reps and a pretty sack.

On this third-down sack, Jones rushes out of a four-point stance, something I saw him do pretty often at Pittsburgh to get that initial burst off the snap. Jones initially shows a speed rush path, then uses a swim move to jump inside the right tackle and chase down Newman.

The Patriots could use Jones’s first-step explosiveness and overall athleticism on the first level of their defense with down-to-down consistency as the only knock on his evaluation.

5. Syracuse CB Ifeatu Melifonwu has Pats-Like Coverage Skills

Everyone will scream and shout at Bill Belichick if he takes another second-round defensive back with technique issues to work through at the next level.

Still, Ifeatu Melifonwu, the brother of former Patriots Obi Melifonwu, is a very impressive corner.

At 6-foot-2 with an 80-inch wingspan, the younger Melifonwu has excellent length, loose hips, and already polished off-man technique for work further off the line of scrimmage.

As a press corner, Melifonwu has the mirror skills to stay in the receivers’ hip pocket, and his length shows up consistently to contest at the catch window and make plays on the football.

Here, Melifonwu stays patient and square to remain over the top of Dez Fitzpatrick on an outside release. When Fitzpatrick stops for the back-shoulder throw, Melifonwu’s long arm becomes a factor in breaking up the pass even when the throw beats him the spot.

The Patriots don’t have an immediate need at cornerback, but if they trade Stephon Gilmore, they’ll need to think about who will replace him at outside corner opposite JC Jackson.

Melifonwu would be a high-upside prospect to throw in the hat and has starter potential at the next level.

6. Clemson WR Amari Rodgers is the Total Package on Day Two

If you find a flaw in Rodgers’s game, let me know because this dude flat out balls in the slot.

Rodgers had a big season for Clemson as their top target (77 catches, 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns) and looks incredibly smooth doing just about everything on a football field.

My NFL comparison for Rodgers is 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel because he has terrific speed, physicality as a ball carrier, and works defensive backs at the line of scrimmage.

We already saw the seam ball touchdown earlier, and here’s the subsequent two-point conversion. Rodgers uses a stretch release here to get the DB leaning outside and then explodes into a crosser to work the back of the end zone while elevating to make the catch.

Rodgers has that blend of speed, release suddenness, and route-running savvy that is usually successful in New England’s system. He’ll be off the board by the end of day two.

7. South Carolina WR Shi Smith a Speedy Slot Option for Pats

Another wideout that caught my eye throughout the week and again on Saturday is Shi Smith, a jitterbug in the slot with a nice feel for the middle of the field coverage.

Smith is devastatingly quick at the top of his routes and made a great catch over the middle, where he settled nicely into an open window for Mond. Then, Smith transitions immediately into YAC mode and is a difficult guy to bring down in the open field.

The South Carolina product will also add return value at the next level, and with the need for speed in New England, Smith will bring that and then some with Patriot-like route running.

8. Michigan FB Ben Mason the Next Great Pats Fullback?

With Jakob Johnson and second-year tight end Dalton Keene, the Patriots don’t necessarily need a fullback, but it’s too easy to see Michigan’s Ben Mason as a fit.

Mason has played a little defensive line and fullback, showing off similar versatility as Johnson and former Pats fullback James Develin, and is a destroyer of souls on a football field.

Along with the big pancake block above, Mason sprung North Carolina running back Michael Carter with a great block in the hole earlier in the game and was physical throughout.

Again, fullback isn’t a pressing need, but Mason will probably be a late-round pick or UDFA that should be in Patriots training camp next summer. It feels like he’d be a stud here.

9. Ohio State LB Baron Browning Squarely on the Radar

Since the College Football Playoff, we’ve been monitoring Browning as he was one of a few Ohio State defenders that didn’t get completely dominated by Alabama in the title game.

Browning set a firm edge on Saturday as he does here with good stack and shed skills at outside linebacker. He also can play off the ball if you want to move him inside.

Browning projects as a third-round pick in April’s draft and would give New England more speed and youth alongside Josh Uche with Anfernee Jennings in the mix as well.

10. Northern Iowa EDGE Elerson Smith: Size/Length, Instincts, Pats Fit

One of the standouts in Saturday’s game was Northern Iowa’s Elerson Smith, who checks every box in terms of measurables (6-6, 262 pounds) and plays with a natural ability to find the ball.

Smith was all over the field and made a great open-field tackle on Rodgers by staying home on a reverse and squaring up Rodgers to bring him down.

Before the Senior Bowl, Smith was a late day three prospect that probably moved up some boards this week. His measurables and instincts are things the Pats covet in edge defenders.