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They took a pass

Patriots had a chance to plug big hole with Matthews

By Greg Bedard
Globe Staff / December 15, 2010

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The short answer is yes.

When Clay Matthews III lines up at left outside linebacker Sunday night for the Packers against the Patriots, not only could he have been drafted by New England, he likely should have been.

Matthews has gone from walk-on at the University of Southern California to Pro Bowler as an NFL rookie to being the consensus NFL Defensive Player of the Year at the midpoint of this season.

The Patriots, for all their domination in winning five straight games and 10 of 11, have their shortcomings. Their pass coverage is lacking at times and a lackluster pass rush has not helped.

If Matthews was on the other side of improving rookie Jermaine Cunningham, the Patriots would be better at getting to the quarterback.

Through 13 games, Patriots outside linebackers have 13 sacks. Matthews, after posting 8 1/2 in the first five games, has 12 1/2, second in the league.

So Matthews, who an AFC personnel executive said “is one of the top three or four pass rushers in the league,’’ could have made this strong Patriots team even better.

“I think if you line him up in any system, he’s going to be a good football player, whether it’s our team, the Packers, or any other team in the NFL,’’ Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said yesterday.

But real answers don’t come quickly or easily in the National Football League. And don’t we all wish we had the benefit of hindsight.

Reality is dressed in gray and framed in circumstances. And where the Patriots were April 25, 2009, the first day of the draft, as a team, and their decision to trade the 26th pick to the Packers, shows just how complicated decisions are in the NFL.

It’s the Packers calling Matthews, like many other people, thought he was destined to be a Patriot. They had a need at outside linebacker. Matthews, at 6 feet 3 inches, 250 pounds and with 4.5 speed, had all the assets to be a good 3-4 linebacker. And coach Bill Belichick thought the world of Clay Matthews Jr. when he coached the longtime Browns great while in Cleveland.

So when the Patriots were on the clock and Matthews’s phone rang in southern California, he was thinking blue and red.

“In all honesty, I thought I was going to New England because they had the pick and I was getting a call at that pick,’’ Matthews said. “From what I had heard they were looking for maybe a younger outside linebacker. So, I thought, ‘All right, New England.’ ’’

Instead, the phone call from the 920 area code went like this:

“Who is this?’’ Matthews asked.

“This is so and so from Green Bay,’’ the other voice said.

“What are you calling me for? You don’t have a pick until the next round,’’ Matthews said.

He was told the Packers, looking to stock their new 3-4 defense with players who fit the scheme, were trading up to select him.

“So it happened,’’ Matthews said, “and here I am.’’

Nobody clued in his mother, Leslie, who was in the kitchen doing dishes to keep her nervousness in check.

“The last thing I looked at on my TV in the kitchen was the Patriots’ pick,’’ she said. “So I run in and I sit as if I’ve been there the whole time and we were clapping because I heard his name. I think he has gone to the Patriots. For 10 minutes I thought he had gone to the Patriots. Finally somebody looked at me and said, ‘Mom, he’s going to the Packers!’ I said, ‘The Packers?’

“The Packers, I guess, were just never on my radar. I don’t know why.’’

A value decision The Patriots definitely liked Matthews.

And when one looks at the trade now, and what New England received as a result, it is another reason the Patriots should have selected him.

Originally picking 23d, the Patriots moved down three spots in a trade with the Ravens. New England then sent its 26th pick and a fifth-round selection to Green Bay for a second (41st overall) and two thirds (73 and 83).

Those picks, in one way or another, turned into cornerback Darius Butler, receivers Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, and tight end Rob Gronkowski. All of those players have value to the current Patriots, none more so than Gronkowski, who has become one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets in the red zone.

But do those players add up to Matthews? Probably not.

Regardless of which players the Patriots eventually chose, there aren’t many general managers who would have turned down the package offered by the Packers.

On the draft trade value chart used in some form by all teams, it was almost a no-brainer for the Patriots. They came out ahead, 890 points to 707.6 — the difference in value assigned to a mid fourth-round pick.

“I thought that was a very good trade for New England,’’ said an AFC personnel director. “Historically it’s a tossup when you are picking late [first round] or early [second]. There is no sure thing that the 26th player is going to be better than 41. It’s 50/50.

“I think the trade made sense for New England. More picks equal more chances.’’

The Patriots, faced with some serious questions on defense, were looking for as many swings at the draft as they could take.

Thanks to the surprising play of quarterback Matt Cassel after Brady sustained a season-ending knee injury in 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 and missed the playoffs. But age was becoming a problem on that defense, which had a decent-to-good season (10th in yards allowed, eighth in points).

The Patriots basically asked themselves, “Do we try to get by, add a few pieces and put off the inevitable rebuilding project? Or do we do it now, when it’s called for?’’

Belichick and Caserio decided it was the time to start rebuilding.

Many players, including several cogs in the Patriots’ dynasty, left the team in the offseason or before the start of the ’09 season: safety Rodney Harrison (retirement), end Richard Seymour (trade), linebacker Tedy Bruschi (retirement), cornerback Ellis Hobbs (trade), linebacker Mike Vrabel (trade), linebacker Rosevelt Colvin (release), cornerback Deltha O’Neal (free agent), and linebacker Junior Seau (free agent).

So one player in one draft was not going to put the Patriots on the right track.

And Matthews was far from a sure thing as draft day approached. Matthews, who weighed 166 pounds as an unrecruited high school junior and entered college at 228, didn’t become a full-time starter for USC until his senior season.

“I think people thought the kid was a good prospect and for certain a late first-round, or top-of-the-second round talent, and that’s exactly where he went,’’ said another AFC personnel executive.

And he did project to be a 3-4 outside linebacker after playing the similar elephant position in Pete Carroll’s hybrid scheme. He didn’t fit the Patriots’ prototype to the letter — they prefer someone closer to 6-5 and 260 — but a team source said Matthews “absolutely’’ could play in the Patriots’ scheme.

Four executives said there were also “specific concerns about this player.’’ Three teams said speculation about Matthews’s possible involvement with steroids were mentioned in their draft evaluations.

Matthews steadfastly and repeatedly has denied taking any type of performance enhancing drugs.

“I do it the right way and that’s what I plan on doing for years to come,’’ he said.

Slowed by injuries The Matthews who will be on the field on Sunday night is not the player who was terrorizing offenses the first half of the season.

In addition to a nagging hamstring injury, a shin injury that has gotten worse has kept him from practicing except for walkthroughs on Fridays.

“He’s basically playing on one leg,’’ said a source close to Matthews.

In the first seven games of the season, Matthews had 9 1/2 sacks, 7 1/2 quarterback knockdowns, and 11 1/2 hurries. In the past five games, Matthews has three sacks, four knockdowns, and 4 1/2 hurries.

Still, it will be tempting to think about what could have been. Even though Matthews knows he could have fit with New England, he said it won’t cross his mind.

“I would like to think I could have success with any other of the teams,’’ he said. “I believe in myself. I don’t know. These things happen all around the league, as far as giving up picks and who got who and trades and what-not . . . I’m a Packer.

“I’m very fortunate and glad I ended up here. I think it’s a fantastic fit. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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