Pass Catchers to Watch at This Week’s NFL Combine From a Patriots Perspective

The Patriots need to reload at both wide receiver and tight end with a slew of free agents and Rob Gronkowksi contemplating retirement.

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Patriots currently have one wide receiver under contract that was active during Super Bowl LIII in Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman.


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The Pats could see massive turnover at the wide receiver position with Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson set to hit the open market as free agents in March.

And we also know that the end is near for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who still hasn’t officially decided whether or not he will play football next season.

Luckily for New England, the draft is loaded with pass catchers of different shapes and sizes; it’s truly take your pick of what’s an extremely talented group.

Here’s a handful of names to watch at the NFL Scouting Combine this week that could be future Patriots:

NC STATE WIDE RECEIVER KELVIN HARMON

Harmon wins in all the right ways for a Patriots perimeter receiver, and could easily be their choice in the first round if he’s still on the board. The NC State product isn’t a burner, but is the ultimate possession receiver with terrific body control, hands and play strength for the position. There are examples all over his tape of him winning in contested catch situations and torching defensive backs with various route releases that make it impossible to read which way he will go.

If there’s one weakness to his game, however, it’s his long speed and burst off the line of scrimmage. Harmon has terrific feet and a powerful upper body to beat press coverage, but will he challenge NFL defensive backs down the field when they play off of him? He can silence some of those doubts by running well this week.

SOUTH CAROLINA WIDE RECEIVER DEEBO SAMUEL

Samuel is one of my favorite wide receiver prospects in this class for New England. He’s built like a running back, and instantly shifts into YAC mode after the catch to create explosive plays with his legs.

Many Pats fans will also remember the “whip” route that Samuel ran at the Senior Bowl that looked a lot like something that Julian Edelman would put on film. His change of direction skills are elite, and he creates immediate separation with initial burst and route detail to torture cornerbacks. Samuel would be a natural on the option routes in the Patriots offense. At the combine, I want to see how Samuel times in the infamous three-cone drill and if he has natural hands going through the on-field drill work. His tape suggests he’s a natural fit in the Edelman role (“Z” receiver) for New England.

WEST VIRGINIA WIDE RECEIVER DAVID SILLS

Sills is a converted quarterback that had tremendous production as a wide receiver catching passes from Grier at West Virginia. His quarterback background helps him diagnose coverages and think like a QB, which obviously fits the Patriots well in their complex passing offense. Sills is a big target with excellent route releases to beat press coverage with footwork and smooth, long strides to separate at the top of the route. The combine is big for Sills, who will have to show scouts that he has the athleticism, and most importantly, explosiveness, to run by NFL defensive backs. He should time well in the 40-yard dash with his long strides, but does he have the burst to do well in the jumps? He could be the perimeter receiver the Patriots are lacking.

CLEMSON WIDE RECEIVER HUNTER RENFROW

Pretty much everyone knows about Renfrow by now if you’re a Patriots fan. He’s an elite slot receiver prospect with tremendous moves at the top of the route shaking free almost instantly. Renfrow is going to be a third-down machine as he was in college, and his hands are like glue snagging everything out of the air within his radius. He’s a natural fit in the slot for New England, but he’ll have to put together a good performance in the athletic testing to distance himself from the stereotypes.

UMASS WIDE RECEIVER ANDY ISABELLA

Expect the combine to be Isabella’s coming out party from a player comparison, athletic standpoint. He’s not your typical slot receiver. Isabella is a burner from the slot that’s going to win more with vertical speed than lateral agility. He’s not as refined at the top of the route as Renfrow, but his explosiveness makes him a legitimate deep threat despite his size. Some expect Isabella to run in the 4.3s this week; that would be something. He should confirm to those that still have doubts about a UMASS product being an NFL caliber athlete that his speed will translate at the pro level.

OHIO STATE WIDE RECEIVER TERRY MCLAURIN

McLaurin is a bit of a sleeper at this point due to limited production in a loaded Ohio State offense, but his traits are fantastic. He’s a terrific route runner that creates separation with a mix of speed and a series of fakes that he can make without slowing down. His athleticism also translates in the open field making him a great YAC receiver. Plus, for the Patriots, McLaurin is an elite special teamer playing on multiple coverage units and making splash plays as a gunner on the punt team. He glides past D1 athletes, pays attention to the details and is a four-down player. Sounds like a Patriot to me.

IOWA TIGHT END T.J. HOCKENSON

The pick for many in the first round for the Patriots is Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson is a do-it-all tight end who will make an instant impact as a receiver and is plus-blocker with great finishing ability. Hockenson is a matchup weapon, and demanded double teams from opposing defenses due to his incredible burst off the line and understanding of how to gain leverage against coverage. For the Hawkeyes, Hockenson lined up everywhere, but was their primary in-line blocker leading the way for a very productive running game. The best comparison I’ve heard for Hockenson is former Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey. He’s a future Pro Bowler, and with a good workout in Indy, he could solidify himself as a top 20 pick in April’s draft putting him out of the Patriots’ range.

IOWA TIGHT END NOAH FANT

The other Iowa tight end. Fant is an athletic freak that stretches the field while also using a huge catch radius and jump-ball skills to go over the top of the defense. In many ways, Fant is a big wide receiver playing tight end, but his blocking skills are underrated. He’s not the finisher that Hockenson is, and Iowa used Hockenson more in the run game than Fant, but Fant has the frame to hold his own in that regard. Where Fant could improve on tape as a receiver is on horizontal routes changing directions and sinking his hips to create separation out of his breaks. That’s why I’m interested to see how he tests in the agility drills this week.

ALABAMA TIGHT END IRV SMITH, JR.

Hockenson and Fant might be better athletes than Smith, but the Alabama product is as technically sound as they come at the position. Smith improved his route running technique last season and is already a very fundamentally sound blocker. To be a first round pick, Smith will have to prove that he’s a first-round athlete. He’s smooth on a vertical plane and certainly adds production after the catch, but when he changes direction at the top of the route or releases downfield he doesn’t explode off the tape like the Wisconsin guys. Good testing numbers could prove that some of us need to revisit the eye test piece of this process.

TEXAS A&M TIGHT END JACE STERNBERGER

Sternberger is my favorite tier two tight end prospect. He’s another big wide receiver type that was a nightmare to defend down the seam last year at Texas A&M. Sternberger looks like a natural as a receiver, out-running coverage and controlling hand to hand combat at the top of the route. He was also arguably the best tight end in this class after the catch with great feel, and with his size, he’s difficult to bring down in the open field. The question mark for Sternberger is his blocking, and if he has the strength to hold up against NFL talent as an in-line blocker. He can’t do much to eliminate those doubts at the combine, but he should look great without pads where he can show off his athleticism. The dude can run.

SAN DIEGO STATE TIGHT END KAHALE WARRING

My favorite sleeper pick in the draft at the tight end position. There isn’t a ton of tape on Warring who played college ball at San Diego State, but the tape I have seen on him is very intriguing. Warring has incredible movement skills for his size (6-6, 250 pounds) as he explodes into his routes, threatens defenses vertically and has rare hip flexibility to change directions for someone with his frame. He also has a huge catch radius and a basketball background making contested catches easy for him. The only knock on Warring is inexperience with only 19 collegiate games under his belt, but he should turn heads at the combine with a stellar workout.

To find more information on these prospects including individual film threads here are all my grades so far in an easy to read spreadsheet format:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1JxGsrdAk2y-6_2x5Bh36o9CXY0VZQ527uY7ry3ODcQs/edit?usp=sharing

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