Tom E. Curran's potential Patriots draftees

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Tom E. Curran's potential Patriots draftees

By TomE. Curran
CSNNE.com

Heading into the NFL draft, Tom E. Curran has compiled a series of looks at potential Patriots draftees. Check out the full list here:

RUNNING BACKS

Mark Ingram, Alabama5-9, 215Running Back

The Skinny: The highest-rated running back in this draft. Won the Heisman Trophy in 2009 when he ran for 1,658 yards. He was dinged up in 2010 but still averaged 5.5 per carry. He's compact and very solidly built. Thick. He's got elusiveness in small spaces, runs with excellent patience and finishes his runs. He's played against the highest competition, which is something the Patriots value in their evaluations. Also, he played for Bill Belichick's buddy Nick Saban, so the Patriots will get a solid review of Ingram's skills. He's not exceptionally fast but accelerates quickly to his top speed and has excellent quickness.

Mikel Leshoure, Illinois
6-0, 227Running Back
The Skinny: The consensus best "big back" in the draft. Ran for 1,695 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2010, averaging 6 yards per carry. A legitimate pounder between the tackles who can handle a heavy workload, he's got good quickness and soft hands. according to Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki. He's the second-best running back on Wes Bunting's rankings over at National Football Post. Both analysts see him having feature back potential. He should be on the board well into Round 2.

Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
5-9, 212Running Back
The Skinny:The Patriots have shown interest, with running backs coach Ivan Fears working Williams out down in Blacksburg, Virginia. Williams had his2010 season ruined production-wise by a torn hamstring and only gained 477 yards (4.3 per carry) but managed nine touchdowns in five starts. As a result, he promises to be undervalued by decision-makers who need to "sell" their draft picks to their owners and fanbases. The Patriots don't have to do that, as the Brandon Tate and Rob Gronkowski picks the last two seasons showed. Williams' speed, aggression, competitive fire and overall package makes him very enticing.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Gabe Carimi, 6-7, 314
OT,Wisconsin

The Skinny:After an injury-plagued junior season, the cocksure Carimi came back in 2010 and won the Outland Trophy, an award given annually to the best interior lineman (defense or offense) in the country. Carimi was part of a bludgeoning rushing attack for the Badgers. He demonstrated excellent smarts and toughness and a willingness to play through the inevitable dings an offensive lineman will deal with. With the Patriots needing to soon hire the successor to Matt Light at left tackle - or do some shuffling to get Sebastian Vollmer over there from right tackle- they will need a new guy. With BC's Anthony Castonzo and USC's Tyron Smith seemingly stacking up as the most attractive LTs in the draft, that will leave Carimi on the board for New England later in the first round.

Danny Watkins, 6-3, 310

OG, OL, C, Baylor

The Skinny:One of the most intriguing prospects in the draft, the 26-year-old (he'll turn 27 during his rookie year) didn't play football until junior college when he was enrolled in firefighting school at Butte (Calif.) College. Went on to start 25 games after he got to Baylor and impressed as a strong, nasty, humble, mature mauler. Stephen Neal's gone? Really, who better to pick up where he left off? And the nice thing? He's played two years at left tackle but can also play either guard spot or center.

Nate Solder, 6-8, 319OT, Colorado

The Skinny: Massive football player who entered Colorado as a tight end prospect but was transitioned into a left tackle during his redshirt sophomore season. Started at left tackle the next 38 games consecutively. Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki notes that, on 1,400 career pass plays, he allowed five sacks and 21 pressures. The Patriots have visited extensively with Solder, a player described as being very professional, dedicated and coachable. One of the reasons they may have spent significant time with him, though, was to figure if that long frame can put more weight on without sacrificing too much athleticism and to find out if his relatively meager 21 bench press reps were indicative of a guy who will struggle with bull rushes.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Cam Heyward, 6-5, 294
DE,Ohio State

The Skinny:Son of Ironhead. A four-year starter at high-profile, highly-competitive program. While Cam Jordan is wonderfully versatile, Cam Heyward is near the other end of this deep class of defensive end prospects. He's a run-stopper; a plugger. He doesn't do a ton of different things - little pass rush upside - but what he does, he can do pretty well. He's got a very good reputation as a player, teammate and worker.

Ryan Kerrigan, 6-4, 267DEOLB,Purdue

The Skinny: Havoc-causing defensive end in Purdue's 4-3. Had 32.5 sacks in past three seasons for Boilermakers and tied the NCAA DivisionIrecord for forcedfumbles in a career (14). Kerrigan is probably the player most often ticketed to go to the Patriots in mock drafts this spring. There's a lot of reason for that. He's a football junkie and carries himself with the kind of professional air that says nothing matters more than football. Additionally, he's terrifically productive in a high-profile program and has played well against top Big Ten competition. It's not clear yet how well he'll operate in a 3-4 alignment. Whether or not he can drop into coverage on first and second down is the main question. But when the Patriots go 4-3 in passing situations, he's a beast on the edge going forward. Meanwhile, I keep reading about his lack of explosivenessand athleticism in scouting reports. I'm not getting it. Seems more than athletic and explosive than people give him credit for.

J.J. Watt, 6-5, 290 DE, Wisconsin

The Skinny:The buzz for this kid istremendous. Mike Mayock, the highly-respected NFL Network draft analyst and aman whose opinion Bill Belichick values, thinks Watt is one of the best"5-technique" defensive ends to come along in a while. (5-technique meanshe lines up on the outside shoulder of the left tackle; 0-technique means aplayer is head-up over the center). Put together an amazing show at the NFLCombine where his measurables in short quickness drills were equal to somerunning backs. He is a 3-4 defensive end, though, not an edge rusher. ThinkRichard Seymour. Same spot, not as outstanding though.

Cam Jordan, 6-4, 287DL, California
The Skinny: Possibly the most versatile of all the 3-4 defensive end prospects, Jordan is a smart, engaging, unique player whose dad Steve was a six-time Pro Bowl tight end for the Minnesota Vikings. He and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt are seen most often as the best fits for the Patriots' most pressing need - a suitable replacement for Richard Seymour. Bill Belichick has spoken of how rare it is to find the guy who's 6-5, 270 and runs 4.7. Here's one that's 6-4, 290 that can do that. And he's smart as hell.

Tom E. Curran canbe reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."