A closer look at the positions the New England Patriots could target at the NFL combine in Indianapolis:
Positions of need: So much can change with a team's needs based on what unfolds in free agency, and if the Patriots re-sign veteran Martellus Bennett, an audible would be warranted in this area. But let's assume for now that Bennett's solid 2016 season in New England earns him a greater payday elsewhere, which, coupled with Rob Gronkowski coming off back surgery, would put tight end close to the top of the team's priority list. The tight end position is often a vital part of the Patriots' attack, with Bill Belichick putting a high priority on players who can create matchup issues based on their ability to be difference-makers in both the passing and running game. Other positions of need: Anything on defense qualifies, and in a deep running back draft, it could be a nice marriage between demand and supply.
Players the Patriots could focus on at the combine:
TE Jake Butt, Michigan -- He tore his right ACL in the Citrus Bowl, so no one will see him working out at the combine, but that doesn't mean there can't be meetings to test his football acumen and get a better feel for him off the field. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Butt has NFL-type size and could be a Heath Miller-type value in the draft because of the injury (in 2005, Miller slipped a bit because he was coming off hernia and arthroscopic knee surgery), which makes him a fascinating prospect to track leading up to the draft.
TE O.J. Howard, Alabama -- He probably will be long gone by pick No. 32, but if the Patriots somehow acquire an earlier selection (anyone pursuing Jimmy Garoppolo will have to ante up the goods to land him), Howard could be in play. What stands out are some rare physical traits; he's 6-foot-6 with 33 7/8 arm length, and has high-end athleticism. He falls into the category of "combination" tight end because of his size and potential to also contribute as a blocker.
CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama -- Malcolm Butler is a restricted free agent and Logan Ryan is an unrestricted free agent, so the Patriots have to consider various options at cornerback (in 2017 and beyond). And the 6-foot-1, 196-pound Humphrey has the size, length, athleticism and background in Nick Saban's defensive system that should appeal to them. The Patriots place a high value on run support from the cornerback position, and Humphrey is viewed as strong in that area.
RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford -- For a running back to have a high grade on the Patriots' board, the ability to factor as both a rusher and pass-catcher is usually critical, and McCaffrey qualifies. He's an electric talent who also could play a role in the return game. Some wonder if the 6-foot, 197-pound McCaffrey is built to last in the NFL, but when considering that the Patriots leaned on 5-foot-10, 205-pound James White to play 71 snaps in Super Bowl LI and generally have a stable of backs they rely upon from a big-picture perspective, McCaffrey's size likely wouldn't be a concern in New England. Sometimes you get to an NFL draft and a certain player just stands out from the perspective of what the Patriots value at a certain position, and McCaffrey falls into that category this year.
DE Solomon Thomas, Stanford -- Listed at 6-foot-3 and 273 pounds, he has physical traits and versatility that should rate highly in the Patriots' scouting process. While some view the label of "tweener" as a negative, the Patriots often view it as a positive given the multiple nature of their defense and the proliferation of sub packages, and Thomas has shown the ability to play multiple roles. Is he more of a 4-3 end? A 3-4 outside linebacker? A 4-3 defensive tackle? Those are the types of questions the Patriots' staff will be assessing as they get to know Thomas better.