INDIANAPOLIS TO BOSTON -- Final thoughts, some with a Patriots twist, from the NFL Combine:
Easier to analyze this draft for Patriots. With the possibility that the draft will take place before free agency -- which would happen if owners and players haven't agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement -- it makes analyzing the draft a bit easier from a Patriots perspective. Usually, the Patriots target free agency to fill specific needs and allow themselves more flexibility on draft day. If that opportunity isn't in play this year, it shines a brighter spotlight on need areas like defensive line, outside linebacker and offensive line. This draft, by most accounts, is deep in those areas.
The case for players like Kerrigan and Smith. In a standard year, projecting explosive pass-rushing defensive ends Ryan Kerrigan and Aldon Smith to the Patriots in the first round wouldn't be an option strongly considered in this view. As players who made their mark as 4-3 defensive ends, they repesent a challenging projection in the Patriots' 3-4 base defense. But I think four factors could put the possibility in play: 1) The Patriots' bounty of draft picks; 2) Depth already on the roster; 3) The 32nd ranking on third down which reflects a big-time need for an elite pass-rusher; 4) The growing number of snaps played in sub packages. Put it all together and the idea of drafting a specialist in the first round -- as long as that specialist is a pass-rusher -- could make sense. This is a topic explored in an ESPNBoston.com piece.
Player whose presence stood out -- Cameron Heyward. Of all the players I sat in on interviews, Ohio State defensive lineman Cameron Heyward stands out for a combination of impressive size (6-5, 294) and intellect. He has football in the bloodlines as his father is the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. The big questions entering the draft with Heyward will be medical-based (Tommy John elbow surgery in January), and if he checks out and works out well, I wouldn't be surprised if he starts rising up some boards.