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Belichick chooses sides on Day 1

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / April 27, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Help is coming for the Patriots’ defense.

And don’t be surprised if more arrives today in the form of a cornerback or two.

Some of the help may not be of the immediate/impact variety fans crave, but this much is certain after Thursday’s first round of the NFL draft: Bill Belichick has some shiny new toys to play with on defense, and that’s a very good thing for the Patriots.

The team nearly won the Super Bowl with a defense that ranked 31st in total yards and passing yards, 17th in rushing yards, 32d in first downs per game, and 28th on third-conversion percentage.

Meanwhile, quarterback Tom Brady and one of the league’s top offenses sat on the sideline hoping to get some more chances with the ball.

Now, maybe that will happen.

And leave it to Belichick to keep on surprising shortly after he turned 60.

The man who hadn’t traded up in the first round in nine years - and that was just one spot - traded up twice, both times jumping six places.

And the drought is over. Belichick finally took an edge pass rusher in the first round when he landed Syracuse end Chandler Jones with the 21st selection.

Now only receiver and quarterback remain on the list of first-round-less selections under Belichick.

There’s always next year.

What should fans expect with the picks of Jones, and then Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower (25th overall)?

Jones is the prototype for the “elephant’’ position that was made famous in these parts by Willie McGinest. The position made a comeback last season when Andre Carter and then Mark Anderson filled the role.

McGinest was 6 feet 5 inches and 270 pounds. Jones is, guess what, 6-5 1/2, 266, has long arms at 35 1/2 inches, and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.82. An elephant is an end/outside linebacker hybrid. It’s a very demanding position in this defense and has yet to be played well by a young player: Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas filled the role at times and had to be acquired from another team to do it.

An elephant has to be able to take on tackles, tight ends, and fullbacks in the running game. So the player must be strong to hold the point of attack. He also has to be smart enough to read the motions of the offense and understand what different formations mean. The player has to be agile enough to drop into coverage, but also quick enough to get after the quarterback.

Yes, it’s a lot to take in. Add the fact that Jones is young (22) and will need to get a little stronger (22 bench press reps of 225 pounds at the combine was below average), and most scouts think Jones will need time to realize his vast potential.

“I see him as more of a second-round talent, a chance to be a starter,’’ said an AFC personnel executive of a team that runs a 3-4 defense. “He needs some development, has good length, but there is room to grow.’’

Potential seems to be the buzzword in the scouting community about Jones.

“A lot of upside,’’ an AFC scout said.

Even NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, who had Jones rated ninth overall, said he could be the top defensive player in this draft “in three years.’’

“Chandler is a little younger and has a little less experience coming out early; he missed part of the season last year [with a knee injury],’’ Belichick said. “But very talented player, smart guy, works hard, and really did a good job against some good quality players he faced.’’

The good thing is the Patriots don’t have to count on Jones as a rookie. Don’t be surprised if Carter is back once he recovers from leg surgery. He would be the perfect person to teach Jones the tricks of the trade.

The Patriots also signed former Raiders end Trevor Scott (6-5, 260). He has the same physical tools for the elephant position and has the strength to stand up against the run.

It would not be a surprise to see Jones play the role Anderson, who signed with the Bills, did initially last season: situational pass rusher. That would be a great way for Jones to make an impact while preparing himself to be the full-time elephant in 2013 when Carter, if he re-signs, and Scott (one-year deal) are no longer on the team.

Don’t expect Hightower to need any prep time to crack the starting lineup.

Hightower (6-2, 265, 4.68) was the starting middle linebacker for the Crimson Tide, but also put his hand on the ground to rush the passer in nickel and dime packages. Hightower is tough, smart, and ready to play now.

“Hightower has been in a great program for a great coach; won a couple of national championships and has been the signal-caller, leader of that defense,’’ Belichick said. “He rarely came off the field.’’

With Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes cemented as inside linebackers in the Patriots’ 4-3 hybrid scheme, Hightower would seem to be a natural to come after Rob Ninkovich’s starting spot at strongside linebacker. If that happened, Ninkovich, whose legs got tired last season, could be freed up to use his versatility better on passing downs.

The Patriots also might determine that Hightower should be on the inside, and perhaps allow Mayo to use his athletic ability more on the outside. At the least, Hightower will be the chief backup for Mayo and Spikes - who each missed time last season and were sorely missed because of a lack of depth at the position.

The Patriots were as stunned as everyone else when top guard David DeCastro slid all the way to the 24th pick, where the Steelers, who most personnel departments thought would take Hightower, had no choice but to pick DeCastro.

When that happened, the Patriots didn’t waste time to trade with Denver and pick Hightower 25th. That didn’t sit well with at least one of the Patriots’ rivals.

“Hightower is a really good pick,’’ said one AFC East scout. “I’m [ticked] at Pittsburgh for not taking him and letting New England come up and get him.’’

The same could be said for both trades by the Patriots because they’ve certainly improved.

How quickly Hightower, and especially Jones, make an impact will be determined.

“I hope we’ve improved, but we’ll see,’’ Belichick said. “We haven’t put them in a Patriots uniform yet, so we’ll see how they do once they get into our system and learn what to do and we’ll see how they develop.

“We have a lot of good players they have to compete with and we’ll see how it turns out.’’

The Patriots have a lot more options defensively today than they did before the draft. Don’t be surprised if they land some cornerback help with two picks in the second round.

For a defense that needed reinforcements, that can only be a good thing.

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

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