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Fitting the profile

Patriots know what they’re looking for in the draft

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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In the National Football League, where things as minuscule as training camp snaps for quarterbacks are precisely laid out months in advance, there is nothing quite as unpredictable as the draft.

“I’ve always said this, it’s still humans picking humans, so both sides of the equation have some risk in it,’’ said NFL Network’s Charley Casserly, a former general manager with the Redskins and Texans. “The only thing you can do is make your best educated guess when you do this.’’

And that’s for the people who do this for a living, the scouts who do the legwork and sign their names to a prospect’s profile sheet, or the GM who evaluates the variables and makes the final call.

Forget about the talking heads, the media and fans who spend months being consumed by this. Sure, draft day is Christmas Day for some — and almost nobody gets what they think they want.

But there are ways to glean some insight into the draft machine for certain teams. If a coach and front office have been in place long enough, trends and tendencies emerge.

You won’t find many people who claim to have a window into the mind of Patriots coach Bill Belichick on draft day. But he will be directing his 12th draft with New England starting Thursday night. With Scott Pioli and now Nick Caserio as the personnel directors, the team has made 101 selections during Belichick’s tenure, and almost half as many draft-day trades (42).

That’s a long trail of picks and information. Only Andy Reid of the Eagles, who was hired in 1999, has been at it longer.

There has to be some reason to Belichick’s draft mind, and clues left along the way.

Available information on the Patriots’ draft picks was culled together and analyzed. From hand size to Wonderlic scores, data (not all complete) was collected on each of Belichick’s picks in New England, starting in 2000 with offensive tackle Adrian Klemm in the second round.

Of course, other information is used in the final analysis of players, such as game performance, desire, and off-field conduct. But the Patriots, more than most teams, start with a specific physical profile for most positions, and go from there.

Here are the prototypes:

Quarterback — For the most part, the Patriots like their quarterbacks tall (over 6 feet 3 inches) with long arms and big hands. But this position, more than any other, has to do with intangibles, and the Patriots obviously look for desire, work ethic, and leadership skills. And besides Tom Brady, nearly all of their quarterbacks have been athletic. Belichick never has selected a quarterback higher than 94th overall (Kevin O’Connell, 2008). Four of the six selections have come in the sixth or seventh round.

Running back — The Patriots like their backs of medium size but thickly built. The broad jump represents their most consistent physical attribute: none jumped less than 10 feet. Of the 30 running backs who tested at the combine this year, only 10 jumped over 10 feet. Laurence Maroney (2006) was the only running back taken in the first 75 picks by Belichick.

Tight end — The Patriots have selected a tight end in eight of the 11 drafts, which is tied with defensive end and safety for the team high. The Patriots took at least one in Belichick’s first seven drafts before a three-year drought ended with the selections of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last year. Since the Patriots have migrated to a two-tight end scheme, this position has become one of the more varied. The Patriots like to stock themselves with big in-line (Gronkowski) and smaller “move’’ (Hernandez) tight ends. All besides Spencer Nead (’03) have had vertical jumps over 33 inches. Ben Watson’s Wonderlic score (41 in 2004) is the highest of any Patriots pick and well above the league average (19).

Wide receiver — While the Patriots have made good use of tall receivers (Randy Moss), they’ve only drafted one over 6-1 (P.K. Sam, 6-3, ’03). The Patriots look for standout short-shuttle times for agility. Deion Branch’s 3.76 in ’02 is still the second best in combine history, and Julian Edelman (3.92) wouldn’t have been far off if he had been invited. Vertical jump also helps, and Sam and Matthew Slater were the only under 35 inches. Under Belichick, the Patriots never have drafted a receiver in the first round.

Offensive tackle — The Patriots like their tackles tough, tall (over 6-4), agile, and with long arms. They also prefer experience. The 10 players drafted (tied with defensive end and safety behind tight end for most) averaged 34.5 starts in college. Only Thomas Welch (2010) and Greg Robinson-Randall (2000) had fewer than 25. The latter was on the bottom in almost every physical category and only three players drafted by the Patriots (Klemm, Ryan O’Callaghan, Ron Brace) were 330 pounds or heavier.

