Based on emails to this week's Patriots mailbag, the most polarizing aspect of the team's 2012 draft was the selection of Illinois defensive back Tavon Wilson in the second round. I wrote about the topic Saturday night and why it fascinated me.
Is Wilson one of the rare players who slipped through the cracks? Or is this a case of the Patriots outsmarting themselves and inventing a player who doesn't truly exist?
The answer varies depending on who you talk to, but more than anything what stands out to me is how the expectations set by draft analysts in the media play such a large role in how selections are analyzed.
Wilson wasn't invited to the combine and didn't play in any all-star games. I think that is a big part of the reason draft analysts had little information on him, because they are relying on that narrowing-down process in their work. Some NFL teams rely on that same narrowing-down process.
One thing I appreciate about the Patriots is that they aren't afraid to be original thinkers. It would be easy to shy away from a player because he isn't part of the mainstream discussion. I like that courage to stand on their own.
Whether it's the right decision, we'll find out soon enough. It's quite possible the Patriots slipped up with Wilson, and based on the recent up-and-down track record of drafting defensive backs, it's understandable why consumer confidence might not be high.
Are you ready for some hard-core Tavon Wilson talk?
Here we go ...
Q. Hi Mike, I loved the two picks in round one and then had my euphoria bombed on when they picked Tavon Wilson from the Witness Protection Program at 48. This was a value pick? He seems like a character kid and should contribute on special teams, but at pick 48 he should start at DB. Do you really think he would have been off the board at pick 64, or 90 for that matter? There were some very good players on the board when they picked this kid. I know the Sebastian Vollmer analogy will be used, but this looks like an epic reach. -- John F. (Walpole, Mass.)
A. John, this thought is consistent with others who saw the Wilson pick as a head-scratcher. My theory is that Bill Belichick enters the draft with a "short stack" of players he wants to come away with at certain positions, and he tries to work the board to pick them at the right value spots. In the case of Wilson, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he got stuck when he couldn't find a deal. So what's the alternative? You pick the player higher than you'd like and concede on the value. One could argue on the approach, which is tied to need, and I think it is a fair debate. Maybe the better value in this case is taking a defensive lineman there. As for Wilson, I wouldn't be surprised if he does start, or at least settles in as the No. 3 safety initially. Why wouldn't he? He started 39 of 50 games at Illinois and was a big contributor in sub packages.
Q. Mike, does the Patriots draft make it seem more likely that it is full steam ahead with Devin McCourty at safety? I know they took Wilson early but it wouldn't seem like he projects as a starter right away. Can you project the DB depth chart at this point? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I think they have flexibility with this situation, but I view the early pick of Wilson as a sign that McCourty will be staying at cornerback. As I understand it, McCourty has not been told which way the team is leaning, so he's preparing for both positions. As for the depth chart at defensive back, this is what I would project:
Q. I want to start by saying I loved the draft moves by the Patriots. I never would have guessed that we would trade up twice in the first round. However, do you feel Tavon Wilson addresses our safety need? Is he capable of being a starter, because if not I think it would be wise to target Yeremiah Bell. -- Doug (Los Angeles)
A. Doug, I haven't seen Wilson play much, so I don't feel decisive in answering this question. I think once Mark Barron and Harrison Smith were off the board at safety, the idea of drafting a "plug in and play" safety took a bit of a hit, but it's easy for me to see what the Patriots liked about Wilson. He has played a lot of roles, has solid football intelligence, has good size and is a physical, sound tackler. I think he's a better fit on the overall roster than Bell -- he runs better, for one -- and it ties in to something highlighted by director of pro personnel Jason Licht in a feature piece in the Omaha World-Herald: "It's not always about finding the best talent, it's about finding the right pieces." Clearly, the Patriots were drafting this year with their sub defense in mind -- as Belichick noted, the game is being played more in space these days -- and that's why someone such as Wilson, playing all those different roles, maybe had more value to the Patriots than others.
Q. Hi Mike, could you ask Bill Belichick sometime about the Tavon Wilson pick? I don't have a problem with him valuing Wilson highly, but did he have some information or something that caused him to think that if he didn't draft him there that someone else was going to take him? Otherwise, it would have made more sense to have traded down and picked him up later. -- Jack (Denton, Texas)
A. Jack, my belief is that Belichick wanted to trade down and just didn't have any worthy offers. That's one of the toughest parts about the draft; you can't manufacture a trade if no team steps forward to deal. I think that's what happened with the 48th overall pick, just like it happened with the 53rd pick in 2010, when the Patriots selected Jermaine Cunningham.
