FOXBORO -- In a year that featured more first-round trades than any draft in NFL history, Bill Belichick and the Patriots certainly did their part on Thursday night, moving up twice and picking up a pair of defenders in Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
First, the Pats sent the 27th overall pick (which was acquired in a deal last year with the Saints) and a third-round pick to the Bengals for No. 21. With that, they picked up Jones. Then, they shipped No. 31 and a fourth-round pick to the Broncos in exchange for No. 25, which they used to select Hightower.
It marked the first time since Belichick took over the team in 2000 that New England used two first-round picks on defense in the same draft.
“I think both guys have been good players in their systems -- they’re both smart. They’re high quality guys. They’ve been productive in their systems,” Belichick said at the end of the first round. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to do that for us, too.”
Jones is a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end out of Syracuse who secured a first-team Big East nod in 2011 even after missing the first five games of the season with a knee injury -- in seven games with the Orangemen last year, Jones managed to accumulate 39 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks, one forced fumble and an interception.
With Jones, the Patriots get the body type they crave off the edge -- a longish, lean defensive end, the type of impact player at that spot New England has lacked since Willie McGinest. It’s a complicated job: In short, it requires someone versatile enough to get after the passer on a consistent basis, drop into coverage and set the edge. The Patriots have tried to get that sort of guy in the past (Shawn Crable?), but have rarely found a fit.
“In college I played at every position; I played at almost all positions,” Jones said. “Making the transition to the NFL, my biggest thing right now is just to learn this defense and get that brotherhood bond with the rest of the guys on that defense.
“I’m just excited to be in this defense,” Jones added. “I have no idea where I’m going to play. I’m going to play wherever coach tells me to play and I’m just ready to learn this playbook.”
There remain questions as to whether or not Jones has the bulk needed to fit the position -- by way of comparison, McGinest was roughly 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds when he played for New England -- but the Syracuse product put on roughly 15 pounds over the last year or so in hopes of making his body more pro-ready.
“I have no idea,” Jones said when asked about potentially adding weight. “Whatever weight coach Belichick wants me to weigh, that’s what I’m going to strive hard to weigh when I come in and set foot on the scale for the first time. But I have no idea where I’m going to weigh or what weight I’m going to be. Whatever coach wants me to weigh, that’s what I’m going to try to weigh.”
“Any player at that age still has room to develop and mature as an athlete,” Belichick said. “I don’t know. We’ll see. He’s a pretty well put together kid. I don’t think he’s going to be 295 [pounds], if that’s what you’re asking. I wouldn’t say that, but could he gain five or 10 pounds? I don’t know. We’ll see. Put him in the program and work with him. He trains pretty well. He’s a pretty well conditioned athlete. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
As of late, Belichick has frequently shown an affinity for players who have grown up in the game: Matthew Slater and Bobby Carpenter have fathers who have played in the league, as well as Andre Carter. Jones isn’t a second-generation guy, but his brother Arthur is a defensive tackle in Baltimore. Chandler, whose third brother is a noted MMA fighter (Jonny “Bones” Jones), said Thursday night that his brothers’ guidance has been a help.
“My brother Arthur has taught me a lot going through this whole draft process,” Chandler said. “He was basically telling me that the way I carry myself off the field, I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing the organization. I feel like having a brother that’s in the NFL is a great advantage.”
Hightower is more of an intriguing defensive puzzle piece that ultimately could be deployed a number of ways by the Patriots. Acquired at No. 25, he was a consensus All-American -- the 6-foot-2, 265 pounder was one of the captains of the Crimson Tide defense, and he finished with a career-high 85 tackles (40 solo), with four sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
However, he doesn’t project in the New England defense as easily as Jones does. That’s not to say he won’t find a spot -- instead, the Patriots will likely rely on some positional versatility with him at the linebacker spot. He has worked extensively on the inside, but has shown some positional versatility, including some work as an edge player. That would work in New England’s favor, especially considering the fact that the Patriots have a pair of linebackers on the inside who are fairly entrenched in Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, not to mention backups like Dane Fletcher and Tracy White.
“I would come in on third down and put pressure on the quarterback,” Hightower said when asked about his role as a collegian. “Depending on down and distance, sometimes I would stand up and drop to be an extra zoner; sometimes we’d switch up different roles and have me do some of the other stuff.
“I’m versatile and I can play all different kinds of positions,” he added. “It’s more or less about the scheme and the philosophy. It gets a lot more technical about what position it is. I’m going to get to the ball and I’m going to make plays on the ball, regardless of whether it’s a 4-3 or a 3-4.”
“He played middle linebacker really, or inside linebacker off the line for Alabama in their base defense and their nickel,” Belichick said of Hightower. “But he also played defensive end in their nickel opposite [Courtney] Upshaw and they were the two defensive ends in their nickel package. He rarely came off the field defensively.”
Hightower said he watches film on all the great linebackers: “Patrick Willis, [Brian] Urlacher, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs -- a lot of the big name guys that play fast with a high motor.” He also had some nice things to say about New England’s linebacking corps, including fellow SEC alums Mayo and Spikes.
“I watched Jerod Mayo when he was playing at Tennessee. I’ve seen a lot of Brandon Spikes with him playing at Florida and us banging heads in the SEC,” he said. “Playing alongside those guys – those are two really good inside linebackers and I feel like we could have a really good linebacking corps.”
In year’s past, Belichick has shown a proclivity for going after players coached by Nick Saban. Saban, a former assistant under Belichick in Cleveland, has coached at LSU and Alabama, and his defensive schemes have some of the same earmarks as what Saban has run at the collegiate level. As a result, the transition to the pro game could be a relatively smooth one for Hightower.
“The Patriots were one of those defenses I watched a lot, mainly because we did a lot of the same things,” Hightower said. “Coach Belichick is a genius when it comes to football, let alone defense, so to play under somebody like that and to gain more knowledge after playing with Coach Saban, that’s something that’s going to help me and my game a lot.”
The Patriots spoke with both Jones and Hightower at the combine, and in turn, they spoke with each other in Indianapolis, where they speculated about the possibility of ending up on the same team. Now, they’ll both be in Foxboro on Friday to meet the media and get their first look at Gillette Stadium as members of the same franchise.
“[In Indianapolis], we joked around a little bit and we said ‘What if we were to land on the same team?’ and it actually happened,” Jones said. “So I can’t wait to see him [Friday].”
“I hope we’ve improved, but we’ll see. We haven’t put them in a Patriots uniform yet, so we’ll see how they do once they get into our system and learn what to do and we’ll see how they develop,” Belichick said. “We have a lot of good players they have to compete with, and we’ll see how it turns out.”