INDIANAPOLIS -- Quick hits on some of the top prospects at the combine who might be of interest to the Patriots from a pass-rush perspective:
1. Clemson DE/OLB Andre Branch. With 10.5 sacks last season, the 6-foot-4, 259-pound Branch has solid size to possibly fit as a defensive end in a four-man front or outside linebacker in a 3-4. Branch talked about how Clemson had certain packages on defense where he dropped into coverage, which showed he is more than just a pass rusher. At the same time, he prides himself on getting to the quarterback, often using a "dip" move that he called his favorite. He models his game after Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. "I'm a versatile player. I can stand up, I can run sideline to sideline and I can also drop into coverage. And I'm a natural born leader," said Branch, who graduated in December with a degree in sociology. He's a projected first- or second-round pick.
2. North Carolina DE Quinton Coples. Considered by analysts as a boom or bust first-round option, the 6-foot-5, 284-pound Coples has dominated at times, while disappearing at others. He enters the draft with the rap that he shut it down as a senior. "It was a situation that my coach asked me to do, make a change. I made that change and I think I think I ran into some things a little more than I should have instead of just playing the game that I love," he explained. "It kind of affected my game. But overall, I went to the Senior Bowl, I did some things, and I showed them that I can compete at the highest level." Coples is the type of player who could slide on draft day, but in the event that happens, it's hard to imagine it would be as far as the Patriots' pick at 27.
3. Marshall DE/OLB Vinny Curry. After posting 23 sacks over the last two seasons, Curry put himself on the NFL radar as a rising pass rusher. He measured 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds and is viewed by analysts as a likely second-round pick. Because he didn't play at a big-time college, Curry enters the NFL with a chip on his shoulder. "I like stuff like that. I love being the underdog," he said. "I feel the underdog always works harder, always has something to prove. That’s my personality. I just love to work, I love to get better. I just like the game of football. When you’re in love with this game and you’ve got a passion for it it’s a different mindset."
4. South Carolina DE Melvin Ingram. From a body prototype perspective, the 6-foot-1, 264-pound Ingram didn't pass the eye-ball test as someone that would be targeted by the Patriots. In the perfect world, the Patriots like a player with a bit more length, but there is no denying Ingram's pass-rush explosion. He's been working with Broncos DE Von Miller, and like Miller, Ingram said he prides himself on athleticism and relentless approach to get to the ball. "We just try to compete against each other every day," he said. "Obviously, he's the Defensive Rookie of the Year. So I just try to pattern myself after him because I feel like he's had a lot of success in the NFL." Ingram is projected as a top 15 pick by analysts.
5. Alabama DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw. A projected first-round pick, likely off the board before the Patriots' first selection at 27, Upshaw is another "tweener" with scheme versatility. "We had a nickel package where I played a 4-3 as the end, away from the tight end, in a 5-technique, hand-on-the-ground, dropping out of a three-point stance in coverage if the D-end had to. So I'm real comfortable with doing that. We played an odd front where I was also an end but three down linemen so I'm real comfortable playing with my hand in the dirt," he said. Bill Belichick's ties with Alabama coach Nick Saban are well documented, so any Crimson Tide prospect warrants a closer look. When a reporter asked about a link to the Patriots, Upshaw pointed out he was a Colts fan (no truth to the rumor that Upshaw was promptly removed from the Patriots' draft board).