Commentary

Wilson a reach? Not to Belichick

We were shaking our heads at the pick, but maybe that says more about process

Updated: April 28, 2012, 5:36 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The question defining the New England Patriots' activity on the second day of the NFL draft was this: Do you believe in Bill Belichick or the powerful draft analysts who annually shape public opinion?

[+] EnlargeTavon Wilson
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesPatriots second-round pick Tavon Wilson wasn't at the combine, but a number of teams hosted him as the draft neared.

Surprisingly, it's a battle Belichick seemed to be losing Friday night after he selected Illinois defensive back Tavon Wilson in the second round. It was a pick that had many asking "Who?" and created a firestorm on social media and blogs because Wilson seemingly came out of nowhere.

The 22-year-old Wilson was rated as the 24th safety by ESPN's Scouts Inc., considered more of a free agent than a draft pick. He wasn't mentioned in the 2012 Pro Football Weekly draft preview. USA Today's NFL draft preview overlooked him. So did Lindy's Pro Football Draft magazine.

Wilson didn't attend the NFL combine. He didn't play in any all-star games. Yes, he was invited to the new super regional combine in Detroit, but declined the invite because it came after his pro day and the feeling was that there was little else to gain.

So how can such a lower-profile prospect be deemed worthy of the 48th overall selection in the draft? For those into all things NFL draft, this is where things get fascinating.

Detractors might view it as Belichick "inventing" a player who doesn't exist. Those who adopt that line of thinking will note that Wilson has good size (6 feet, 203 pounds), runs well (high 4.4s in the 40), and is smart, durable and versatile, but it wasn't like he was a big-time producer at Illinois. Doubters would say a player like that fits closer to the middle or end of the draft, not the second round.

But others might look closer and learn that Wilson had seven teams that brought him in for visits (Buccaneers, Texans, Cardinals, Falcons, Colts, Ravens, Chargers), while Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Jon Robinson -- along with another club -- worked him out privately.

So while draft analysts might have missed the mark on Wilson, it's not like other teams in the league were sleeping on him and the positive traits that made him a desirable prospect. In recent weeks Wilson was a "travel guy" in scouting circles, the player who has a high volume of visits as clubs attempt to gather more information on him before setting their draft board.

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From this view, that's what makes the pick -- and how it reflects on Belichick, the NFL scouting process and the power of the media in forming opinions in the pre-draft process -- the most captivating story when it comes to the Patriots' moves on the second day of the draft.

In part because Wilson wasn't at the combine or all-star games, it helped shape the perception that he isn't an elite prospect. It also explained how Wilson could slip under the radar of prominent draft analysts in the media such as Mike Mayock, Todd McShay and Mel Kiper. On Friday, the pick had some of those analysts scrambling for more information on live television.

All of this registered as news Friday night to the laser-focused Belichick, who looks at the draft through a different prism than most. He doesn't make picks based on perception. Instead, he relies on a thorough scouting process over 365 days a year rather than what feeds the majority of the knee-jerk reaction crowd -- a 365-page scouting book that details each prospect.

While Wilson might have been under the public radar in the pre-draft process, the Patriots saw plenty of him over his 50-game college career, so they didn't need the combine or all-star games to confirm their thinking he was one of the top defensive backs in the draft.

"He played plenty. You can see him plenty at Illinois," Belichick said. "You can see him against whoever you want to see him against: all the Big Ten schools, Arizona State, teams that throw the ball. He's playing corner, he's playing safety, he's playing the inside positions, the nickel position, the dime position -- Michigan State, they're a good passing team; Michigan, they're a spread-out offense team. There's a lot of passing in that conference, Northwestern, all those teams."

Belichick, who like others has made his share of draft mistakes, compared the situation to offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer coming out of the 2009 draft. Vollmer wasn't invited to the combine and thus was considered a reach among analysts (two seasons later, he was named second-team All-Pro).

A selection like Vollmer, and Wilson this year, highlights the differences between the scouting process of an NFL team versus media analysts who might rely on the combine and all-star games to narrow down a large pool of prospects for them. Some will slip through the cracks, and because they do, they enter the NFL with the label of being a "reach." It's not always fair.

"Some guys play in all-star games, some guys don't. I don't know who picks all those all-star teams. In all honesty, I don't know who picks the combine, for that matter," Belichick said. "How does (Miami-Ohio offensive lineman Brandon) Brooks not get invited to the combine? How did Vollmer not get invited to the combine? I don't know. We can't really worry about that. We just have to try to evaluate them the best we can."

Which is why it comes to the following question: Belichick and his scouting staff or the draft analysts?

With all due respect to the hard-working analysts, the coach with the five Super Bowl rings gets the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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