It's difficult to make too many declarative statements three weeks out from the NFL Draft, given all the subterfuge and misinformation floating around, to say nothing of the innate unpredictability of the three-day event itself. But I will say this: I can't imagine the Patriots don't come away with a wide receiver fairly early in the draft.
Their presence at Pro Days that featured receiver prospects was clearly noticed by their counterparts around the league, and head coach Bill Belichick himself attended several of them – and not just those featuring players deemed to be first-day prospects.
New England is putting considerable resources into scouting this position and while this group isn't as top heavy as last year's record receiver crop, it has plenty of intriguing possibilities and several instances in which beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Scouts from other teams told me they were told by several college coaches about Belichick's presence around their Pro Days, putting receivers on the board, grilling them if he got the chance, being very hands-on in this pursuit. It wasn't uncommon at all for New England to have a contingent of three people at some of the visits, including personnel chief Nick Caserio, a former Division III college quarterback who threw to receivers at some workouts, including Maryland's.
The Pats have other needs for sure – the exodus of their top corners in free agency for one left a void, especially with Darrelle Revis now back in New York – and that may be a position they address first. Belichick will always be in the market for defensive linemen he sees value in, but the Patriots want to add weapons for Tom Brady, realizing they still don't have a true outside presence beyond tight end Rob Gronkowski, when is split out there.
The receiver who I hear scouts gush quietly about the most is Louisville's DeVante Parker. A year ago around the combine I wrote what several evaluators I really trusted were telling me – that Odell Beckham, Jr. was to them the top receiver in the draft and would be a steal. I'm hearing some similar buzz about Parker and I am sure the Pats are on him, but if so it would likely take a considerable trade up to land him.
I'm not sure he gets past the 10/11 range, where the Rams are looking long and hard at him and, at 11, the Vikings have spent considerable time scouting him in the regular season (their top personnel people attended several games), and, with Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater a Louisville product, there are too many obvious connections to ignore.
Parker has pretty much everything scouts are looking for. People rave about his hands and route running. I know some evaluators have him ranked higher than Kevin White, for instance, and while Amari Cooper is seen by some as the safest of the receivers, Parker might not be that far behind. “Parker is the kind of kid who could go to the right spot and put up 1,200 receiving yards as a rookie,” one personnel man said. “He's that good.”
I've heard some differing opinions on Central Florida's Breshad Perriman, with some who have been around his college team closely believing he is merely a fly pattern, deep ball guy with just straight-ahead speed who drops too many balls. But another evaluator I trust thinks that Perriman is more polished than White in terms of route running and could be a better player. Both are burners, for sure, but I have heard a few teams pumping the brakes on Perriman and preferring some other options, particularly because they don't trust his hands .
If three receivers go in the top 10, then several others will continue to be pushed up the board as well (I have a hunch USC's Nelson Agholor, who is flying somewhat under the radar, cracks that late first round group). If the Patriots end up staying at pick number 32, I can't help but wonder if troubled but talented receiver Dorial Green-Beckham comes into play. Adding a 6-6 target for Brady might help take that offense to another level, not that the Super Bowl champs aren't already quite good to start.
Middle linebackers: I'm starting to wonder if we don't see an inside linebacker go even in the top two rounds, and I can't get anyone to say anything positive about the group of tight ends and safeties available.
TCU's Paul Dawson is projected by some as a first-round pick, but scouts hate his attitude and don't like the vibes about him on campus and some who have studied him closely believe he's really a third-round talent. But the fact he may be the best of a weak crop of inside backers and the fact this draft isn't all that robust with talent overall could push him higher than where he should go. “Is he really going to go in the first round?” one evaluator asked. “How could he go that high? I wouldn't have anything higher than a third-round grade on him even if he was clean (from a character standpoint).” Some are projecting UCLA's Eric Kendricks in the first round, and he has special bloodlines, but I'm not putting him in this equation because 4-3 teams see him more as a weak-side guy than their middle linebacker.
Tight ends: As for the tight ends, despite there being a lot of needy teams picking in the back end of the first round, no one is vouching for any of these prospects as legitimate first-rounders, and there might be quite a fall ahead for them. The more football people talk privately about Maxx Williams and Devon Funchess, and how they run some routes the wrong way, and the holes in their game, the more I wonder if South Carolina's Rory Anderson might be a guy to watch as going higher than some would project.
Safeties: With the safeties, Alabama's Landon Collins is getting mocked pretty high – and he may be the best of a very weak group at his position – but he's seen as an in-the-box guy and I had several execs tell me they wouldn't take him in the first round.
“Tight end and safety, in this draft, is a wash,” the exec said. “If that's what you're looking for here, good luck.”
Byron Jones: Still plenty of differing opinions on UConn corner Byron Jones, a combine warrior I recently profiled with some good tape as well. Mixed opinions on whether or not he shoots into the first round. I have a hunch he does, though I'm not sure I see it with New England as some are projection (and Belichick certainly does love him some UConn prospects over the years).
On the depth of first-round talent: In a good year there might be 22-24 players who have true first-round grades. This year I've had execs tell me they can't get to 20 in some cases, and some teams struggle to find 16 kids who truly merit first-round grades. Could make the back end of the first round a real crapshoot, with so much beauty in the eye of the beholder, and dependent on the type of scheme a team runs …
Latest on Randy Gregory: Sure, Randy Gregory is getting dinged by teams because of his failed drug test at the combine – and they question his decision making knowing well in advance he would be tested there – and that caused him to drop on subsequent mock drafts.
And character is supposed to matter more than ever now, and yada, yada, yada.
But when you strip that away and talk pure football and pass rushers, I don't hear anyone who doesn't think he's one of at least the top three in the draft, and several believe he's top two. I hear concerns about Vic Beasley being able to keep weight on and being a tweener and I hear people wondering why Donte Fowler didn't have more big-play production and I hear people wondering if Shane Raye is really a top-10 talent, but aside from Gregory's issues with pot, I don't hear too many other reasons why he isn't in the top 10 or top five.
So I guess what I'm saying is, I'm starting to think the closer we get to the draft that he will be.
The Redskins and Jaguars and Bears and Falcons are just some of the teams in the top 10 desperate for pass rush. I still can't help but wonder if Gregory is one of the top two or three defensive players off the board, even with the red flag. I have Washington and Chicago pretty locked into pass rushers, and both teams have front office/coaching ties back to San Francisco, a team that took plenty of risks on character kids with mixed results. Could be he doesn't get past that seventh pick, despite the failed tests.