Saturday, April 24, 2010 Updated: April 25, 5:53 PM ET
Belichick drafted with attitude
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots approached the 2010 NFL draft like a team still seething from an embarrassing playoff loss. They attacked it with a purpose.
Almost all their selections had similar qualities, which resulted in a 12-member class that had a distinct attitude.
Big. Tough. Physical.
Heck, when the team's new punter is 6-foot-4, 235 pounds and looks like a linebacker, it pretty much tells the story right there. Players on the team have already taken notice.
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"I must admit, I am pretty excited about this year's draft class -- a lot of size and a lot of areas addressed," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said on Twitter. "It's looking good."
How good remains to be seen, of course, and there is one question that still looms large: After many analysts stressed the importance of coming out of the draft with a top pass-rusher, have the Patriots done enough by adding just second-round outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham?
The answer will go a long way toward determining how well Bill Belichick and his brain trust maximized opportunities over a three-day stretch in which they made seven trades, some coming at a dizzying pace that masterfully produced unexpected assets out of thin air.
But since more time is needed to assess the draft class, for now, let's focus on the team's approach and its decisiveness. It was almost as if Belichick watched the Patriots' pitiful playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens before making each selection, only to get his blood boiling at how his lifeless club was pushed all over the field.
Then, when it came time to make the pick, he targeted the toughest and most physical player available.
This was an attitude draft for the Patriots.
Cornerback Devin McCourty, the team's first-round choice, was one of the most physical players at his position, someone who takes the anti-Asante Samuel approach to tackling. In other words, he welcomes contact. He was the leading tackler among cornerbacks in college football last season.
Devin McCourty (center) walks with owner Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft, whose team drafted physical, high-character players this year.
Towering second-round draft choice Rob Gronkowski, at 6-6, 264 pounds, looks more like an offensive tackle than a tight end.
The Patriots went for the 6-3, 266-pound Cunningham later in the second round, choosing him over other undersized options. More beef, please.
The team's final second-rounder, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes (6-3, 249 pounds), is a smoking missile waiting to explode on the field. So what if he ran a 4.95 in the 40-yard dash. He hits like a ton of bricks.
Almost every pick, it turned out, had a similar characteristic, with owner Robert Kraft saying earlier on Saturday that one of the things he liked about the draft was the physicality of each new Patriot.
On top of that, five of the players were captains of their college teams, perhaps an indication that the Patriots had leadership in mind, as well.
"I think we definitely improved our team in the last three days," Belichick said late Saturday. "So did everyone else in the league and hopefully our rate of improvement can be equal to or maybe a little better than some of the other ones. We'll see how all that comes together, but we had our opportunities and we tried to do the best with them that we could. We're definitely better and we'll have guys that will help our football team. It's exciting to work with them."
Clearly, Belichick gets excited about this aspect of what he calls "the team-building process," probably because it mixes two areas in which he displays mastery: football evaluation and number-crunching in a pressure-filled environment.
Just as he thrives in the unforgiving X's-and-O's grind from September to January, it is clear how much he enjoys this aspect of competing in a high-stakes environment. Watching him enter a draft with no third-round draft choice, acquire one and then turn it into a 2011 second-round pick -- all while not giving up much ground in the current draft -- was impressive to see unfold. It's also a reminder that while Belichick is 58, he is still thinking long-term in his role.
So how does one best sum up what unfolded for the Patriots in this year's NFL draft?
For the second straight year, the team picked 12 players. Of the 24 prospects from the past two drafts, 11 have come from the first three rounds, where the best quality normally is found.
Belichick talked Friday night about the opportunity to "replenish" the roster and what we've seen over the past two drafts is what appears to be an impressive influx of new talent.
Yes, the pass rush remains a concern and cannot be overlooked. It is a crucial part of this evaluation, and more time is needed to see how things unfold.
But in terms of pure approach, the New England Patriots look like a franchise that is returning to its roots. Remember the days when a game against the Patriots meant you were going home black and blue?
Those days just might be here again.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.