NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Enigmatic. Stubborn. Unpredictable.
Those three words are often linked to the draft approach of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. But those three words aren’t Belichick’s intentions.
Finding value is.
Value is a loaded term. It’s not necessarily based on positional interest or the best-player-available adage; it’s what a team is willing to wage to acquire a player, relative to where a player could be selected.
Time has shown that it’s entirely interpretive. Yet time has also shown that it’s something Belichick invests tremendous stock in, as former Cleveland Browns general manager and NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi explained two years ago.
“Bill is very analytical. Bill is all about not falling in love with a player. Bill is looking at value,” said Lombardi, who served as Browns director of player personnel under Belichick from 1992 to 1995. “He wants the correct definition of the player and the correct value of the player. When he determines that, then he understands where he can move around in the draft.”
Belichick’s determinations have led the Patriots to Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty, Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder, Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Southern Mississippi linebacker Jamie Collins. His determinations have also led to surprises like Virginia corner Ras-I Dowling, Illinois safety Tavon Wilson, Ohio State special-teamer Nate Ebner and Rutgers safety Duron Harmon.
To Belichick, all of whom were in the right place at the right time. It remains to be seen who will be in the right place at the right time this May.
Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and New England’s brass have areas to address this offseason. And while those areas are subject to change as unrestricted free agency opens March 11, the draft pool figures to play a role in how the chips fall.
The 2014 class is inevitably deeper at some positions than others, which makes the process all the more challenging for a team that likes accruing picks to minimize risk. In light of that, here is one perspective on New England’s positions of need, and how the heart of each could affect priority.
1. Defensive Tackle
Coming off Achilles surgery, the 32-year-old Vince Wilfork is due a base salary of $7.5 million in the final year of his contract. Regardless of what transpires with the five-time Pro Bowler, regardless of whether or not veteran defensive tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Tommy Kelly return, and regardless of Sealver Siliga’s emergence, expect New England to bolster the run defense and interior pass rush via the draft.
The best time to do so is Round 1, where Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III and Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman figure to fit the Patriots front in different facets. The run-disrupting Nix and the pass-rushing Hageman have versatility all across the line with the size and athleticism to specialize at the one- and three-technique, respectively. Now the NFL Scouting Combine and pro days could deter the current state, but it would be a best-case scenario if both were still waiting to hear their names called at pick 29.
In the distinct possibility that neither is, a wait-and-see approach would make sense for New England. Belichick and the small Patriots war room may have to sit back until Day 2 for a player among the likes of – if remaining – Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald, Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, Penn State’s DaQuan Jones or Louisiana State’s Ego Ferguson. And Florida’s injured-but-unforgotten Dominique Easley could be a penetrator at the three-tech or five-tech, assuming his checks out medically.
After those names, waters grow murkier at a position of immediate importance. The need also may not meet the value for Belichick for any of the aforementioned; the Patriots haven’t drafted a defensive tackle since 2009, when Ron Brace, Myron Pryor and Darryl Richard were selected.
2. Tight End
With the start of Rob Gronkowski’s 2014 season on uncertain ground, the Patriots are expected to look at tight end early in this year’s draft. New England could very well retain Matthew Mulligan or Michael Hoomanawanui as utility blockers, but blocking would not be the reason Belichick and Co. would draft a tight end early in May.
At this point, North Carolina’s Eric Ebron can be unofficially crossed off the list. But next in line is Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, who, while also inconsistent as a blocker, can mismatch defensive personnel as a flex receiver in the slot or out wide. Amaro has played himself into first-round consideration. But if the Red Raider is off the board, or if Belichick and Co. decide the position can wait until Day 2, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas or Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz could be fits.
New England’s offense sorely missed the size and talent of Gronkowski late in the 2013-2014 campaign. And his ability to block and dictate coverage is unlikely to be answered by a rookie. However, if there was a time to take a proactive stance on the position, it would be now.