Q. Mike, I disagree on Tavon Wilson pick. While it ultimately helps if he is a good player (and I hope he is great), it still doesn't change the fact he was over-drafted. BB is the best, but he wasted that pick. We could have picked someone else, or traded down, and still got Wilson at least two rounds later. A challenge for you: I bet if we looked back through the time the fans/media liked picks best, it probably turned out to be the best picks. The picks we questioned the most, in general turned out to be the worst. He has had some reaches before that worked (Deion Branch), but many more that didn't (Terrence Wheatley, Guss Scott, Dexter Reid -- all DBs). This is his biggest reach yet. -- Bob (Houston)
A. Bob, I understand the point, but I'll nitpick on a few things here. I don't think we can assume that Belichick could have just traded down. Sometimes there simply isn't a dance partner with whom to trade. As for the connection between fans/media liking picks and those picks turning out to be the best, I present Laurence Maroney, Chad Jackson and David Thomas as my strongest evidence against that line of thinking. We loved that 2006 draft. At least I did. It turned out to be arguably Belichick's worst with the Patriots.
Q. Hey Mike, I have to say I loved the Pats style in this draft, landing two studs in the first. As for the two second-rounders -- the Tavon Wilson pick I can get behind. Bill Belichick is the master of draft value, and I have to believe he took him early with the thought that there was other interest. The trade back (the other second-rounder) makes no sense on the surface, but my feeling is he got squeezed a bit without other picks. Still, the rest went perfectly with a prospect DE, depth at corner, special-teams help, and a lightning-fast under-the-radar WR with good hands. How would you rank this year compared with post-draft feelings from other years? -- Sean (Portland, Maine)
A. Sean, this year is completely different because of the trades up in the first round. There is a level of excitement that naturally comes with that -- the idea of the Patriots liking these players so much that they made the aggressive move to go get them. The one question I'd ask is this: "If the Patriots had traded down to get both players, would there still be the same level of excitement?" I think that's an important question to consider, because it is easy to be swayed by the aggressive move up the board. As for Wilson in the second round, it is significant that he took seven pre-draft visits to teams. Some have created the perception that Wilson came out of nowhere and that teams weren't talking about him as a draftable prospect. That is just not true, as the seven visits attest. If we want to debate the value of where he was selected, that is one thing, but Wilson was clearly on the radar of NFL teams, and to suggest otherwise is misleading and incomplete in my opinion. Just ask Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith, who took the time out of their schedules to work out Wilson leading into the draft.
Q. Mike, I guess I am in the minority but I have no problem with two trades with the Packers. These are apparently bad trades if we judge them based on value chart, but actual value of any pick depends on what the draft board looks like. I am not repeating the mantra "In BB we trust," but I still believe they did their best to benefit the team. Your thoughts? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. Mark, if we pair the trades with the Packers together, this is what it looked like:
Patriots trade: Second-round pick (62nd overall).
Patriots receive: Third-rounder (90), sixth-rounder (197), seventh-rounder (224) and seventh-rounder (235).
So it was a four-for-one deal, and considering one of those selections (seventh-round cornerback Alfonzo Dennard) has been lauded by many, the trade could turn out to be a good one for the Patriots. I didn't think they received the best value for the picks, but if I'm wrong I'll circle back and hold myself accountable.
Q. My guess on why the Patriots got such poor value in the trade of pick 62 is that the pool of players they expected to choose from suddenly dried up right before the pick, which forced them to scramble. I think one of picks 58-60 was probably the last they were willing to take that high. Looking at the picks between 48 and 62, who would you surmise were the Patriots "ones that got away"? -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)
A. Joe, I'm going to stick with my theory that Belichick simply was having trouble finding trade partners, and that drove down the value he would have been hoping for in the trade. Perhaps part of it is tied to his past success in trades and some shying away from dealing with him. I say that while recalling Bill Belichick's pre-draft comments that there was good depth through the third round of this draft, which makes me think it wasn't a case of the talent drying up at that point.
