When it comes to predraft misdirection, Patriots coach Bill Belichick can play the game with the best of them.
In New England, a predraft visit can mean one of three things: One, it could be a sign of genuine interest in a prospect. The Patriots rarely tip their hand in such a fashion, but it has been known to happen. 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.
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. And in 2011, Nate Solder’s pre-draft visit was canceled at the last minute, but he ended up going in the first round to New England.
But when it came to Illinois defensive end/outside linebacker Michael Buchanan, Belichick couldn’t mask his emotions. He flew out to Illinois just before the draft to kick the tires on the 6-foot-5, 255-pound hybrid defender who finished his college career with 14 sacks, and the Patriots ended up taking him in the seventh round of the draft with the 226th overall pick.
As a collegian at Illinois, Buchanan made his name as a “gym rat,” according to defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
“Football is really important to him — I can’t tell you how many nights we got out of here late, and we thought we were the last ones leaving the facility and it turns out he’s still around watching film” Banks said of Buchanan. “I believe his best football is ahead of him, and he’s going to an organization where what he learned can be put to great use.
“I think the thing that stands out the most for me is his work ethic, combined with a tremendous ability of ability. You don’t see that in many kids. We knew he was a good player, but we had no idea how hungry and how hardworking a kid he was.”
Overall, in 46 career games (32 starts) at Illinois, Buchanan recorded 161 tackles, 26 tackles for losses, and 14 sacks, and was a two-time All-Big Ten second teamer. In his junior season, he had 64 tackles and 7.5 sacks as Illinois went 7-6. However, those numbers dipped as a senior when he had 57 tackles and 4.5 sacks for a 2-10 Illini team.
Part of that downturn was because of an off-field incident between his junior and senior year that left him with a DUI charge and a broken jaw. As a result, he was forced to have his jaw wired shut, and he lost 20 pounds after being on an all-liquid diet. While he’s regained the weight, it remains an issue for him — at rookie minicamp, he talked about wanting to try and put some weight on before the start of training camp.
However, Banks believes Buchanan is “probably right where you want him to be” in terms of weight for a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid. He has good length for the position — something the Patriots crave in all their edge guys — and is known to have a good first step. While he likely projects as an outside linebacker at the NFL level, he also has the versatility to work as a defensive end as well, according to Banks.
“I think he’s a hybrid,” Banks said. “He’s athletic enough to be able to drop into coverage and he still has the girth you need to go against the big tackles on the NFL level day in and day out. I know most of the kids when they make that leap, they feel like they need to get bigger and stronger, and I think Michael probably feels that way right now. But I think he’ll settle in nicely.”
Over the last few years, the Patriots have seemingly made a habit of going after guys who are leaders at the collegiate level. That’s not to say that leadership manifests itself in their rookie year — first-year players aren’t asked to do much when it comes to team-wide leadership — but 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. Ultimately, the Patriots are always mindful of a players’ resume, and for someone to be identified as a leader at the college level speaks to their character.
“When we got here, we saw what he could do, and we sort of demanded that he should be a leader, and he just sort of took the bull by the horns and became a leader,” Banks said of Buchanan. “He wasn’t a rah-rah guy, but had a great work ethic, and that rubbed off on a lot of players. He was one of the guys we looked to as a leader.”