Champion's lament: Bill Belichick notes that New England is playing catch-up once again
Bill Belichick hardly took time to relish the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history when he declared "in all honesty, we're five weeks behind in the 2017 season to most teams in this league."
After overcoming a 25-point deficit to win their fifth title, the Patriots will pick last in the NFL draft April 27 in Philadelphia. Last year, they were stripped of their first-round pick in the "Deflategate" ruling that included a September suspension for Super Bowl 51 MVP Tom Brady.
Cleveland had the worst record in the league at 1-15 and will pick first, followed by San Francisco, Chicago and Jacksonville. Among the possible top picks is Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett, whom many project will follow in Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller's footsteps.
Between now and draft weekend, prospective rookies will be poked, prodded and peppered by NFL personnel. Some players will get extra scrutiny at the NFL combine in a month or on their pro days in March because of discipline issues or health concerns.
Some have already seen their stock slide based on poor decisions or plain bad luck, and others are steadily climbing all the mock drafts.
Two running backs who are projected high picks — Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford , skipped their bowl game a year after Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith cost himself millions by blowing out his left knee in the Fiesta Bowl.
Smith was projected as a potential top-five pick before his injury, and instead went to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round with the 34th overall pick. The difference in guaranteed contract money is about $19 million.
McCaffrey, the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up, sat out the Dec. 30 Sun Bowl between Stanford and North Carolina after an injury-marred 2016 season "so I can begin my draft prep immediately." Three days later, Fournette said he would miss LSU's Citrus Bowl matchup with Louisville on Dec. 31 to rest an injured ankle.
Both would love to be like Dallas rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, who led the Cowboys' turnaround from bottom-feeder to the NFC's top playoff seed. Elliott didn't like Fournette and McCaffrey bailing on their teammates, tweeting, "I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray."
When others pointed out he skipped his senior season to enter the draft, Elliott tweeted: "there is a difference between not coming back for your last year and not finishing your last season."
Tell that to Jake Butt. Michigan's star tight end is this year's cautionary tale after tearing an ACL in the Wolverines' 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Other college stars who will draw extra attention from teams trying to pry the Lombardi Trophy from Belichick and Brady:
JOE MIXON: The Oklahoma running back set the school's single-season record for all-purpose yards last season, but he was suspended for the 2014 season after punching a woman in the face. Mixon's lawyers released video in December of him breaking Oklahoma student Amelia Molitor's jaw and cheekbone in July 2014, and heavy criticism of Mixon and Sooners coach Bob Stoops followed. Mixon gave a tearful public apology a week later.
CHAD KELLY: The Ole Miss QB is both a character concern and a health risk . He was leading the SEC with 2,758 passing yards when he tore his right ACL and lateral meniscus and underwent surgery in November. His long list of off-the-field troubles include getting kicked off the Clemson team in 2015, an arrest after a bar fight in 2014 and sparking a brawl at his brother's high school football game. "I've made stupid mistakes in the past. I can't deny that," he said. "But ... I've learned from it."
SETH RUSSELL: Like Kelly, Baylor's QB went to the Senior Bowl, where he sat in on meetings and observed practices even though he couldn't play in the game. Russell broke his left ankle in a loss at Oklahoma in November. He had 2,126 yards passing with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and also ran for 506 yards and eight more scores. He was 14-3 as the Bears starter.
SHAWN OAKMAN: Baylor's career sacks leader went undrafted last year after finishing his eligibility in 2015. He was indicted last July on a charge of sexually assaulting a woman. The school was criticized after Oakman was seen on the sideline at the Bears' game against Rice in 2016. Coach Art Briles was removed last year following a report alleging the private Baptist university mishandled complains of sexual assault, a cloud that could hang over other Bears prospects.
DALVIN COOK: The Florida State running back has both a long list of accomplishments and arrests. He topped 1,000 yards in all three seasons and ran for 46 career TDs. He's No. 2 on the ACC career charts in yards rushing and is the ACC's all-time leader with 5,399 yards from scrimmage. His run-ins with the law include accusations he punched a woman outside a bar, brandished a firearm and mistreated dogs.
COREY DAVIS: The Western Michigan wide receiver might not work out at the combine in Indianapolis because of ankle issues. Davis could have been a high draft pick had he left after his junior year last season, but he returned for his senior season and had 97 receptions for 1,500 yards and 19 TDs. That gave him 331 catches for 5,278 yards and 52 TDs overall.
MALIK HOOKER: The Ohio State All-American safety will miss the combine after undergoing hernia surgery. He returned three of his seven interceptions for TDs last season when he also made 74 tackles and broke up 11 passes. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has compared the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder to former NFL All-Pro safety Ed Reed.
AP Sports Writers Michael Marot, John Zenor and Pat Graham contributed.
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