Q. Hi Mike, like most fans, I was pretty excited by the draft (especially the first round). But I also am trying to figure out what it means long term. It seems like Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes bring a lot of the same things, but it doesn't seem either is fit for playing outside. Do you view the team going back to the 3-4 for the base defense, with the idea (long term) of a Jones-Hightower-Spikes-Mayo lineup? Is Jerod Mayo a good fit for the outside in a 3-4, or do you expect a Hightower-Spikes-Mayo rotation for the two inside spots? -- Gus (Los Angeles)
A. Gus, I had previously pigeon-holed Hightower as a thumping inside linebacker, but that shortchanges him. He can play on the edge as well. So it was an incomplete analysis on my part and that led to me not considering Hightower as a viable option for the club. I was wrong. As for looking at things specifically in the 3-4, I'd think Hightower and Spikes will compete for time inside, while Mayo stays on the inside. Mayo is an off-the-line player, and thus doesn't fit on the outside in the 3-4 (which is an on-the-line position). I also wouldn't count outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich out of any projection; after playing 82 percent of the defensive snaps in 2011, the Patriots are not just going to toss him to the side. They might reduce his snaps a bit, but they like him, too.
Q. Hi Mike, Hightower seems like kind of an Adalius Thomas-type player (before it all went wrong, I hope). Is that an accurate comparison? Do you think the Pats see him in that role? -- Jim (Maine)
A. Jim, in speaking with Sirius XM NFL Radio on Monday, Belichick made the comparison to Mike Vrabel from a versatility standpoint -- he could be inside, he could be outside, he could be in a two-point stance or a three-point stance. Belichick also compared Hightower's smarts and leadership to Mayo. Those are two pretty flattering comparisons.
Q. Mike, am I dreaming? Did the Patriots really use both first-round picks in the draft this year? If it is a dream, PLEASE don't wake me up. From what I understand Chandler Jones would have been picked in the top 10 if not for injury his junior season. That's a steal if that proves to be true. Thoughts? -- Benjamin W. (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
A. Benjamin, one scout I spoke with who worked on Jones cautioned that he's still an unfinished product. So in making the pick, you're banking a bit on potential and the projection that he'll continue to grow. Two years ago, the Giants had to make a similar projection with Jason Pierre-Paul, so these are some of the risks that come with the draft, especially when scouting some of the athletes in the front seven. From the people around the league I've spoken with, I like the pick. Jones also seems like a genuine kid, the type of player you like representing your overall draft class.
Q. Mike, now that every mock draft for the Patriots has been proven wrong, is there any way we could get back the energy used to create them all and use it to power a small city? -- Gick (Bangkok)
A. Gick, I'll instead take the time to credit Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay for being the first analyst I saw to make the connection between Jones and the Patriots, and it was early in the process. That's what I like the mocks for -- getting to know the prospects and how they might fit each team.
Q. Hi Mike. Was there ever any trade chatter for QB Ryan Mallett before or during the draft? I don't understand how a team like Cleveland can spend the 22nd pick on Brandon Weeden, who will be 29 during the next football season, and not at least explore a trade with the Pats for much younger and NFL-experienced QB. The Pats probably would have taken future high picks and Cleveland could then build around a much younger QB. Your thoughts? -- KO S. (Boston)
A. KO, I don't think the market is there for Mallett right now, as I didn't hear of any trade discussions involving him. My belief is that a little more time is needed for Mallett to build up that type of market for himself, and having a big 2012 preseason is the next step. At that point, he would be a year and a half removed from the draft, which starts to create some distance from the questions/concerns that ultimately had him slipping to the third round. I don't think teams just forget those questions/concerns, but the longer Mallett shows he has answered those questions, the more likely someone might step up to deal for him.
Q. Mike, most important question I had after the draft was which jersey do I buy -- Chandler Jones or Dont'a Hightower? Aside from that, I'm curious. Belichick speaks often on the three phases of team building -- free agency, the draft, and trades. Obviously, the Patriots haven't participated in any trades yet this offseason. Do you see them either trading any of their players away, or trading for a player before the season begins? Thanks. -- Eric (Boston)
A. Eric, I don't think you can go wrong with either jersey, so you might wait until we know for sure their official jersey numbers. Jones wore No. 99 at Syracuse and that is available in New England with Mike Wright no longer with the club, and if it unfolds that way, I'd go with the double 9s (thinking old-school Wayne Gretzky). Hightower wore No. 30 at Alabama but won't be allowed to don that jersey in the pros. As for trades, I'm not aware of anything imminent or in the works at this point.
Q. Hey Mike, just wondering where the Patriots are with Andre Carter. The man was a force coming off the edge as an end in the 4-3 last season before he got hurt. It seems like he would be perfect to have back, as he could play opposite Chandler Jones while Jake Bequette and Markell Carter learn the ropes while also providing a leadership presence to the younger pass-rushers and the team as a whole. And it also doesn't seem like he'd be that expensive. What am I missing here? -- John (Knoxville, Tenn.)
