FOXBORO — When it comes to team-building, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are nothing if not consistent.
New England selected 12 players in this year’s draft, addressing a wide variety of needs. But six of the dozen draftees share a common theme — they all went to schools that had coaches who have deep roots in the Belichick program. Cornerback Devin McCourty (Rutgers), defensive end/linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, linebacker Brandon Spikes and tight end Aaron Hernandez (Florida), offensive lineman Ted Larson (North Carolina State) and defensive lineman Brandon Deadrick (Alabama) are all products of school’s where a trusted Belichick confidant is in place.
Greg Schiano at Rutgers. Urban Meyer at Florida. Tom O’Brien at North Carolina State and Nick Saban at Alabama. When in doubt, keep it in the family. It’s been a philosophy the Patriots have adhered to for several years — between 2002 and 2005, seven of the 31 players the Patriots drafted came from schools where a former Belichick assistant or confidant was in charge.
It doesn’t always work — the Patriots brought in a half-dozen Florida products back in 2006, and four years later, none of them remain on the roster. (In fact, some, like Chad Jackson, flamed out in spectacular fashion.) But when the rookies from one of those schools arrive in Foxboro for minicamp, the program seems remarkably familiar, and the monumental transition from college to the pro game is made that much easier because there’s a consistency in place that might not exist with another team. Chances are, they’ve already interacted with Belichick — he speaks on those campuses all the time, and frequently has an opportunity to gauge their character in a way other coaches don’t. And he knows his comrades wouldn’t steer him wrong on a player.
And he knows those coaches have put their players through what might best be described as a starter version of his system during their collegiate careers.
“I know a lot of the times we did things the way they do in New England; we did things like that in Florida,” Spikes said. “Seeing the success that we had with the guys that we had with us, I pretty much know what to expect, I think, right now.”
“Belichick and I already have somewhat of a relationship because he’s so close with Coach [Urban] Meyer and he was at our practices,” Hernandez said Saturday. “I’ve known Belichick for a while now, so I felt comfortable around him when I went there to see him at the combine.”
“It’s basically the same defense,” Deaderick told reporters Saturday who asked about the difference between Alabama and New England. “They have the same terminology, the same lingo, so it’s going to help me out a lot.”
Here’s a Patriots-centric look at four other things we learned from this year’s NFL draft:
WHEN IT COMES TO ADDRESSING THE PASS RUSH, THE PATRIOTS HAVE STILL LEFT THEMSELVES OPEN FOR CRITICISM
We are only halfway through the offseason, but the two major team-building exercises — the draft and first rush of free agency — have pretty much come and gone and the Patriots have done little to address the pass-rushing woes that plagued them on so many occasions last year. New England was 23rd in the league last season with 31 sacks, and had just one player with more than five sacks (Tully Banta-Cain with 9½).
This past weekend, they added one legit pass rusher in Cunningham, who had 18½ sacks as a collegian at Florida and will likely figure into the mix as an outside linebacker in New England. With the re-signing of outside linebacker Banta-Cain, the Patriots did keep their best pass rusher on the roster, but they still haven’t made any other impactful personnel moves to address their most glaring defensive weakness last season.
Two things to keep in mind here: One, since being taken in 2008, outside linebacker Shawn Crable has yet to see the field. The team might feel that Crable has reached a point in his development where he’s healthy, and could be that edge rusher that the Patriots so desperately need. If he is, you could him with someone (Cunningham?) to provide sustained pressure from the outside.
Two, there’s plenty of time between now and the start of training camp, which means there’s plenty of time to make a move — a trade or pickup off the waiver wire always remains a possibility. Remember when New England was struggling against the run, and picked up Ted Washington on the eve of the 2003 season? While those kinds of deals are few and far between, they do exist, and New England has pulled them off in the past.
“There’s a long time before we play a game,” Belichick said Friday when asked about not emphasizing the pass rush, “so we’ll see where things are at that point in time.”
NO MATTER THE YEAR, THE PATRIOTS WILL ALWAYS TAKE A DEVELOPMENTAL QUARTERBACK IN THE LATE ROUNDS OR AS AN UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT
Brian Hoyer (undrafted free agent, 2009), Corey Bramlett (undrafted free agent, 2006), Matt Cassel (seventh round, 2005), Kliff Kingsbury (sixth round, 2003), Major Applewhite (undrafted free agent, 2002) and Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000). All were late-round "developmental" quarterbacks picked up by the Patriots in the Belichick Era.
