- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots' 2011 season came to a disappointing end in Super Bowl XLVI, where special teamer Tracy White was starting at linebacker and the defense couldn't get off the field in the fourth quarter, it became clear what was lacking.
This team needed more defensive difference-makers. If they came in the front seven, even better.
Bill Belichick, entering his fourth season running the defense and still searching for answers to decisively turn the unit around, delivered on Thursday night in what easily could be described as the team's most exciting first round in Belichick's tenure.
Two trades up the board? Unprecedented. There is something refreshing about seeing Belichick, whose reputation is more about trading back and acquiring value, instead falling in love with two players and making the aggressive move up. He had made just two trades up in the first round over the past 12 years (2002, 2003).
Quarterback Tom Brady isn't getting any younger, after all.
All that said, no one truly knows if rare physical specimen Chandler Jones -- the defensive end Belichick targeted in a trade by giving up a first-round pick (27) and third-rounder (93) -- will pan out.
Ditto for versatile, tough Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, the second target Belichick swapped a first-round pick (31) and fourth-rounder (126th overall) to grab at No. 25, possibly keeping him away from the AFC rival Ravens.
That's because no draft pick is a sure thing, but what Jones and Hightower bring with them to New England is hope. It's hope that maybe the Patriots can become more of an attacking defense like some of the others around the NFL who create havoc on a week-to-week basis, such as the team that beat them in the Super Bowl, the Giants.
This is the type of defensive investment, and with Jones (6-foot-5, 266 pounds, 35.5-inch arms) the type of intriguing pass-rush potential, that Patriots followers have been calling for annually. For that, Belichick's work figures to receive plaudits. As it should.
Belichick has done a terrific job over the years in keeping the Patriots competitive while also positioning the franchise for future success. His trade-back, look-to-the-future decisions aren't always popular, but who can argue with the results?
Seeing his plan come to fruition is unlike anything we've witnessed during his Patriots tenure. It started with signing more free agents than any team in the NFL, a strategy aimed at improving the middle class of the roster. The club had a whopping 74 players on its roster entering the draft.
Improving depth was a necessity, so that was nice, but Belichick knows the best place to find difference-makers at the most reasonable cost is the draft. So instead of quantity, which has been his modus operandi over the past three years when making 33 picks from 2009 to 2011, this turned out to be a quality-driven draft.
"I thought we had a good day," said Belichick, who scrapped his trademark hoodie in place of a suit and a tie Thursday night. "As usual, the draft always takes some interesting twists and turns. You just never know how it's going to go, but as the players came off the board, we were able to execute a couple trades there and still hang on to our two second-round picks. I wasn't sure that we would be able to do that."
Belichick credited Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio for swinging the deals, and said the Patriots could have picked Hightower first and Jones second because they liked them both the same. The only reason they went Jones first is because they felt there was a greater chance he might get picked before they could trade back up (Detroit at 23, perhaps).
"Chandler is a little younger and has a little less experience coming out early -- he missed part of the season last year -- but very talented player, smart guy, works hard and really did a good job against some good, quality players he faced in the last couple years at tackle in the Big East," Belichick said.
"Hightower has been in a great program for a great coach [Nick Saban], won a couple of national championships and has been the signal-caller, leader of that defense. I think both players have some versatility and have been good players in their systems. They're both smart. They're high-quality guys. Excited to work with them."
For those who follow the Patriots, excitement nicely captures Belichick's work on this night. If Jones and Hightower don't work out, hey, at least he took a shot at it. A team can't land difference-makers and a potential pass-rushing demon without throwing a few darts at the board early, and when it comes to the volatile position, Belichick hasn't made a move like this in his previous 12 drafts.
But all the factors fell into place Thursday -- teams were willing to deal, the right players were available and the compensation was agreed upon. Call it the perfect storm.
So now all Belichick has left is two second-round picks, setting him up for the leanest draft in his New England tenure. One has to go back to 2002, when the club made six selections, for such a light haul.
The trade-off is that two potential difference-makers are coming to town, which is just what the Patriots needed.
Belichick acts decisively in moving up for two potential difference-makers.