A. John, I think it starts with health. Until Carter is fully healthy as he returns from quad surgery, I wouldn't expect any movement. My sense is that we are not there yet, but I see no reason he wouldn't be back with the club when healthy.
Q. Mike, a lot of commentators are trying to map our two new DE into newer versions of Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest, but do we still have enough DL to survive in the 3-4? I count Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork, Jonathan Fanene and maybe Brandon Deaderick. And it seems to me you really need at least six "fatties" to play 3-4 or else injuries will destroy you. I'm not really sure how all these new pieces fit in. -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)
A. Earl, we should be seeing veteran Gerard Warren returning to the team, as first reported by Mary Paoletti of Comcast SportsNet, so that should help when looking at the defense through the lens of the 3-4. He did some nice things for the D in a sub role in 2011, playing 27 percent of snaps. And let's not forget 2009 second-round pick Ron Brace, who is still with the club but is closer to the roster bubble. If I had to line them up today, I think it's Love at nose, Wilfork at RDE and Deaderick at LDE. Fanene's ability to play a two-gapping role is a bit of a projection right now, so I held him out of the 3-4 projection. As for how all the new pieces fit, I don't think Belichick knows at this point. He might have some idea, but there figures to be some experimenting going on in offseason camps, etc.
Q. Hi Mike: It is possible that after the second Super Bowl loss to the Giants, finally Bill Belichick questions his defensive schemes and takes a page from Tom Coughlin's coaching concepts on defense with all those ends/outside linebacker types? -- Memo (Mexico)
A. Memo, I think what we're seeing is Belichick valuing the sub defense more than he has in the past. In 2010, the Patriots were in sub about 57 percent of snaps. Last year, the number spiked to the 65 percent range. So while Belichick looks for the same type of defender as he always has -- big, tough, physical and smart -- there is now more weight placed on how they will fit in sub packages when coming up with a final value on the player. In the past, it might have been viewed more through the prism of the 3-4 base defense. I think this shift could have been made in 2011 as well.
Q. Mike, was this the first year in how many that the Pats didn't execute a draft-day trade with the Eagles? -- Greg (Adirondacks, N.Y.)
A. Greg, I think there was some confusion with this one, and some misinformation passed along. The Patriots and Eagles are frequent trade partners, but there have been recent years in which they haven't made a draft-day deal. For example, they didn't have a draft-day deal in 2008.
Q. Thoughts on the Patriots not (yet) acquiring an above-average kick returner? I know you felt they would address it in the draft, but it appears as though they haven't. Does this tell us BB believes the new kickoff rules have simply invalidated the importance of the position and he's essentially "punting" on kick-returns? -- DeansDesk (East Providence, R.I.)
A. Dean, it could be a few things, including the theory you mention that Belichick doesn't see the value in the kickoff return based on the new rules. He previously opined that it seemed like the league was attempting to eliminate the play with its rule changes. At the same time, it might have just been a case of opportunity and not being in position to draft a player with that expertise. Or perhaps he envisions a solution already on the roster (e.g., Stevan Ridley?), one who could succeed with some alterations with the other players on the unit.
Q. Hi Mike, now that the draft is complete, can you explain what the rookie pay scale is now vs. what it would have been two years ago? What will the Pats pay for a No. 21 and No. 25 now compared with the cost two years ago? Is it significantly lower? -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)
Jim, the rookie wage scale is more of a factor at the top of the first round than in the 21 and 25 range. But to your point, last year's No. 21 pick, Browns defensive lineman Phil Taylor, signed a four-year, $8.1 million deal. Last year's No. 25 pick, Seahawks offensive tackle James Carpenter, signed a four-year, $7.6 million deal. Compare those deals with what the same players in those slots received in 2010 -- Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham (21) received five years, $15.85 million and Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (25) received five years, $11.25 million -- and one starts to see the effect of the wage scale.
Q. What was the story with the Willie McGinest rant? Do the ex-players in the sports media have no investigatory skills so they must resort to hatchet jobs to get some print? -- Pete (Hampshire, Old England)
A. Pete, I thought McGinest was off the mark calling Wes Welker a diva. This is a player who risked his career to come back from an ACL injury sooner than anyone anticipated. As for Welker, he might benefit from adopting a bit of a lower profile when it comes to the contract.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.