Welcome to the club, Zac Robinson.
After spending a portion of the pre-draft process sniffing around several collegiate quarterbacks — including Northwestern’s Mike Kafka, Cincinnati’s Tony Pike and Rusty Smith of Florida Atlantic— the Patriots chose Robinson in the seventh round. A 6-foot-3, 214-pounder, Robinson completed 610-of-999 passes (61.1 percent) for 8,317 yards, 66 touchdowns and 31 interceptions in 3 1/2 seasons as a starter with Oklahoma State.
He also rushed for 1,858 yards and 22 touchdowns in his collegiate career, but don’t expect Belichick try and make him into the next Julian Edelman, a college quarterback who made the successful transition to wide receiver as a rookie last season.
“I don’t see it right now,” said Belichick when was asked if Robinson had any positional versatility. “We’re going to play him at quarterback and we’ll see how it goes. I don’t anticipate him playing receiver. I expect him to play quarterback.”
That was good news to Robinson, who told reporters he was simply excited to get a chance to work with Brady.
“I'm excited to learn behind the best quarterback in the NFL in Tom Brady,” Robinson said. “I’m looking forward to soaking in everything he says.”
He figures to be in competition with Hoyer for the No. 2 job.
“I'm not thinking about that right now,” Robinson said. “I'll let the chips fall where they may. I'll go in and start working hard and learn the playbook as fast as I can. I'm looking forward to getting started.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE SUDDENLY FLUSH AT TIGHT END
The Patriots came into the weekend with only one tight end on their active roster, Alge Crumpler. They ended up picking up a pair of possible impact tight ends in Gronkowski and Hernandez and adding real depth at a position of need.
While Crumpler’s skill set is pretty well established — he figures to be the primary blocking tight end — the two roles for the two rookies are also pretty sharply defined, at least at this stage of their careers. According to Belichick, Gronkowski brings more value in the running game, while Hernandez is more of a pass-catching presence.
“Aaron’s probably a little quicker and has had a little more production in the passing game. Rob’s probably had a little more production in the running game over the course of their careers,” Belichick said. “Not that they both don’t do both. They both have production blocking and in the passing game and after the catch. [But] I would say Rob’s a little better blocker at this point and Aaron’s a little better in the passing game at this point.”
SCOTT O’BRIEN IS PROBABLY THE HAPPIEST GUY AT GILLETTE STADIUM
The Patriots made substantial improvements on special teams over the weekend. With the selection of return man Devin McCourty and punter Zoltan Mesko, New England addressed two areas where they struggled at times last season: the Patriots were last in the league in punting average last season (39.7 yards per punt) and net punting average (36.4) and tied for 30th in number of punts downed inside the 20 (18). Meanwhile, a year after trading away kick returner Ellis Hobbs, a collection of players tried their hand at the job with varying degrees of success — New England was in the middle of the pack in most major kick return categories, including total kick return yards and average yards per return.
No one is sure how he will figure into the mix at cornerback in his first year, but it’s clear that McCourty’s best chance to see the field as a rookie will come on special teams. At Rutgers, he had six blocked punts, one blocked field-goal attempt and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He also took over kickoff return duties as a senior, averaging 25.43 yards on 14 returns, including a 98-yard touchdown.
“I think he’s had some production in kickoff returns,” Belichick said of McCourty. “He’s an excellent cover guy — covering kicks, gunners, special teams, kickoff coverage, hold up on the punt returns. He’s had a very significant role in the kicking game and was very good at it. He blocked kicks. He’s versatile. He can do a number of things for us in the kicking game.”
As for Mesko, he was considered one of the finest collegiate punters last season — as a captain with the Wolverines last year, he led the Big Ten and finished eighth nationally in punting with a 44.46-yard average. The 2009 Ray Guy award (nation’s top punter) finalist was a second-team All-American in his final season at Michigan. If you’re looking to use a fifth-round pick on a punter, Mesko might be your guy.
Plus, he’s president of the Tom Brady Fan Club.
“I might be a little star-struck to say hello to him because he’s a Michigan guy,” Mesko said on a conference call with reporters Saturday. “I’m sure I’ll get over that. But I would love to get to know Tom Brady. He’s a special person. … The Patriots were my favorite team growing up, just watching Tom Brady. He was my favorite player.”