Man with plans
Belichick set for anything at draft
Typically, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has done some of his best work this time of year. Few teams manipulate and manage the draft as well as the Patriots have in Belichick's tenure, which is now entering its 10th season.
After sitting out the playoffs last season, New England's erudite hooded honcho already has been quite active this offseason, trading quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel for a second-round pick, signing nine veteran free agents, including running back Fred Taylor and cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden, and re-signing free agents Mike Wright and James Sanders.
Now, he's armed with 11 selections in this year's NFL draft, which kicks off Saturday. Watching how the Patriots approach and execute the draft has added intrigue this year because it's the first one in New England that Belichick will go through without Scott Pioli and with his new hand-picked front office team. The only thing predictable about Belichick - besides his selection of sideline attire - is that he is loath to tip his hand when it comes to his plans.
"We traded for Corey Dillon prior to the draft in '04. We traded for Randy Moss during the draft two years ago, so I wouldn't rule anything out, any players that we would or wouldn't be interested in," said Belichick when asked if the draft was now the sole focus for adding players. "I can't answer that question other than to say it's an ongoing process of roster building. It doesn't stop or start at any particular moment. It started at the end of the season, and it will continue to the final game of the '09 season, whenever that is."
So, what about acquiring Carolina Panthers disenfranchised franchise player/premiere pass rusher Julius Peppers? "I think I answered that question," Belichick said.
There is no question, however, about who is going to be Belichick's quarterback this season, as the coach said that Tom Brady, coming back from a torn ACL and a torn MCL in his left knee, "is working in the offseason program now without any limitations."
Despite bringing in Taylor and at least one mock draft predicting the Patriots take a running back in the first round, Belichick isn't writing off Laurence Maroney just yet.
"I have a lot of confidence in Laurence," he said when asked about Maroney, who has been in jured and inconsistent in his first three NFL seasons.
Before Belichick could focus on constructing his 2009 roster, he had to re-build his coaching staff after the departure of four coaches, including offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, and re-organize his front office to account for the loss of Pioli, his player-picking partner with the Patriots since 2000.
Pioli's duties were divvied up.
Belichick bolstered the front office by bringing in veteran NFL personnel hand Floyd Reese as a senior adviser in January. The ex-Titans/Oilers general manager works with Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, Pioli's primary replacement, who oversees daily operation of the personnel department. Belichick also brought back Jason Licht, the former assistant director of player personnel, as director of pro personnel. He promoted Jon Robinson to director of college scouting, a position that had been vacant since Thomas Dimitroff left in January of 2008 to become GM of the Falcons.
On the coaching side, Belichick shifted wide receivers coach Bill O'Brien to quarterbacks coach and de facto offensive coordinator, elevated coaching assistants Josh Boyer (defensive backs coach) and Shane Waldron (tight ends coach), and hired old friend Scott O'Brien, who was Belichick's special teams coach in Cleveland, for that position here. Chad O'Shea was imported from Minnesota to coach the wide receivers.
"Well, it's always important to have a good staff, and I think we have one," said Belichick. "The guys have worked hard trying to pull things together, the new guys and people that were here meshing with some of the new people, so I think it's gone well. In our thought process it's certainly not a finished product at this point by any stretch. We're moving along."
Despite the delegation of responsibility, most of the focus is on the 33-year-old Caserio, the presumed successor to Pioli. When asked how Caserio would influence the draft decision-making process, Belichick said a lot of people in the organization have input.
But it's clear Belichick has put a great deal of trust in Caserio.
"Well, I think Nick has a pretty good handle on what his job is," Belichick said. "It's very similar to what he's done in the past. He does a great job with the personnel, knowing the people in the league and the people in the draft, and people that are available in other areas. So, Nick has done a great job with that, and he continues to do that."
In nine seasons, Belichick has a 116-45 record as Patriots coach. His record in the draft also shows his system is a proven winner. Since 2000, the Patriots have drafted 77 players. More than half, 42, are still in the NFL and 27 are still with the Patriots.
That's quality in the chaotic crap-shoot that is the draft.
However, just like the stock market, past trends can be useful but are not always an indicator of future profit in the draft.
"Each year certainly has its own place, but you can look back at things that have happened in the past," said Belichick. "How we had players rated and what they turned out to be. Players that are similar to that this year, if there is a relationship there. Maybe, we could have graded the guy a little bit differently, and maybe the current player is similar. It helps us put them in the right place from a value standpoint.
"It's a combination of those things. This year is still the most important year, but there is relevance to look back historically, and also internally from a grading point of view."
With the brain-drain that has struck Foxborough in the last few years, looking back could be simply looking at history. But the mastermind remains in place, and like everything else, Belichick planned for this.
"We've understood that this could be going on," said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "We try to have a training program, and have young people training in the system coming along. Are people always ready to go? I don't know. At least we have people in place.
"I think the hardest situation was Scott, who has worked so long and so hard and had been so close to Bill. He made a great contribution. We didn't replace him with one person. Multiple people have come in to take over the job he was doing.
"So, in the short term it's a loss, but over time hopefully we can be as strong as we were when he was performing at his best."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.