Nick Caserio speaks Friday in Foxboro on the Patriots draft. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)
FOXBORO — Ohio State and Alabama, the most popular pipelines of talent supply in the NFL draft, have obvious ties back to the Patriots.
With Ohio State, it’s Bill Belichick’s long-standing friendship and allegiance to Urban Meyer, dating to Meyer’s days at the University of Florida.
With Alabama, it’s an even-longer established relationship with Nick Saban, the man Belichick helped to mold into the football coach he is today when Saban worked for him in Cleveland in the early 90s.
On Friday, the latter yielded more draft fruits that Belichick hopes can produce right away. The Patriots chose Cyrus Jones, a starting corner on Alabama’s national championship team that beat Clemson in January, over any running back that was on the board at 60. Jones will, of course, join another Alabama product on the defense in Dont’a Hightower.
“There’s a lot of different scenarios that we talk through at the time as we were working across, there were some different players who were graded equally,” said Nick Caserio, the Patriots director of player development. “I think the thing that tipped the scales in Cyrus’ favor a little bit was his overall versatility – punt return – that’s a huge component of what we do and we thought he had the ability. So, to be a punt returner and to play, we’ll see where he can actually play, in terms of corner. He played primarily on the perimeter at Alabama. We’ll look at everything and then decide what we feel makes the most sense at this time. So, that’s what we did what we did.”
Jones also returned four punts for touchdowns at Alabama. Could he give a break to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who have performed that role at a very high level in the past?
“The guys that have done it have been really good. I mean Danny was one of the league leaders last year. Julian who had never done it before, his average is like one of the top punt returners in history,” Caserio said. “That’s a hard I would say skill and position to develop so if you have multiple players that can actually handle the ball then you can figure out OK well maybe we can take his workload and redistribute it somewhere else.
“In the end we’re going to do what we think is best for the football team. If a guy snot ready to do it then we’re not going to have him do it even if he has the experience and he’s done it. We’re not going to really know. Look, it’s the same thing. These guys are all starting from a blank slate. Like everything they’ve done to this point like honestly doesn’t matter so now they’re going to show up here next week and basically start from scratch.”
“There’s probably going to be some things that Joe (Joe Judge) and Bubba (Ray Ventrone) will coach them to do in terms of fielding the ball, handling the ball, may be a little bit different. OK, how do they handle that? How do they read the ball? Can they adjust to our blocking pattern? So there’s a whole number of things that go into it and then he’s trying to learn a new position so it’s just a matter of how quickly they can perform the task at a good level relative to another player at that same position and then ultimately we’ll figure out whoever’s the best option for us and however we think is the best at that time then we’ll go ahead with him in that capacity.”
Jones was one of six Crimson Tide players to go in the first three rounds, including four in the second round, where the Patriots nabbed Jones. Caserio was asked the challenge of differentiating between who is really good and who perhaps is being boosted by those around him?
“That’s a good question. You really have to go back, like the question earlier, you’re kind of looking at everybody and then you really almost have to go one by one by one and look at the actual players skill set relative to what they’re actually asked to do and then kind of project that a little bit in terms of what we would ask them to do,” Caserio said. “Having a lot of good players is good. Look, Coach Saban’s got a great program and their track record speaks for themselves so yeah, you can never have enough good players but how good is good? Some good is better than others so you really have to spend time on – I know that’s probably a great quote – but you really have to spend time on it and look at the individual player and what he actually does and how effectively he does it and then go from there.”
Ohio State led the way in the first two days with a remarkable 10 players drafted in the opening three rounds, including six in the first round alone.
Jones did have a record of domestic violence at Alabama, getting picked up when he damaged a woman’s cell phone in April 2015. But the Patriots feel they’ve done their homework on Jones and were comfortable drafting him.
“It’s everything. I mean it really is. We try to look each position on the board, each position they have their own particular factors and position skill set that we evaluate and we go through and we assign a grade and OK there’s certain things that a corner’s going to have to be able to do. There are certain things that a tight ends going to have to be able to do. Everyone has their own particular skills that they’re going to have to do.
“So, OK, will he check every box? Well maybe not but does he check enough? And really the most important thing is to take the strengths of a player and try to put him into position to where he can utilize those strengths. Not ‘well he doesn’t do this’. Then we won’t put him in that position hopefully. So [we] try to identify what the skill is, how well they do it, and then put them in a position where they can actually see it so there’s the physical component and then overall, call it football makeup component, is a central part of it as well.”
“Look, we’re not perfect. Some players work the way we think. It comes with the territory but you’re trying to create a profile of the player within our building and then how he’s going to handle everything that comes along with being a New England Patriot. Being in the program, the demands that we place on those players, so you factor everything in and some players they may check every single place both from a physical standpoint and form a football makeup standpoint and you have others that maybe they check enough of them and then you feel comfortable about that level. So those are decisions that we ultimately have to make so the most important thing is finding players that we feel fit the New England Patriots and however they end up getting here, then they get here, but the bottom-line is that’s the most important players is give me players that we feel fit our program and what we’re looking for on a multitude of levels.”