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Draft is just part of his plan

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 21, 2009 02:27 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- Just once, wouldn’t you just love to be in the room? Wouldn’t you love to hear Bill Belichick explain why he values one player over another? Wouldn’t you love to listen to the coach of the Patriots break down a potential draft pick, head to toe, and explain why he will succeed or fail?

Winner of three Super Bowls and arguably the greatest coach in NFL history, Belichick conducted his pre-NFL Draft press conference at Gillette Stadium today in anticipation of this weekend’s festivities. Unsurprisingly, he spoke mostly in clichés. Belichick has much better things to do than enlighten the world on his detailed concepts of team-building, particularly in an ever-competitive sports world where every player counts.

When it comes to assessing football talent, after all, Belichick is as good as anyone.

"I just think it’s one big evaluation process. I don’t think you can neglect any aspect of it," Belichick said, speaking of draft preparation in general. "What’s really important is how we value the player, not how somebody else values him or what some other [rating] is on him, or what round somebody else thinks he can go in him. What’s more important for us is what we think he’ll do for our football team if he’s here. That’s really where the emphasis is."

Translation: I don’t really give a darn what anybody else thinks -- and I’m not talking about you know-nothings in the media. There are lots of people in other organizations who don’t know what the heck they’re doing, either, so I couldn’t care less where a player is projected to go.

Say this for Belichick: the man is nothing if not confident. When it comes to football, he operates with a level of self-assuredness that we should all strive for professionally. As much as anything else, he is decisive. Belichick knows what he believes and he believes what he knows, and that kind of conviction is what everyone looks for in a leader.

At the moment, the Patriots hold four of the first 58 picks in this weekend’s draft and six of the first 97. The Patriots have an obvious need at linebacker, and they could probably use depth on the lines and in the secondary. Belichick takes great pride at being unpredictable in every phase of his job -- this is called setting the agenda -- and he is indisputably proactive when most everyone else is reactive.

In the end, there is no point in predicting what Belichick will do this weekend because the coach rarely leaves footprints. (If he does, it is usually by design.) There is no more inexact science in any sport than the challenge of evaluating young talent, something Belichick freely admits.

"I think the whole process, it’s a lot harder than evaluating pro personnel," Belichick admitted. "Pro players, you can see them play against the teams we need to play against -- the same players, the same scheme -- and you can see it over a pretty decent length of time.

"You’ve got a lot of variables [with college players]: position, scheme, the player’s workload, physical development … all those things lead to a lot of guesstimates. And then you put 'em into a professional program, which is a lot different than a college program. You start talking about a lot more time, a lot more money, a different schedule, different demands. Some kids respond differently to that. How they’ll actually do when they get in there [and play], you don’t know until they actually get in there."

And even then, there is the oft-forgotten art of developing a player, which can take varying lengths of time. Three seasons ago, Belichick was quick to point out that there was a time when many observers thought defensive lineman Ty Warren was slow to develop. Now Warren is a Patriots stalwart. Meanwhile, running back Laurence Maroney looked positively dynamic during parts of his rookie season only to make little or no progress since. Some might argue that Maroney has even regressed.

Asked today if there was anyone he regarded as a "can’t-miss" player only to see him fail, Belichick all but scoffed at the question.

Well, duh.

"We’ve drafted players here high that aren’t with the team anymore. Obviously we took 'em thinking that they would have better careers than what they had with us," Belichick said. "I mean, you know the list as well as I do."

Chad Jackson, anyone?

All of this brings us back to the skill of what Belichick repeatedly referred to as "team-building," of which the draft is just a part. In the NFL, free agency now plays a bigger role than perhaps ever before. As badly as the Pats whiffed on Jackson, a second-round pick out of Florida in 2006, they replaced him the following spring with trades for Randy Moss and Wes Welker. In the first of those years, the Pats reached the AFC Championship Game; in the second, they took an 18-0 record into Super Bowl Sunday.

Ultimately, the NFL offseason is about filling holes -- through trades, the draft or free agency -- and Belichick has proven highly skilled at evaluating players and putting them in positions to succeed.

In this day and age, isn’t that really what coaching is?

"To me, the final measuring stick is, 'What’s your record? How did you do in October, November and December?' " Belichick said. "Those are the grades that matter -- how many points you got at the end of the game and how many points they got. With all due respect to all you guys who are going to be giving us grades [on draft day], you don’t get any points with that. You get points for winning games."

Draft today, play tomorrow.

But no matter what happens this weekend, we bet the Pats will be winning games in October, November and December.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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