Lazar’s Combine Notebook: Which Pass Catchers Could be Future Patriots?

The Patriots have a need for pass catchers, and the 2019 draft class didn't disappoint with their workouts on Saturday.

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INDIANAPOLIS — The second day of on-field workouts at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine was a big one for the Patriots with pass catchers and quarterbacks taking the field at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Earlier this morning, a report surfaced that the Patriots will release backup tight end Dwayne Allen, and we all know that Rob Gronkowski is nearing the end as well.

At the wide receiver position, the Patriots only have one receiver, Julian Edelman, under contract that played in Super Bowl LIII excluding special teamer Matthew Slater.

On Friday, a source said the Patriots were intrigued by both the tight ends and wide receivers in April’s draft which makes sense given Allen’s release and the number of interviews they had with pass catchers this week.

With the offensive skill players on the field, we also got a chance to speak with the defensive line and linebackers that will go through workouts on Sunday.

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Here are all the things we learned from another day in Indy:

PATRIOTS TO RELEASE TIGHT END DWAYNE ALLEN

In a cap-saving maneuver, the Patriots will release blocking tight end Dwayne Allen to free up over $7 million in cap space, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Allen played 33 percent of the offensive snaps last season for New England but blocked over 70 percent of the time, and despite running 128 routes, was only targeted four times.

The veteran tight end was one of the better run blockers at the position over the last two seasons, but given his 2019 cap hit ($7.3 million), the move isn’t surprising.

Plus, the Patriots are doing extensive work on this year’s crop of tight ends and will most likely draft one in April.

The team also has 2018 seventh round pick Ryan Izzo who projects as an in-line blocker and could take on some of Allen’s responsibilities.

The Patriots could bring Allen back at a lower cap number, according to Schefter.

COMBINE ON-FIELD WORKOUT STANDOUTS AT TIGHT END POSITION

With the Allen news adding more intrigue, the Patriots are squarely in the tight end market, and there were a few players that either surprised me or solidified themselves as top prospects on Saturday.

Let’s start at the top, the consensus “big three” at the position all performed well with Iowa’s Noah Fant, as expected, pacing the group.

We all knew that Fant was a rare athlete, and his workout on Saturday didn’t change much in my evaluation of him.

He was a first-round pick before the combine, and he’s still a first rounder.

Fant had the best result among tight ends in the 40-yard dash (4.50), vertical jump (39.5 inches), broad jump (127 inches) and in the three-cone with an insane 6.81-second time.

As for his teammate, T.J. Hockenson, he had an above average workout although nothing spectacular, which came as no surprise. Hockenson isn’t going to “wow” you with his 40 time, but his smoothness and all-around capabilities were on full display during the drill portion of the session.

From a Patriots perspective, the consensus in Indy is that both Iowa tight ends will be off the board before New England is on the clock at the end of the first round.

If the Patriots want to go tight end early, they might have to settle for Alabama’s Irv Smith, which isn’t much of downgrade.

Smith answered some questions about his athleticism with a 4.63-second 40-yard dash and solid showings in the jumps as well, although his three-cone time wasn’t stellar (7.32). During the on-field drills, he was arguably the best of the group flashing natural hands and smooth movement skills that were impressive to watch. Smith projects as an early second-round pick for me, but the Pats could grab him at the end of the first or trade back up into the top 50 with some of their extra picks.

On Friday, I got to talk to Smith about his improvements as a receiver from 2017 to 2018. In particular, he became a much-improved route runner, and he credited it all to the extra work he put in over the last year.

Finally, after the combine, I will revisit LSU tight end Foster Moreau’s tape.

I heard that Moreau was a sneaky good athlete being held back by the LSU coaching staff, but I didn’t expect him to test as well as he did. Moreau only had 52 career catches as a multi-year starter for the Tigers, and his film wasn’t impressive on the first watch. He looked sluggish out of his stance most of the time and wasn’t very explosive or agile in his routes, but you never would’ve guessed that based on his athletic testing. We’ll see if there’s something we missed.

COMBINE ON-FIELD WORKOUT STANDOUTS AT WIDE RECEIVER POSITION

At the other pass catcher position, the top wide receiver in the draft, Ole Miss’s DK Metcalf, stole the show running the fastest 40-yard dash (4.33) at the combine of any player to weigh 225-plus pounds since 2003.

However, Metcalf, much like the Iowa tight ends, will be off the board long before the Patriots have a chance to call his name.

With that in mind, here are a few players that stood out that are more realistic options for New England:

NOTE: THE NFL HASN’T RELEASED THREE-CONE TIMES AT THE WIDE RECEIVER POSITION. WE WILL UPDATE THIS SECTION WHEN THEY COME AVAILABLE.

