In hindsight, Bill Belichick deciding to cultivate a relationship with Urban Meyer might not have been such a hot idea for the Patriots.
First, some backstory. Belichick has gone out of his way to befriend a series of college coaches over the years. It’s a two-way street for the Patriots coach. He gets the benefit of some knowledge on a potential prospect (and can pick the coach’s brain on some aspect of the their game he might be interested in), and they get to chat up a three-time Super Bowl winning coach. It was a relationship that yielded a lot of positive results for the Patriots -- between 2002 and 2005, seven of the 31 players drafted by Belichick and the Patriots came from a school where a former Belichick assistant or good friend was the head coach. Many of those players formed the nucleus of title teams.
Belichick’s kitchen cabinet started out as the private domain of former assistants like Nick Saban, Pat Hill and Kirk Ferentz (who moved on to college head coaching jobs after their time with Belichick), but soon grew into a collection of coaches who have a similar approach and coaching style. While at Oregon, Chip Kelly compared notes with Belichick. Greg Schiano and Belichick were tight when Schiano was at Rutgers. And earlier this month, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was present during part of the spring workouts in Foxboro.
One coach who followed the same path was Meyer. The former Florida coach, who is now at Ohio State, quickly found favored status in Foxboro. He was present during offseason workouts, and while he was with Florida, could be seen occasionally on the sidelines wearing a Gators warmup jacket. Former Patriots players recall that he was brought in to talk to the team a few times during offseason workout sessions and minicamps in 2007 and 2008.
That influence was clearly seen on draft day -- in a five-year stretch, the Patriots drafted five Florida players (three in 2010 and two in 2006) and signed four others as undrafted/rookie free agents, all of whom played for Meyer at Florida. (Among the other notable acquisitions at that time included former Gators Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, two players who were at Florida prior to Meyer’s arrival.)
But while the partnership has been beneficial to Meyer and his former players -- after all, several of his players have reached the league, with the Patriots being the team that took a chance on them -- it has served mostly as a one-way street for Belichick and New England. Forgetting the mounting list of serious off-field transgressions, including the recent arrest of Aaron Hernandez on a murder charge. In truth, the Patriots have managed to get precious little production for the draft picks they’ve used on Meyer’s ex-Gators.
In 2010, New England took three Florida players in Hernandez, linebacker Brandon Spikes and linebacker/defensive lineman Jermaine Cunningham. Hernandez had three productive years in the New England system, but the shocking events of the last week have wiped out any positives he may have accomplished with the Patriots. (Many will argue that the real issue with the Patriots and Hernandez is not so much the fact that they drafted him, but gave him a massive extension last August.) Meanwhile Cunningham’s professional career has been underwhelming: a four-game suspension for PEDs to go along with 21 games played in the last two seasons and 3.5 career sacks. That’s on top of an incident in college when he was arrested for a fight over a bag of potato chips.
(To be fair, the selection of Cunningham likely can’t be blamed on any sort of Meyer influence -- at least, that’s what Meyer will tell you. In an interview with WEEI.com, he recalled an instance when Belichick visited the Florida campus when Cunningham was a freshman, and the Patriots coach suffered a case of love at first sight. “That started his sophomore year,” Meyer said of Belichick’s interest in Cunningham. “Coach Belichick would always come down and watch film and I’d sometimes sit in there and he would keep asking about [Cunningham]: ‘Who’s this guy? Who’s this guy? Who’s this guy?’ And you had Derrick Harvey, you had Jarvis Moss, Carlos Dunlap, and then Jermaine was kind of the next guy, but he would always say ‘Who is that guy? I love that guy.’ ”)
At this point, the best of the 2010 class appears to be Spikes, who has developed into one of the most feared run-stoppers in the game, but he also comes with his share of baggage: a four-game ban for PEDs and an online sex tape scandal. And after he wasn’t present for this spring’s voluntary OTA session -- the lone veteran not in attendance -- he was on the end of a passive-aggressive swipe from Belichick because of his absence.
In 2006, the Patriots chose wide receiver Chad Jackson in the second round, as well as linebacker Jeremy Mincey in the sixth round. Jackson remains the worst draft pick of the Belichick era -- a classic athlete with all sorts of physical tools, he struggled to stay on the field because of health issues, and when he was on the field, he distinguished himself as being one of the least-prepared receivers in franchise history. At this point, Mincey has managed to grow into the best player at the professional level, becoming a consistent, durable every-down player with the Jaguars. He was cut by New England and struggled for a few years, but over the last three seasons, the defensive end has compiled 18 sacks and started 32 of a possible 48 games.
(In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been hard to single out Jackson as a bust early in his NFL career. In his rookie year, the tremendous turnover at receiver provided him with an opportunity to make an impact. However, he was unable to play significant minutes, let alone crack the starting lineup.)
The last two seasons, the Patriots added two more Meyer-coached players who played at Florida. One was kick returner Jeff Demps, who signed a deal as an undrafted free agent that included $211,000 in guaranteed money -- only to spend all of 2012 on injured reserve. (He then said he was interested in running track and playing football, and was quickly dealt to Tampa Bay.) And the latest -- and perhaps, the last -- Meyer-coached Gator acquired by the Patriots is Tim Tebow. It’s easy to make religious metaphors with the former Heisman winner, but if the quarterback is somehow able to make an impact in Foxboro, it would represent a small level of redemption for the Belichick-Meyer relationship. At the same time, it wouldn’t manage to overturn what has become a embarrassing legacy for New England.
It does appear that, at least for the moment, Belichick has moved on from Meyer, who coached his last game at Florida in 2010. After taking a year off, Meyer returned to the sideline for Ohio State in 2012. (For what it’s worth, Belichick didn’t draft any of Meyer’s former players in 2011 or 2012.) In the interim, Belichick has appeared to find a new favorite, going after former Rutgers players by the armload. This past spring, the Patriots drafted three former Scarlet Knights, and New England currently has eight Rutgers players on its roster. Only one other NFL team has as many players from one college on its roster.
This is not to suggest that Belichick is going to pass on all future Meyer-coached players. As we have stated on several occasions, he views coaching football as a practical matter: If you can play and fit the New England system, it doesn’t matter where you come from. Instead, consider any future Meyer-coached prospects to show up in Foxboro with a “buyer beware” label stitched to the front of their jersey.