Defense combine hit list for Pats

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
6:00
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Picking one player at each defensive position who made an impression at the NFL combine, and who appeared to have qualities the Patriots would value (considering various points of the draft):

Defensive tackle
Dontari Poe (Memphis) --
Even before his impressive workout, just looking at his body type, he's the kind of big-bodied athletic lineman that seemed to fit in the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick "big is better" coaching tree. At 6-foot-4 and 346 pounds, they don't make too many of them like that. A first-round projection.

Defensive end (5 technique for 3-4 defense)
Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State)
-- Liked his presence during his media interview and at 6-foot-4 and 298 pounds, with 34.5-inch arm length, he could be a solid right end in the 3-4 alignment that the Patriots have been missing since Richard Seymour was traded. To run a 4.79 time in the 40 at his size is impressive.

Outside linebacker
Whitney Mercilus (Illinois)
-- Had a Rosevelt Colvin type look on the cursory eye-ball test and handled himself well in the media center, answering some challenge "one-year wonder" questions with thought. At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, he ran well (4.68) and also showed good strength (27 reps on bench press).

Inside linebacker
Tyler Nielsen (Iowa) --
Projected as a later-round pick, the 6-foot-3 1/2, 238-pounder came across as an all-business type of player who could compete for a core special teams type of role, while providing depth at inside linebacker. Has kept in touch with former Iowa teammate Jeff Tarpinian, who broke through with the Patriots in 2011.

Cornerback
Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina)
-- At 6-foot-0 and 190 pounds, he has solid size and ran well (4.40), which has him rising in the eyes of some. The Patriots value run force and tackling from their corners, so when Gilmore said the following, it made me take note: "I like to tackle a lot. I think most corners don't like to tackle. I like to make plays on the ball. I just try to be a complete corner."

Safety
Harrison Smith (Notre Dame)
-- Viewed by some as the second-rated safety behind Mark Barron, he reminded me of Patrick Chung in the sense that he's played a lot of football (51 games, 47 starts). Has good size at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds and said he feels comfortable at both safety spots, which is important in the Patriots' scheme where the positions are viewed as interchangeable.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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