More often than not, trying to predict what the Patriots are going to try to do in the draft every year is an exercise in futility. However, in Bill Belichick’s term as coach of the team, a few patterns have emerged over the years that often can help guide us in the right direction when it comes to forecasting how the Patriots are going to approach the annual team-building exercise. Here are six things that we’ve noticed about Belichick’s draft style.
LOOKING FOR PATTERNS IN PRE-DRAFT CONTACT IS A FUTILE EXERCISE
No team does pre-draft misdirection better than the Patriots. That’s not just with the media, but with prospects as well. In almost every interview with a player after he’s selected by New England, the back-and-forth with reporters is the same: The player is asked if he knew the Patriots were interested in him, and he inevitably shrugs and says, “No, not really.”
When it comes to pre-draft visits, it’s important to remember that it could mean several things: One, it could be a sign of genuine interest in a prospect. Two, it could also be a smokescreen to feign interest in hopes of creating some pre-draft misdirection. And three, it could be an attempt to kick the tires on a player -- not so much for immediate, pre-draft information, but an attempt to gain intel down the road.
That being said, it doesn't mean much if you are trying to link a prospect to the Patriots. Last year, New England had almost no pre-draft contact with its first two picks, Chandler Jones (only a combine interview) and Dont’a Hightower, while second-round pick, defensive back Tavon Wilson, went through a private workout on campus at Illinois. In 2011, the Patriots cancelled a pre-draft visit with first-round pick Nate Solder (he was later worked out on an individual basis by offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia), while they had almost no contact with second-round picks Ras-I Dowling and Shane Vereen (the Cal product only had a workout with personnel chief Nick Caserio).
In 2010, they only had a combine meeting with Aaron Hernandez, and while Rob Gronkowski did have a pre-draft meeting with the Patriots, he later expressed surprise that the Patriots took him as opposed to some other teams who expressed interest in him before the draft. While there are exceptions (Belichick and first-round pick Devin McCourty sat down and watched game film together when Belichick paid a visit to Rutgers in 2010), more often than not, the draftees are just as surprised as the media when New England calls their name on draft weekend.
WHEN -- NOT IF -- THE PATRIOTS MAKE A TRADE, CHANCES ARE GOOD IT’LL BE WITH OAKLAND … AND NOT THE AFC EAST
In his time with the Patriots, Belichick has made 50 draft weekend trades, with six of those deals being done with Oakland, his most frequent draft weekend trade partner. Many of those took place when Al Davis was alive -- including the 2007 acquisition of Randy Moss for a fourth-round pick, the most notable of all the draft weekend dealing with the Raiders. (The deal that netted the pick that landed Rob Gronkowski in 2010 also came via a deal with Oakland.) But Belichick has continued to work with the Raiders after Davis’ death in 2011, including swinging a deal last year that allow New England to draft defensive backs Tavon Wilson, a second-round pick, and Malcolm Williams, a seventh-round selection. In all with the Raiders, the Patriots have made two trade-ups, no trade-downs and four trades involving players and/or future considerations.
One group that shouldn’t be expecting a call from Foxboro on draft weekend? Any of the AFC East teams. The only time that Belichick has made a draft weekend deal involving a divisional foe was 2002 when he shipped quarterback Drew Bledsoe to Buffalo for a first-round selection in 2003. Under Belichick, the Patriots have never made a draft weekend deal with the Jets or Dolphins.
This year, there are three teams that bear watching, mainly because of Belichick’s close ties with the head coach. One, the Buccaneers: Belichick and Greg Schiano forged a relationship when Schiano was the head coach at Rutgers, and since Schiano took over in Tampa Bay, the two have already worked together on a couple of deals, including the trade that brought cornerback Aqib Talib to Foxboro last year. Two, the Redskins: Belichick and Mike Shanahan have also maintained a close relationship over the years -- the two swung a pair of draft weekend deals when Shanahan was head coach in Denver, and did one after Shanahan took over in Washington. And three, the Chiefs: Belichick and Andy Reid had an semi-regular draft weekend tradition of making some sort of swap when Reid was coaching in Philly, and are relatively close.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A COLLEGE CAPTAIN, BUT IT CERTAINLY HELPS
Since Vince Wilfork gave his epic speech about leadership in the spring of 2010, it’s clear the Patriots have put a greater priority on finding college captains. The last three years, New England has made 28 draft picks, and 15 of them were college captains -- 10 of the last 16 picks made in the last two years. The last three years, Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes, Stevan Ridley, Ryan Mallett, Dont’a Hightower and Zoltan Mesko were just some of the college captains who were drafted by the Patriots.
