The NFL Draft is in the books, and in some respects it was an unusual one for the New England Patriots. They selected a quarterback in Round 1 for the first time under head coach/general manager Bill Belichick, and also were comparatively quiet on the trade market by making only one move the entire weekend.
On the other hand, however, New England followed some familiar patterns. The team did not overextend itself to grab said quarterback — Alabama’s Mac Jones was available without a trade-up at No. 15 — and also went to a familiar well to find some of its players: once again the Patriots invested in multiple players who participated in the Senior Bowl.
Despite Belichick and other high-level members of the scouting department not making the trip this year, three members of the Patriots’ eight-player draft class were among those showcasing their talents down in Mobile in January:
- QB Mac Jones, Alabama (1-15)
- RB Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma (4-120)
- S Joshuah Bledsoe, Missouri (6-188)
The three rookies can now be added to sizable list of former Senior Bowl invitees who eventually found their way to New England. Between 2010 and this year, the Patriots have now drafted 44 of them and added 11 more as undrafted rookie free agents.
Future Patriots cornerstones such as safety Devin McCourty (2010), offensive linemen Nate Solder (2011), Shaq Mason (2015) and Isaiah Wynn (2018), linebacker Jamie Collins (2013), running back James White (2014), defensive lineman Trey Flowers (2015) are all on that list.
The Senior Bowl is a breeding ground for Patriots-to-be, and it is not hard to see why when listening to Belichick talk about the week-long event.
“At the Senior Bowl, you have NFL coaches, you have NFL-type coverages, NFL-type passing game, both in practice and in the game,” Bill Belichick said last December. “So, you get to see two different looks at it. You get to see the practice look where players are practicing against the NFL team that is coaching them, and then in the game you get to see them play against another NFL style of play, but different from that other coaching staff.”
The Senior Bowl is more than just a meeting of big-name prospects, though. It also gives players with a small-school background an opportunity to prove themselves against top-tier competition for possibly the first time in their careers. It is therefore a vital evaluation tool for scouts and coaches trying to get as complete a picture as possible.
Just take Patriots safety Kyle Dugger, who was picked in the second round by the team last year. Dugger was an uber-athletic prospect who had spent his entire college career playing against lower-level competition at Lenoir-Rhyne. While he dominated at the Division-II school, the question was whether or not his skillset would also translate to the NFL and against far superior opposition.
With one year of hindsight we now know that it did, but last spring there were serious questions about the jump he would have to make — especially during an offseason as challenging as 2020’s. This is where his Senior Bowl performance came in, as Belichick himself acknowledged during his post-draft media conference call last year.
“I think the Senior Bowl really helped Kyle,” Belichick said at the time. “He was running a pro defense against a pro offense with soon-to-be pro players. Whether it was one-on-one drills, catching punts, tackling, I think you could really see he was able to compete very favorably at that level of competition and his scheme represents something close to what we’d be doing. It was a short window, but it was a full week of practice, a game.
“I think I saw a lot of improvement during the week and feel like this is a kid that’s smart, that works hard, that has a lot of ability. … Without the Senior Bowl, it certainly would have been for me a lot tougher projection if he wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
While the Patriots did not dig as deep into the college landscape this year, one has to wonder whether or not they would have felt equally comfortable drafting later-round options Rhamondre Stevenson and Joshuah Bledsoe had they not gotten a first-hand look at them down at Hancock Whitney Stadium. Even with Belichick not present, the information gathered at the Senior Bowl is immensely valuable for the team.
Its track record over the years is obvious proof of that.