The Patriots could certainly double-dip at tight end – something that hasn’t been done since 2010. Yet at the very least, expect New England to draft a tight end for the first time since Lee Smith in 2011. Without a receiving threat boasting inline potential, the Patriots passing attack grew rather one-dimensional this year. The first, second or third round would be the ideal venue to change that.
3. Interior Offensive Line
Starting center Ryan Wendell is on the doorstep of free agency. Starting right guard Dan Connolly is due a base salary of $3 million in a contract year. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has retired after a total of 30 years in Foxborough.
All three will be factors in New England’s upcoming draft plans.
Now the Patriots are unlikely to move into 2014 with two new starters along the line due to continuity concerns, but little is guaranteed in regards to the interior pass protection surrounding quarterback Tom Brady. Depending on Belichick’s intentions for swing tackle and guard Marcus Cannon, the Patriots could assess the inside early in this year’s draft. Although, to put Scarnecchia’s coaching impact in perspective, the Patriots haven’t drafted a guard or center in the first three rounds since six-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur in 2005.
This leads us to the 2014 O-line class, which is a top-heavy one. If the Patriots neglect to select a converted-type in Notre Dame’s Zack Martin or UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo on Day 1, you’d be hard pressed to see them in Round 2. Colorado State center Weston Richburg is one to keep an eye on there in the second- and third-round scope, as is Arkansas center Travis Swanson and Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson.
Further along in the middle rounds, tackle-guard Joel Bitonio of Nevada deserves to be mentioned, as does center Marcus Martin of USC.
If defensive tackle and tight end value reign supreme, then quality along the offensive line would be the apparent sacrifice. However, focusing on one position is an omission to talent; it’s where some teams get stuck, taking need over player.
4. Defensive End
While the Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich combined for 170 tackles, 19.5 sacks and three forced fumbles this season, the two defensive ends also combined for 2,256 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Rookie seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan and the 34-year-old Andre Carter both served as pass-rush specialists. Further down the chart, though, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia didn’t receive what Jake Bequette was brought in to provide as a 2012 third-rounder.
In turn, New England carried only three or four defensive ends on the 46-man gameday roster. Expect the Patriots to add depth because of it. Now it would come as a slight surprise if the Patriots opted for an edge-rusher in Round 1, particularly if a worthy defensive tackle is waiting. Given the strengths of this draft class, it’d be more reasonable to anticipate a selection on Day 2 or Day 3.
With that being the ballpark, Notre Dame’s tackle-end Stephon Tuitt has the upside of a Richard Seymour-like purpose in a multiple defense if he fell out of Round 1. Other possibilities at different spots include Missouri’s Kony Ealy, South Florida’s Aaron Lynch and Auburn’s stand-up rusher Dee Ford, depending on what mold of player Belichick is searching for and when.
While Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington have all proven to be integral cogs at the position, New England’s cornerback interest could hinge on the fate of unrestricted free agent Aqib Talib.
Talib’s size and presence as a press-man corner on the outside dictated New England’s coverage assignments this season. Without him in the lineup, the imbalance was visible. And for that reason, Belichick could very well be in the market for a cornerback prospect with comparable size and range to No. 31.
If the Patriots decide to rejuvenate defensive line, tight end and offensive line in the early stages, the team could take interest in a long, physical corner late on Day 2 or early on Day 3 if the picks allot for it.
If available in that third- to fifth-round window, Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir, Nebraska’s 6’3”, 215-pound Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Utah’s 6’3”, 214-pound Keith McGill are all intriguing cornerbacks, not only for their size, but their physicality, fluidity and range on the outside. All three will be unfairly compared for their similar height and weight, but the truth is, each has a strong suit beyond their body type. They look like safeties; they play like corners, and they could prove good value for a department that is looking.
The Patriots have drafted a defensive back within the first three rounds 11 times in the Belichick era.
With the aforementioned five positions standing above the rest in draft ranking and depth, May 10 could be a time to fill alternative voids after the Patriots’ initial three picks are spent. Sometimes, those voids are also top-round talent, like Dennard in Round 7 of 2012.
