<
>

Of Patriots picks, DT Vincent Valentine draws widest range of opinion among insiders

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots:

1. In reaching out to a handful of front-office executives and scouts Saturday about the Patriots' nine-member draft class, the player who produced the most varied responses was Nebraska defensive tackle Vincent Valentine (third round, No. 96). One club had him closer to the seventh round to free-agent range, while another was also cool on him because of questions about his conditioning and work ethic, and lack of statistical production last season (10 tackles in 10 games). But others liked the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Valentine, saying his strength and inside pass rush are two things going for him and selecting a big, physical player at No. 96 isn't as much of a reach as it is a risk because there is some unknown as to what type of professional he will be. So in a draft where the Patriots played it mostly conservative, Valentine could be called the one wild-card type pick who was a bit of an outlier for them compared to the others.

1b. When I hear that about Valentine, and then pair it up with how the first round of the draft unfolded, I pinpoint defensive tackle as the area where Deflategate penalties could hurt the Patriots most. My sense is that the team would have strongly considered picking Louisiana Tech's Vernon Butler at No. 29, but instead, the 6-foot-3 5/8, 323-pound Butler went 30th to the hog-mollie-loving Carolina Panthers one pick later. Pairing Butler and impressive 2015 first-round draft choice Malcom Brown would have been a promising 1-2 punch for the Patriots for the next 3-4 years.

2. A few leftover comments from those interviews: One team viewed second-round cornerback Cyrus Jones as the "best dual returner in the draft." … On third-round offensive lineman Joe Thuney: "Love the kid. I think he is going to be really good for them for a long time. … Typical Dante Scarnecchia pick. ... Tough kid, better athlete than he looks." … Multiple clubs noted that durability was a concern with fourth-round receiver Malcolm Mitchell (knee), but that is the point of the draft where teams gain comfort in making that pick. … Sixth-rounder Kamu Grugier-Hill: "We were targeting him right there. He's tough and fast. Would have moved him to safety." … Sixth-round guard Ted Karras of Illinois: "Tough, competitive, overachiever." … Seventh-round receiver Devin Lucien was taken off one team's board.

3. Some teams around the NFL view the best fit for Thuney, the Patriots' initial third-round pick (78th overall), at center. They love his toughness and intelligence but are skeptical he's a fit at tackle -- where he played his final season in college -- because of his arm length (32 1/4). Late Saturday, I asked Bill Belichick about Thuney being a better fit on the inside, and he left himself some wiggle room by relaying a story about Matt Light and how the team was concerned about his arm length (33 1/4) in 2001, considered him on the interior, but he ultimately had a fine career at left tackle. Thuney's position fit in New England will be interesting to watch unfold because of the trickle-down effect it could have on others, such as centers Bryan Stork and David Andrews.

4. Belichick's post-draft news conference Saturday night lasted 34 minutes, and while swatting away some questions he didn't like early on, it was almost as if he had been missing his time with the media, cracking a few of his trademark jokes about social media, flashing a few smiles, and getting into some deep philosophical football talk about things such as the growing trend of hybrid linebacker/safety types across the NFL (e.g. Patriots sixth-round draft pick of Kamu Grugier-Hill of Eastern Illinois). Every time it seemed like it was going to end, a clearly tired Belichick hung around at the podium, opening the door for more questions. It was different, entertaining and at times enlightening.

5. Random question: When commissioners from other sports are front and center at events like the draft, do they get booed as ferociously as Roger Goodell does and then say "bring it on"?

6. It is rare to see division rivals like the Patriots and Dolphins make a draft-day trade like they did Saturday, with New England acquiring a fifth-round pick (147) from Miami for two sixth-rounders (196, 204) and one seventh-rounder (225). The Patriots made the initial call, and it had some similarities to a deal they made April 25, 2003. That '03 deal was one of the better ones for the Patriots, coming one day before the start of the draft when they shipped a 2003 third-round pick to Miami (OT Wade Smith) in exchange for a 2004 second-round pick (traded to Cincinnati the next year for RB Corey Dillon). We'll have to wait a year to see how this one unfolds for the Patriots, as they later traded the fifth-rounder to Seattle for a 2017 fourth-round pick, with Belichick saying that call from Seattle came while the Patriots were prepared to select a player. Another Patriots-Dolphins trade of note: The '07 swap in which New England stole receiver Wes Welker for second- and seventh-round picks.

7. One of my first phone calls Saturday morning was to running back Kevin Faulk, who stole the show among Patriots fans on Day 2 of the NFL draft by wearing a Tom Brady jersey under his sport coat as he announced the team's third-round pick in Chicago by saying, "The New England Patriots AND Tom Brady select …" Faulk was at the Atlanta airport when we touched base, awaiting a connecting flight to return home, and here are some highlights from our discussion:

  • He first got the idea from someone on Twitter while in his hotel room that day. He had also heard the possibility of him doing something first mentioned on sports radio (credit to Dale Arnold of WEEI).

  • About a half-hour later, Faulk said he received a phone call from a friend who had a connection in Chicago, offering up a Brady jersey. The jersey was delivered to him soon after.

  • Faulk then relayed to team officials that he planned to do it as long as he wasn't stopped before he arrived on stage. He kept the jersey in a bag, quickly slipped it on, and then waited in the "green room" where Goodell wasn't far away.

  • Faulk slipped on the jersey moments before he was supposed to go on stage. The woman escorting him looked at him and Faulk asked her if she thought it was OK. Her response: "Do it." Turns out she was a Patriots fan.

  • Faulk said he wasn't nervous about announcing the pick, with NFL executive Troy Vincent standing nearby, as much as making sure he made it on stage with the jersey.

  • His cell phone blew up after, which included a message of thanks from Brady himself.

7b. Belichick's reaction to Faulk wearing the Brady jersey at the draft: "Love Kevin. He always makes good decisions. Looked sharp out there."

8. Toward the end of his news conference Saturday night, Belichick was asked his thoughts about this year's Patriots Hall of Fame finalists, Raymond Clayborn, Faulk and Mike Vrabel. He was diplomatic in his answer, saying they're all good choices, before adding that there are another 10-plus candidates that would be worthy. One name he mentioned: Bill Parcells. I've filed that away for next year because Parcells' candidacy is always a hot-button topic.

9. Did You Know: NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who was drafted by the Patriots in the third round (No. 91), credits Parcells as a mentor in his life. Parcells has a residence nearby Brissett's high school in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and they connected because Parcells is friendly with the high school football coach. "He's been so helpful to me throughout this process," Brissett told Patriots reporters late Friday night.

10. Patriots assistant coaches will be available for interviews with reporters on Monday, and two storylines seem like they'll trump the others: Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's return from a two-year "retirement" -- his impact is already being felt with two draft picks on the offensive line -- and Steve Belichick's promotion to safeties coach after four years as a coaching assistant. Meanwhile, the team has scheduled the traditional photo shoot with the top pick, cornerback Cyrus Jones (60th overall), for Friday.