NEPD Contributor: Dan Hope
For much of the first decade of the 21st century, the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick were a team considered to be ahead of the curve when it came to the NFL draft.
From consistently finding diamonds in the rough who became team building blocks, to mastering the art of trading up and down the draft board for better value, the Patriots laid the foundation for three NFL championships and five Super Bowl appearances in an 11-year span.
But as the rest of the league has caught up, with teams such as the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks making brilliant offseason moves translate into on-field success, the Patriots are at risk of falling behind.
As a result of Belichick’s success at the beginning of the century, winning three Super Bowls in the first five years of the millennium, he has typically received benefit of the doubt. Belichick’s decisions are ultimately expected to be for the better — understandably given his accolades — even if they are unexpected or unconventional.
That said, it’s time to start looking past the benefit of the doubt, with the Patriots now eight years removed from their last Super Bowl title. Specifically, the decision to use three of seven draft picks on Rutgers players, coinciding with an apparently burgeoning friendship between Belichick and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, should raise a red flag.
Belichick’s relationship with Schiano has been no secret in recent years, or at least a poorly-kept one. It is a relationship fostered by Belichick’s son, Steve, who was a student at Rutgers from 2007-2011. After playing lacrosse for four years, the younger Belichick actually walked onto the Scarlet Knights football team, coached by Schiano at the time, as a long snapper in 2011.
Steve Belichick is now a coaching assistant with the Patriots.
With a close connection linking Bill Belichick and Schiano, the Patriots have often pulled from the Rutgers pool in recent years. Most notably, they drafted defensive back Devin McCourty with their first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, but have made undrafted free agent additions from the Scarlet Knights as well.
During this year’s NFL draft, however, that relationship was perpetuated to an unprecedented obviousness. The Patriots drafted three players who played for Schiano and were teammates with Steve Belichick: cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon in Round 3, and inside linebacker Steve Beauharnais in Round 7.
By themselves, the Ryan and Beauharnais selections look like great choices. Ryan is a physical, instinctive cornerback who is comfortable in both man and zone coverages, has the potential to take over a starting role in 2014 if Aqib Talib leaves via free agency, and was good value as a third-round selection. Beauharnais is a well-rounded linebacker who is a great fit to back up Brandon Spikes at middle linebacker, and was a very solid choice in the seventh round.
Combining the Harmon selection together with the Ryan and Beauharnais picks, however, make the Rutgers-heavy draft look the result of an unconventional draft strategy based upon a coaching friendship and not upon the typically successful route of year-round scouting.
That’s not saying Harmon won’t turn out to be a quality addition to the Patriots’ secondary, but calling it a questionable choice is an understatement.
The Patriots did not have a need at the strong safety position, yet selected Harmon far earlier in the draft than anyone else had expected him to go, reportedly including the Patriots’ own scouts. Well-known draft analyst Tony Pauline of TFY Draft Insider wrote that Patriots scouts were “overruled” by the team’s “brain trust,” while Pauline also said no scouts he talked to pre-draft thought Harmon would be drafted among the top 100 picks.
This alludes to a potential problem within the Patriots organization. The Patriots have scouts who work year-round to find the best prospects from across the college football landscape. Belichick, on the other hand, is unable to devote most of his year to scouting college talent, making him more likely to become quickly enamored with a player whose program he has a connection to without necessarily comparing him to the other talent at his position.
Belichick (along with director of player personnel Nick Caserio) calls the shots, so if he makes a decision, it ultimately does not matter if every scout in the room is against his choice.