Belichick's draft blueprint unfolds
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One big trade down, one athletic Swiss army knife for the front seven on defense, one much-needed, big outside receiver, one solid cornerback/special-teamer and, true to Bill Belichick form, one annual head-scratcher.
Yup, sounds like one straightforward summary of the first three rounds of the New England Patriots' 2013 draft.
"We're pretty much halfway through the drafting process here and I think we were able to improve our team," Belichick declared late Friday night. "We're pleased about that."
The halfway mark serves as a checkpoint to review the Patriots' draft strategy and picks. As it turns out, they had the "For Sale" sign out for the 29th pick well in advance of the draft. They wanted to move down, and there was apparently no scenario, no player sliding down the board, that was going to alter the thinking.
"If we could have made the trade before the draft started, we probably would have made it on Wednesday," Belichick revealed late Friday night of a swap that shipped No. 29 to Minnesota for picks in the second, third, fourth and seventh rounds.
Those remarks were telling from Belichick, because teams often prefer to wait until they are on the clock to execute a deal in the event an unexpected opportunity presents itself, such as defensive lineman Vince Wilfork sliding down the board to the Patriots in 2004.
Not this year. The Patriots apparently couldn't even be enticed with any hypothetical, the plan all along to target Rounds 2 through 4 to add quality and depth to the roster. So they swung the deal with the Vikings while on the clock Thursday (the key for Minnesota was that Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was available), setting the stage for Friday (Rounds 2 and 3) to be their big day.
Coupled with their original second- and third-rounders, that gave the Patriots five picks in the sweet spot of the draft.
"I think there was a lot of depth in the third round [and] I think there are a lot of interesting prospects that are still on the board," Belichick said after picking four of them -- Southern Mississippi defensive end/outside linebacker Jamie Collins (52nd), Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson (59th), Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan (83rd) and Rutgers safety Duron Harmon (91st), the final selection serving as the puzzler.
"I think there's plenty of quality in that second, third, fourth round where we were. Not that there wasn't in the first, as well, but I think it was maybe more evenly spread out."
The selection of Collins reflects how the value of an ultra-athletic, do-everything linebacker/defensive end is skyrocketing based on the way NFL offenses spread the field in the passing game.
One could make the point that five years ago, Belichick might have looked at the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Collins -- a former safety -- and wondered where he'd fit in the team's 3-4 base defense. One of the main questions would be if he was big enough, and physical enough, to play on the line of scrimmage and set the edge in the running game at outside linebacker.
It's not that the question isn't asked today, but the game is evolving. Defense is being played more in space, as evidenced by the Patriots' spending 57 percent of their defensive snaps in sub packages (5 or more defensive backs) last season. Athleticism, especially at linebacker, is more vital than ever, and of all the things Collins has going for him, the athleticism to do multiple things stands out most -- he's played on the line of scrimmage as a rusher, off the line of scrimmage in more of a coverage role, and even at safety.
That type of do-everything package is also why the Patriots rated 2012 first-round pick Dont'a Hightower so highly.
"There are some similarities [between the two]," Belichick said. "Dont'a did that as well -- played inside, played outside, played defensive end in their nickel package at Alabama. Jamie did that more by season, [while] Dont'a was more within the game doing those different things. There's some value to that."
There's also value to having a balanced passing game that attacks all parts of the field -- outside/inside and short/intermediate/deep -- and that's what could make the selection of Dobson so critical. At 6-foot-2¾ and 210 pounds, he has the physical makeup to play outside the numbers, drawing defensive attention away from the area where the Patriots have done their most damage in recent years, the middle of the field.
If there was a void on the current Patriots roster that stood out more than any other, this was arguably it. Dobson, who can expect some standard rookie receiver growing pains in transitioning to a more complex offense, looks primed to fill it. The question is how long it will take him to get up to speed.
"He's big, he's fast, he's got good hands," Belichick said. "He's a strong player. Very smart. He has some position flexibility and versatility [to line up inside and outside] and catches the ball very well."
Dobson, who follows in the footsteps of former Marshall receivers Troy Brown and Randy Moss with the Patriots, reportedly didn't drop a pass his entire senior season at Marshall. His knack for making the highlight-reel grab is well-documented.
As for Ryan, the cornerback from Rutgers, he projects to a core role on special teams and should provide depth on a solid cornerback depth chart headlined by Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington. He has good size (5-11, 191) and is considered a strong tackler with solid ball skills.
"He's one of the most productive corners in the draft, smart and has been in a good system," Belichick said. "He's been well-coached, knows his techniques well and he's an instinctive player."
Then there's Harmon, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound Rutgers safety who by all accounts is the type of high-character player who would fit in any locker room, but who also was so far off the radar that there were no television highlights on him when the pick was announced because many viewed him as a late-round to free-agent type.
But not Belichick, who has never been afraid to stick to his convictions even if he's the only one who might see it that way. Much like last year's selection of safety Tavon Wilson in the second round, this one seemingly came out of nowhere to everyone but the Patriots coach.
"We thought it was good value when we took him. I don't know what other teams, how they have their boards stacked or anything else," Belichick said, adding that Harmon would factor into the special-teams mix as well. "There's no way to predict that, 31 other teams. I think you have to take the players that you feel like can help your team."
The final part of the process continues Saturday, when the Patriots have an early fourth-round pick and three seventh-rounders. Then they'll aggressively pursue rookie free agents.
"We'll see how it all comes together," said Belichick, who at the halfway point had put together a draft that was, in a word, "Belichickian" -- heavy on defense, filled with trades and, of course, with one out-of-nowhere selection.