While first-year players aren’t asked to do much when it comes to team-wide leadership, the experience of serving as a captain can be useful in many aspects when it comes to both rallying fellow rookies and learning how to communicate with veterans. And while the state of leadership in the New England locker room isn’t as tenuous as it was a couple of years ago, the Patriots are always mindful of a players’ resume, and for someone to be named a college captain speaks to their character.
“I wouldn’t say they are purely coincidental, because certainly we value leadership and we value some of the characteristics that normally are associated with that type of position: respect and hard work and unselfishness and things like that,” Belichick said after the 2011 draft when asked about their decision to draft so many captains. “But we’re drafting football players and not everybody is a team captain. There are plenty of good players that aren’t, but there is something to be said for that.”
THE PATRIOTS TREASURE AGILITY IN THEIR DEFENSIVE BACKS AND WIDE RECEIVERS
This is well-trod ground around these parts -- we’ve written about it here and here and here -- but when you examine their approach in looking for defensive backs and wide receivers out of college, the Patriots appear to put a lot of weight in a prospects ability to nail the shuttle run and 3-cone drill as collegians. Almost every time the Patriots have gone after a wide receiver (primarily slot guys) or a defensive back in the last decade, they have always shown a nice agility as collegians as opposed to simple straight-line speed.
Julian Edelman finished his 3-cone drill as a collegian at 6.62 seconds. Deion Branch was 6.71 (at the 2002 combine), Chad Jackson was 6.74 (at the 2006 combine) and Wes Welker was 7.06. Jeremy Ebert (a seventh-round pick in 2012) had a 6.7 before being taken by the Patriots last spring, which would have put him third among all receivers at the combine if he was invited last year. To give you some perspective, all of those performances -- other than Welker -- would have been in the top 10 at this year’s combine. (In that same vein, receiver Greg Salas -- who was a part of the Patriots for a portion of last season -- was eighth at the combine last year in the 3-cone with a 6.65.) On the other side of the football, as Nate Ebner had a 6.59 time in the 3-cone as a collegian, and Devin McCourty’s’s 6.7 in the 3-cone drill at the 2010 combine put him second among all corners.
For a look at the Top 10 finishers in the 3-cone drill at this year’s combine, click here.
THEIR TEAM-BUILDING PROCESS DOESN’T STOP AFTER MR. IRRELEVANT COMES OFF THE BOARD
This isn’t to suggest that other teams don’t do a great job when it comes to finding talent in out-of-the-way places, but the Patriots have always been active when it comes to picking up undrafted and rookie free agents after the draft wraps up. New England currently has 29 undrafted players on its roster, including important faces like cornerback Kyle Arrington, defensive lineman Kyle Love, offensive lineman Dan Connolly, linebacker Dane Fletcher and running back Brandon Bolden.
ALWAYS GET A QUARTERBACK
Let’s face it -- the Patriots are better off at quarterback than 95 percent of the rest of the NFL. But that’s never stopped them from getting a signal caller almost every year since Tom Brady took over as the starter in 2001. In that stretch, the Patriots have drafted six quarterbacks: Rohan Davey, Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Cassel, Kevin O’Connell, Zac Robinson and Ryan Mallett. In addition, they’ve signed undrafted free agents Brian Hoyer and Matt Gutierrez. What does this mean? Well, we listed five quarterbacks who could on their radar for several reasons, including coaching connections, playing style and overall intangibles. How they approach their annual quarterback selection should also tell you something about their belief when it comes to the market for Mallett, who remains their most tradeable chip.