Bill Belichick was driving in his car this weekend, chatting on the telephone, and the conversation was about this year's NFL draft.
"I think each draft is unique," he said, when asked if 2011 compares favorably with past years.
Because of the uncertainty of the NFL's labor situation, this one is really unique. Teams might have followed through on the standard scouting process over the past year, but for some, how they ultimately execute their picks figures to be impacted by the labor situation -- whether it's reaching up for a quarterback, trading into future years, focusing more on needs or placing a higher priority on specific attributes of prospects (e.g. a quick learner) because of a shortened offseason.
This adds a new layer of strategy to the draft, especially for teams like the Patriots and executives such as Belichick, who annually embrace the 32-team chess match as a mental test that, if aced, can produce lucrative assets to sustain the long-term viability of the franchise.
When it comes to Belichick and strategy, well, one can just sense how much it gets his juices flowing.
We know how much Belichick thrives on the weekly competition of the NFL season, the idea of out-preparing an opponent when no one else is watching, and then having his team crisply bring it all to life once the football is kicked off on game day.
Then there is this part of the job, piecing an incredibly large and complex puzzle together by combining, among other things, personnel evaluation, economic value and deal-making skills. The lockout, which was ordered to end on Monday by federal judge Susan Richard Nelson (owners will appeal), and its trickle-down effect are now part of the strategic mix.
"Obviously it's different than it usually is, but we can't do anything about that," Belichick said. "Now the best thing to help build the team is make good decisions in the draft this weekend.
"I've never really gone into a draft saying we have to get a guy at this position, or that particular person. I don't think that's a very good way to go into a draft," he continued. "We'll approach this the way we have the others -- the best value for our team and all the factors that go into it."
Because of the lockout, there are a few more factors to consider than the norm.
This marks the first time since free agency was instituted in 1993 that there has not been free agency before the draft. This is significant as the Patriots and most other clubs traditionally utilize free agency to fill specific needs, which in turn gives them more flexibility in the draft.
Think 2009, when the Patriots signed cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs, running back Fred Taylor, tight end Chris Baker and receiver Joey Galloway the month before the draft. The moves didn't all work out, but the intent was what it's always been: Plug those holes as well as possible so you don't have to reach for a need in the draft.
There is no such luxury this year.
"It affects your strategy going into the draft," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said of missing free agency. "Normally by this time, you have hit some musts or some needs. Now it is kind of wide open."
Meanwhile, with the question of whether rookies will be able to join their new clubs unclear, there is the possibility that their rookie campaigns will be more like redshirt seasons than a Devin McCourty-type impact year. So drafting prospects at positions with a more manageable learning curve, or who show an aptitude to learn quickly, could take on greater importance.
Belichick annually makes the point that rookies are playing catch-up from their first day on the job. Now, taking away offseason camps and possibly part of training camp, it makes the climb that much tougher.
"Last year, we saw what happened when you take a guy and everybody else can come in, but because of the school calendar system, he can't. There is a little bit of that [this year]," Belichick said, referencing third-round draft choice Taylor Price, the promising wide receiver who missed most of spring camp because Ohio had yet to graduate, an initial obstacle that contributed to what amounted to a redshirt season for him.
With this in mind, it would hardly be surprising if Belichick decides to push a few of the team's top choices this year into 2012, or maybe even 2013, assuming the opportunity is there. The NFL has informed teams they can trade those '12 and '13 picks, giving clubs confidence that there will be future drafts despite the labor uncertainty.
On the flip side, consider you're a team thinking strongly about drafting a quarterback this year. Because first-round picks can sign deals for a maximum length of six years (picks 1 to 16) and five years (picks 17 to 32) -- and the rest of the draft is a maximum of four years -- teams may prefer to move back into the first round to select a quarterback of the future.
That additional contract year for the all-important quarterback, especially when factoring in that 2011 could be more of a redshirt year, might make the Patriots' No. 28 pick particularly valuable to a quarterback-needy team.
These are some of the strategy-based elements in play in the 2011 draft, and asked how he thinks it will unfold this year, Belichick's crystal ball was cloudy.
"It's never been this way, I can't answer that," he said. "There are 31 other teams and everyone has their own philosophy."
As for the Patriots' philosophy, how it will be affected by the labor situation bears watching.