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Safety first for Belichick and the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  April 23, 2010 12:36 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- When did Bill Belichick's draft methods become as dull as his gameday wardrobe?

Belichick played it safe with a capital S last night, trading down twice to move from No. 22 to No. 27 to select Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty. It's a safe selection because at worst McCourty, who blocked six punts and a field goal at Rutgers and also returned punts and kickoffs, will be a core special teams contributor.

He has the potential to be a "four-down player" as Belichick said. He could also end up as just a fourth-down player. He will not be a bust, because McCourty will be on the roster three years from now, unlike most of the 2007 draftees.

That's a good thing, but the problem is the Patriots need more than safe. They need Belichick to be bold, to find someone to boost their flagging pass rush or aging offense. They need a player who not only makes Belichick comfortable but who can make other teams uncomfortable.

With three second-round picks and a third round pick today, the Patriots can afford to take a risk on a player like USC edge rusher Everson Griffen, whose production doesn't match his immense physical talent, or diminutive Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster, who could be a game-breaking offensive weapon even if he can't be an every-down runner.

What they can't afford to do is play it safe or the playoffs will be O-fer and out again.  

This draft was the time to recast the mold a bit by taking a player like TCU pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who went 31st to the archrival Indianapolis Colts, or Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant, who went 24th to the Cowboys after the Patriots traded out of that spot.

Instead, the Patriots got McCourty, whose most special quality seems to be his ability to come in right away and make an impact on special teams.

"He's fast. He's tough. He is a good four-down football player, first, second, third and fourth," said Belichick. "In the kicking game, he's certainly one of the top guys in the draft in that area."

Belichick later went on to talk about how McCourty has been productive as a kickoff returner and on kickoff and punt coverage, and of course those seven blocked punts and kicks.

Great, but that's not going to make Patriots fans feel any more confident about warding off the Jets and Dolphins in the AFC East.

This is not a reflection on McCourty, who by all accounts seems like a nice kid with all the preferred Patriots' personality traits -- well-prepared, hard worker, loves football.

It's more of a reflection on Belichick.

The paradox of the Patriots' pick is that one of the most outside-the-box, innovative and inventive coaches in the history of the game, a man who once used Troy Brown as a defensive back, was smart enough to order his team to intentionally take a safety by snapping the ball off the goalpost, and brave enough to go for it on fourth and 2 in Indianapolis, would not see a use for a player like Hughes. Admittedly, Hughes does not fit the prototype of a Patriots' 3-4 outside linebacker, but he had 26 1/2 sacks in his last two years of college and could be another Elvis Dumervil.

Belichick, a coach that commands the respect of players like no other, also apparently didn't believe he could harness the talent of a diva wide receiver like Bryant.

With four picks in the top 53, including second-rounders No. 44, No. 47, and No. 53, the Patriots had the luxury of swinging for the fences in the first round. Maybe, they feel McCourty is a home run.

However, the Pro Football Weekly draft guide described him as a "low-risk selection with starter potential" and a player "who should contribute regularly as a core special teams player and nickel defender."

Doesn't exactly engender thoughts of Darrelle Revis.

An AFC North scout said McCourty would provide speed, return ability, and depth at an area of need for the Patriots. What he didn't say was that McCourty was a No. 1 corner.

It's funny that McCourty has a twin brother, Jason, who plays for the Titans because this Patriots draft sure bears a resemblance to previous ones.

This is the fourth year in a row the team has drafted a cornerback in the first two rounds. They get points for consistency and persistence.

In 2007, they took Brandon Meriweather with the hopes of him playing cornerback, but Meriweather turned out to be better suited to safety. In 2008, they drafted Terrence Wheatley (second-round) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round). Last year, they took Darius Butler in the second round.

The Patriots' best corner last year was none of the above. It was free agent acquisition Leigh Bodden, who led the team with five interceptions, and re-upped this off-season for four years and $22 million. The selection of McCourty serves as an indication of a lack of complete confidence in some of the previously selected corners.

A lot of fans are disappointed that the Patriots traded down again in the first round, especially after they did it last year and missed out on Ravens tackle Michael Oher and Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

They turned No. 22 overall and a fourth rounder (No. 119) into McCourty, No. 90 -- a third round pick that replaces the one they sent to Oakland for Derrick Burgess -- and a fourth rounder (No. 113). They now have five picks in the top 100 of a very deep draft and 13 overall.

Obviously, the Patriots' draft philosophy is there is safety in numbers. But they played it too safe with their No. 1 pick.
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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