While I was not present at Gillette Stadium with the rest of the ESPNBoston.com team during the three days of the 2013 NFL draft, I kept a close eye on the Patriots' maneuvers and selections from my spot inside of Radio City Music Hall, the site of the event.
Here's a round-by-round "play-by-play" of the Patriots' draft selections and strategy from this vantage point.
Throughout our predraft coverage, we echoed the sentiment that pick 29 seemed likely to end up in the hands of another team besides the Patriots, as there didn't appear to be a player at a primary area of need (wide receiver especially) that would align with how the team valued that pick. Beyond that, the Patriots entered the draft with just five total selections, two of which were seventh-rounders. The swap that sent the pick to Minnesota landed the Patriots four picks in total and afforded Bill Belichick the flexibility throughout the draft that he covets. The Patriots wound up with five of the top 102 selections, a range where an abundance of starting level talent is available.
For those who might wonder why the Patriots passed on wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson at pick 29, it appears that he wasn't a fit within the team's offense. While he has impressive natural skills, he could be a player who needs time to develop into a polished NFL target. Given the Patriots' current depth chart at the position, they need players who are closer to being able contribute.
The Patriots made their first selection in Southern Mississippi linebacker Jamie Collins, a player that Belichick personally worked out in the process leading up to the draft. While Collins wasn't a headline name in this draft, he offers unique versatility and explosiveness that the Patriots' front seven -- which continues its makeover that began last draft -- needs. It's too soon to know for sure what role Collins will play, as he -- much like Dont'a Hightower at Alabama -- wore several hats in college. We highlighted the need for speed at the linebacker position before the draft, and Collins was regarded by some experts as one of the top coverage linebackers in the draft. While he may not start in the Patriots' base defense in 2013, Collins looks like a player who will see the field both on defense and in special teams as a rookie, and offers the team depth if either Brandon Spikes or Rob Ninkovich (both in the final year of their contract) leaves next offseason.
Aaron Dobson is more than just an alum of SportsCenter's "Top Play", he's also a big-bodied, polished receiver who can run. The Patriots needed a target who could not only play on the perimeter of the field but also be a key target for Tom Brady in the red zone. That was something they sorely lacked from the receiver position in 2012 but that Dobson projects to bring as a rookie. He has an impressive frame and catch radius, and as we've seen in recent seasons, Patriots receivers face man-to-man coverage in the red zone while defenses steer attention toward Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Dobson could be a new red-zone favorite.
The "Rutgers round" landed the Patriots a pair of defensive backs, kicked off by Logan Ryan. While the Patriots were able to retain Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole this offseason, cornerback is an area that they needed to keep an eye on for depth and development purposes beyond 2013. There isn't pressure on Ryan to come in and be a starter or even a nickelback as a rookie, but he'll have a chance to come in and compete. The Patriots likely saw a physical presence in Ryan who is more quick than fast and has a high-character level. Limitations are the lack of top-end speed and explosiveness, which played a part in his being drafted in the third round.
Duron Harmon seems to be the pick that many are talking about, particularly because many draft experts felt he was a better option later in the draft or perhaps as a priority undrafted free agent. Without having seen much of Harmon play, it's hard to offer a scouting report on his abilities, but the theme that should be reinforced here is that every team approaches the draft with their own board, not a board constructed off what others believe. The Patriots believe that Harmon, who is another player with extremely high character, was a worthy selection in the third round, and while others may have felt differently, it would have taken only one team to like him and foil the Patriots' plans. Rather than putting something to chance, the Patriots added a player who won't necessarily have to play a ton in 2013, but can be a depth addition for future seasons.
The feeling here is that the Patriots found a really good football player in Josh Boyce, as he has many of the requisite physical traits to succeed in the NFL. He's a physical, fast, strong wideout who projects to play on the perimeter. Both he and Dobson add a combination of size and toughness. The Patriots didn't have that type of receiver in 2012, and those types of players are needed when facing physical teams such as Baltimore and Cincinnati, who both look strong entering 2013. Boyce's foot injury will be one to monitor going forward.
The picks of Michael Buchanan and Steve Beauharnais can be lumped into a similar category, as both are players that many projected wouldn't last nearly as long on the draft board as they did. So while Harmon is publicly perceived to have been overdrafted, the opposite is true for the Patriots' seventh-rounders.
The feeling here is that the seventh round has always been an area for a team to think outside the box a bit and focus less on top needs and more on players with a dynamic element to them. For Buchanan, it's his pass rush, as he recorded 12 sacks during his final two college seasons. Meanwhile, Beauharnais can play on special teams right away and could develop into a two-down linebacker.
Jeff Demps trade
One of the interesting third-day developments was the decision to trade speedy running back Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay for LeGarrette Blount. We'll start with the Demps angle. This strikes us as a move that was motivated, at least in part, by Demps' wavering commitment to football. He has made it clear he intends to continue to pursue his track career, and that would prevent him from committing full-time to football. Demps was a raw prospect who the Patriots took a chance on last season, and the team may be sending a message to the newest rookies in sending Demps to Tampa Bay: It's all about football, and you're here to work. There was a stretch when Patriots rookies used to not speak to the media at all, due in large part to the fact that they had more than enough on their hands in learning the playbook and settling into the NFL. To hang on to Jeff Demps -- who already has had his shot with the Patriots and made his intentions clear -- while trying to instill that "all-business" attitude in the rookies could be difficult.
As for Blount, his own frills are well-documented, and some are drawing comparisons to his standing in Tampa Bay with Demps' in New England. And while there's little denying that Blount has something to prove in New England, he, like every other player acquired by the team, shows up with a clean slate as it relates to football. Blount is a low-risk investment from a financial standpoint, and shouldn't be perceived as a lock to make the roster. He's not an every-down back and he's not an elusive player, but he has power and can be used near the goal line. Time will tell what he becomes.
The sentiment here is that evaluating drafts is an entirely fluid process. It's easy to say a team "won" or "lost" the draft in the hours and days after it, but rarely do those assessments hold true. Perhaps a better approach is to dig deep into why each team made the picks that they did and try to tap inside of their thinking: Does this player fill a position need? Is he a great value? Does he make our locker room better? Tougher? Smarter?
Countless hours of research and preparation goes into the draft process, and while the Patriots haven't been perfect, the organization has an extensive list of quality picks. A year (or couple of years) from now we'll have a better feel for what type of players they have found and will be able to "grade" the class with more conviction. For now, it appears that the Patriots were able to add a blend of players who filled needs and add competition to other areas of the roster.
Looking forward to watching them on the field.