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Belichick runs a reverse on Patriots' draft philosophy

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  April 27, 2012 11:07 AM

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Usually, the Patriots treat first-round picks like they do the opening coin toss -- they always defer. This year they flipped their philosophy.

Perhaps coach Bill Belichick was influenced by the last-minute loss in Super Bowl XLVI, or the winnowing window of his franchise quarterback, or having turned 60 earlier this month experienced the coaching equivalent of a mid-life crisis. But to borrow a slogan from the team that beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Belichick went all in during round one of the 2012 NFL Draft.

After years of stockpiling draft picks to the point they belonged on "Hoarders" and trading down or out when it was their turn to pick -- the team had dealt down a first-rounder in each of the previous four drafts -- the Patriots went for broke to fix their defense Thursday night. They traded up twice in the first round to select a pair of defenders, Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones (No. 21) -- the long-sought pass rusher -- and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower (No. 25).

The first trade saw them surrender a third-round pick (No. 93) to the Cincinnati Bengals to move up six spots for Jones. The second swap sent a fourth-round pick to Denver (No. 126) to ascend six spots again for Hightower and left the Patriots with just a pair of second-round picks in the remaining six rounds of the draft.

It was such a stunning reversal of draft philosophy that you had to wonder if Belichick and his brain trust had accidentally gotten locked in a broom closet in Fort Foxborough. The Patriots hadn't traded up in the first round since 2003, moving up one spot (from 14th to 13th) for defensive end Ty Warren. They did it twice in less than 20 minutes this year.

Instant analysis of a draft amounts to an occupational hazard for sports writers. No one, including Belichick, knows how these two players are going to pan out. The draft is part guessing game, part science, part plain dumb luck.

But what we can consider is the player-picking philosophy, and the Patriots' has taken a significant U-turn. There is recognition that with quarterback Tom Brady turning 35 in August there is now more sand at the bottom of the Patriots' championship hourglass than the top.

Time is now part of the team-building equation.

Oh, the v-word, value, is still a cornerstone of the decision-making. Belichick said that the pick at No. 21 was an either/or between Jones and Hightower. They got both players and managed to hold on to their second-round picks.

"I thought we got good value for them," Belichick said. Of course.

However, after having expertly restocked an aging team on the fly over the last three years by taking a total of 33 players in the draft, the Patriots valued quality, not quantity this time. When you go 27-5 during the regular season the last two seasons with the 30th- and 31st-ranked pass defense, you're only a player or two away from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots should be applauded for altering their approach. The team's first-round draft philosophy in the past, as spelled out here by Friend of Bill and former NFL personnel man Mike Lombardi, has been to identify a half-dozen or so players that have comparable draft grades then maneuver for additional picks while selecting one of those players.

The problem with that is there is no way that those six players are all going to have identical NFL careers. Two could be Pro Bowlers. Two could be solid starters. One could be a borderline NFL player. One could be a complete bust.

The Patriots never completely whiff on a first-round pick because of the quality of their scouting department. But that approach has probably cost them some truly impact players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Evidence of the value-added methodology is that from 2009 to 2011 the Patriots made 14 selections in the second and third rounds, the most in the NFL, but made just two first-round picks (Devin McCourty and Nate Solder).

There is a financial component as well to the shift in thinking. The new NFL collective bargaining agreement has lowered rookie salaries and actually makes a first-round pick more desirable since teams have a fifth-year option on those contracts. For players taken between picks 11 through 32, the option is the average salary of the top 3-25 players at their position.

Picks in rounds 2-7 can only sign four-year deals with no option. But you would hate to think that it was strictly finances that prevented the Patriots from moving up in the past.

The idea of targeting specific players has worked before for the Patriots. Prior to last night, the last time they traded up for a player was 2010. They moved up two spots to draft some guy named Gronkowski. The counter of course is Chad Jackson in 2006.

That just goes to show that the draft is not about accumulating picks or manipulating the board. It's about accumulating talent. You can trade up, trade down, stand pat or stand on your head, but at the end of the day it still comes down to scouting and evaluation.

After all those years of rolling over picks like a 401k, Belichick cashed in his chips.

The 2012 first round for the Patriots will be judged not just against this year, but against past drafts when the Patriots passed on picks and players. If the 6-foot, 5-inch, 265-pound Jones becomes the pass rusher the Patriots need or Hightower turns out to be David Harris you'll stop hearing about Clay Matthews, Brooks Reed and Jabaal Sheard, the ghosts of Patriots' drafts past.

If not, the Patriots may have ended up deferring on more than draft picks.

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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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