One of those valuable voids may be at linebacker, where it appears Brandon Spikes’ fourth season as a Patriot will be his last. If special-teamer and rotational linebacker Dane Fletcher finds a starting opportunity elsewhere as well, the Patriots could be in the market for a fourth or fifth man who can cover the seam, defend the run or rush the passer.
Steve Beauharnais was taken in the seventh round last year, while the team also filled special-teams duties with Chris White and undrafted promotion Ja’Gared Davis. Yet with Belichick having drafted 15 linebackers since 2000, supplementing the collection cannot be ruled out.
Connecticut’s Yawin Smallwood, South Florida’s DeDe Lattimore, Iowa’s Christian Kirksey, Alabama’s Adrian Hubbard and Montana’s Jordan Tripp are five names that could coincide with what Belichick is looking for in a fourth linebacker. Nevertheless, the trio of Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower looks entrenched as starters for years to come.
Ryan Mallett was a cost-effective option over Brian Hoyer’s $1.9 million tender in August of 2012. But heading into 2014, the former third-round pick has one year left on his rookie deal and hasn’t handled a regular-season snap since 2012.
Much has been made of his trade value. But it’s hard to trade a third-round pick for a player who has less recent game tape than a third-round prospect. And the notion that the Patriots must flip Mallett after three years is also misleading, considering Mallett was New England’s No. 1 QB in the 2011 draft.
Whether the 25-year-old is on the roster next season or not, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots choose a developmental QB option later on in May’s draft. New England has drafted eight quarterbacks over Belichick’s tenure; six of them were chosen after the third round.
Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo has risen from the FCS level to possibly second-day level, which could be too high an asking price for Belichick. If that comes to fruition, Louisiana State’s Zach Mettenberger, San Jose State’s David Fales, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron are four others who may align with what the Patriots are looking for in the later rounds.
McCarron is the most polarizing prospect in this group – perhaps rightfully so, talent-wise – but Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban is someone Belichick has trusted since their days in Cleveland.
8. Wide Receiver
When you think about what Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and receivers coach Chad O’Shea asked of New England’s rookies in 2013, you think about how they responded. You think about their flashes, even when it was unreasonable to expect starts without mistakes.
The Patriots carried seven rookie wide receivers on the roster in some capacity this past season. Belichick invested second- and fourth-round picks in Marshall’s Aaron Dobson and Texas Christian’s Josh Boyce, while undrafted Cincinnati product Kenbrell Thompkins stepped in and had his moments as well.
Factoring in the likes of Rutgers’ Mark Harrison and Missouri’s T.J. Moe, the average age of the position is 25 years old. So while this young pass-catching corps revealed its growing pains in 2013, it is expected to develop further in 2014. Although the future of 100-catch, 1,000-yard slot target Julian Edelman is up in the air, need not forget about Danny Amendola, who also should improve with another year of familiarity.
Considering Belichick has drafted 11 wideouts since 2000 – and completed five draft classes without one – taking a receiver in 2014 should not be branded the be-all, end-all. Much could change after the peak of free agency hits, but signing a prized veteran free agent like the Denver Broncos’ Eric Decker or the San Francisco 49ers’ Anquan Boldin may not wise financially, either.
So if the Patriots do in fact stock up without stifling, a mid-level free agent or a third-day prospect would make sense. It’s early. We don’t know if second-day fringe targets could include Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt or Brandon Coleman out of Rutgers; both could be overlooked in a vast group of underclassmen. Others more likely to be waiting later on Day 3 include Oregon’s Josh Huff, Indiana’s Cody Latimer, Brigham Young’s Cody Hoffman and Notre Dame’s T.J. Jones.
Wake Forest slot receiver Michael Campanaro and Northwestern quarterback-turned-wideout Kain Colter could draw intrigue in compensatory territory. Yet as it stands now, the Patriots roster carries a bevy of potential at receiver.
Time, and value, will determine if Belichick agrees.