One of my favorite prospects to watch during my pre-combine film study was Iowa State wide receiver Hakeem Butler. Butler is a bully that out-physicals everyone at the catch point and throws guys around like rag dolls after the catch. In my grading system, guys like Butler don’t grade out well because of their shortcomings as route runners, but Butler ran exceptionally well on Saturday. The former Iowa State star ran a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash which puts him in the 98th percentile if you adjust his time for his height and weight. Butler is now one of the biggest players at his position in combine history, and you can now add speed to that scouting report as well. If you’re a team looking for a physical marvel on the perimeter, Butler might be your guy.

On the opposite side of the spectrum from Butler is UMass wideout, Andy Isabella. Isabella was another one of my tape favorites, but his size (fourth percentile in height and 19th percentile in weight) was concerning.

However, Isabella floored us all with an official 4.31-second 40-yard dash legitimizing himself as a deep threat in the NFL. Isabella isn’t the Patriots’ typical cut on a dime slot receiver, but he did post a 6.95 three-cone time that’s about average for the position. All aboard the Isabella train.

Lastly, maybe the most polarizing prospect out of this group is Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry. Some scouts have Harry as the top wideout in the class, while others, like me, aren’t as high on him. I had my doubts from watching Harry’s film about his ability to separate downfield against NFL defensive backs, but he checked a box with a 4.53-second 40-yard dash. Harry admitted to me on Friday that he ran a limited route tree at ASU, which also gave me pause in his evaluation, but said that was a coach’s decision. For the Sun Devils, Harry’s route tree was basically three patterns: go balls, screens and hitches or curls, and a lot of his production came on screens. With that said, the analytics crowd loves Harry, and his combination of size, speed and strength (27 reps on the bench) have me rethinking his evaluation a bit. He’s another good one in this class.

Here are some notable three-cone times for the wide receivers:

QUARTERBACK WORKOUTS THROUGH A PATRIOTS LENS

On Saturday, we get to see the quarterback prospects in a neutral environment side-by-side, and the guy that didn’t throw, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, probably had the best day which tells you all you need to know.

We will also have wait on the throwing velocity numbers that will factor into some of these evaluations, but here are a few observations on some notable quarterback prospects:

Let’s start with the most prominent name as it pertains to the Patriots, and that’s West Virginia’s Will Grier. The throw velocity numbers will be interesting for Grier who threw with his usual ball placement and timing during drills on Saturday. However, Grier’s throwing motion still needs some work. He still has a deliberate windmill-like motion that slows down his release time, and the ball sits a bit too low for my liking when he brings it up to shoulder level.

Grier has the intangibles, downfield accuracy and processing abilities that will attract the Patriots but he’s not an overly impressive thrower of the football mechanically.

Next, I want to take a few seconds to pound the table for Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson.

Jackson put together one of the best workouts of the day that resembled what Cam Newton did back in 2011. Jackson isn’t the thrower that Newton is, but to me, there’s little separation between Jackson and now Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen who went seventh overall last year. Both are wildly inaccurate but have huge arms and are great athletes, and Jackson is a better athlete than Allen. Unfortunately, Jackson won’t get the same treatment that Allen did last year.

And finally, Duke’s Daniel Jones had some issues with accuracy on a few of his throws but threw the ball on time and showed nice anticipation. Jones’ quick-passing abilities, size and athleticism will be intriguing traits for teams although his accuracy and arm strength leave something to be desired, and he didn’t change anyone’s opinion on that on Saturday.

PATRIOTS SHOWING INTEREST IN BOSTON COLLEGE’S ZACH ALLEN

As you’d probably expect, the Patriots are showing interest in Boston College defensive lineman Zach Allen.

Allen told me during his media availability that he met with the Patriots at the Senior Bowl, briefly in Indianapolis and expects to see them again at his Pro Day in Chestnut Hill.

The Boston College star is a perfect for the Patriots at defensive end due to his ability to play everywhere along the defensive line and anchor with good power on the edge against the run. On early downs, I’d expect Allen to play strongside defensive end where he can use his technique and leverage to set the edge. Then on passing downs, you can kick Allen inside where his quickness and hand usage become very effective against interior offensive lineman.

On Saturday, Allen and I talked about his versatility, and he mentioned that teams, much like the coaching staff at Boston College, like that he can play from multiple alignments and don’t plan on pigeonholing him to one position.

Allen also mentioned that he’d love to stay in the Boston area and play for and with two GOATs in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

ANOTHER SET OF SIBLINGS ON THE PATRIOTS?

Lastly, we got a chance to speak with Kansas pass rusher Daniel Wise, the brother of Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise.

Daniel is a different player than Deatrich, as he explains in the video, but the main difference is the shorter Daniel wins with speed and get off while Deatrich uses his length and power.

On the tape, Daniel’s ability to rush the passer and make plays sideline to sideline stands out. He’s a hustle player that times the snap count exceptionally well to use his burst to shoot gaps and makes plays behind the line of scrimmage. This past season, he also started to develop his hand usage and pass rush moves.

Daniel said he hasn’t met with the Patriots yet, but it would be a great story if they reunited the Wise brothers in New England, something Daniel said would be a “dream come true” for the siblings.

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