Guard/center — The smartest position group on the team with a 30.40 Wonderlic average (quarterbacks were second at 26.75). Another experienced group with no player having fewer than 30 college starts. The Patriots like them medium-sized with good arm length and large hands. Logan Mankins’s 11 1/2-inch hands are the largest by a Patriots pick by a half-inch. Line coach Dante Scarnecchia, whose guards often have to pull, also keeps an eye out for top short-shuttle and three-cone times among this group.

Defensive end — Outside of 2009 picks Myron Pryor and Darryl Richard, all have been over 6-3. Kareem Brown (2007) and Kade Weston (2010) were the only players with fewer than 24 starts. Brown also was on the bottom for most testable categories. Seven of the 10 selections played tackle in college. One of the Patriots’ least successful positions in the draft as only three (Jarvis Green, Richard Seymour, and Ty Warren) have started more than four NFL games, although four have been picked the past two years.

Nose tackle — With running back, the position with the fewest amount of selections (five) but can be augmented by the versatility needed at end. Dan Klecko, the first nose tackle taken (2003), is so far behind the others in every measurable that perhaps it was a lesson learned that all need to be over 6-1, 300 pounds, with long arms and a good bench press. Surprising agility out of this group in the short shuttle.

Outside linebackers — The most controversial position because of the Patriots’ lack of success grooming standout every-down players (only half have started an NFL game), but it’s likely because of a lack of numbers (six) at a usually crucial position in the 3-4. Jermaine Cunningham, who was taken 53d last year, is one of only two OLBs to be taken in the top 190 picks (Shawn Crable, 78th, ’08). The measurables are well known: 6-4, 260 pounds, with long arms and a good vertical jump (though Crable’s 28 lagged well behind). Outside linebackers have been the smartest players on defense (23 average Wonderlic).

Inside linebackers — Considering the amount of information they have to process, it’s somewhat odd that this group had the lowest average Wonderlic scores among all positions (18.20), though Jerod Mayo had a 26. The Patriots look for long arms, good broad jumps (explosion), and three-cone drills (agility). Brandon Spikes’s 6.97 in the latter made up for his extremely slow 40 time (5.05).

Cornerback — No need to look at any big corners because only Christian Morton (2004) stood 5-11 or taller (his vertical also was below average). The Patriots try to make up for it with long arms, large hands, outstanding broad jumps, and speed. Cornerbacks posted the best 40 times and broad jumps of any position. Those attributes should help them in the preferred zone coverages.

Safety — Like cornerback, the Patriots are fine with undersized, as only Hakim Akbar (2001) was over 5-11. Safeties also had the smallest average hand size (8.9) and arm length (30.8) on the team. The area the Patriots seem to point to is vertical jump, where safeties averaged a team-high 37.7. The group had the second-lowest Wonderlic average (18.57).

No one outside of Belichick and Caserio knows which players jumped out on game tape or impressed in interviews. Character flaws can be hidden and the Patriots have their method for delving deeply into a player’s psyche.

But with 11 drafts under Belichick, the Patriots have a distinct template at most positions. Some picks won’t meet the criteria, but some will. And that template is evolving, both because of changes within the league and learning from the past.

“I think we’re always looking at different things,’’ Caserio said. “In terms of the players and the types of the players and the standards, the most important thing is finding good football players who can help our football team, whatever shape and form they come in. Danny Woodhead is a perfect example. He falls short by [typical] standards. That’s something that we’re always evaluating across positions, the different standards and where we are relative to the rest of the league.’’

So the prototype may be altered, but the core values remain the same. It’s a tried-and-true method, with three Super Bowl titles to show for it. The Patriots are always looking for their type of player.

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

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