Bill Belichick is back, baby!
All right, so Belichick technically never went anywhere, at least in a physical sense. He’s been calling the shots on draft night for the Patriots since April 15, 2000, when he made Hawaii tackle Adrian Klemm the first selection of the Belichick era in the second round, No. 46 overall.
Four rounds later, Belichick made arguably the greatest draft choice in professional sports history. No, not Purdue nose tackle David Nugent at No. 201 overall. That skinny, boyish quarterback from Michigan he took two picks earlier. Right, the one who apparently plans to play for infinity and might just pull it off. Tom Brady? Good pick. Solid pick.
No, Belichick hasn’t gone anywhere. But it has been a few spins around the sun since he staggered us with a first-round draft pick that no one — not even the serious draft experts and mock-draft maestros — saw coming. Last season, he spent the Patriots’ first-round pick in the most conventional way possible: on a quarterback, Alabama’s Mac Jones.
In 2020, he did catch us by surprise by taking Kyle Dugger, a safety from Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne, a school that sounds more like an insurance provider than a college football powerhouse. But Dugger was a second-round pick, which made it a little more tenable, and it helped that his highlights looked like an all-state high school hero playing in a Pop Warner game and taking it seriously.
In 2019, Belichick drafted a wide receiver in the first round, always a popular choice for the “gotta get some weapons” crowd. Unfortunately, he drafted the perpetually perplexed N’Keal Harry, who went at No. 32 overall when future stars Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, and others were available. Right position, wrong player, and the mistake reverberated through the roster for a couple of seasons.
So it had been a while since Belichick went against conventional wisdom in the first round and flummoxed even the mock-draft professionals. He built his reputation for doing this in two drafts in particular, 2005 and 2010 (more on those choices in a moment), and he did it again Thursday night when he traded down from No. 21 to No. 29, stayed at that spot, and took Cole Strange, a guard from Tennessee-Chattanooga who resembles a cross between Matt Light and Chris Pratt from the early years of “Parks and Rec.”
Strange was projected as a second-round pick at the highest, and the move caught everyone outside of the Patriots war room by surprise, including Rams coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead, who were in the middle of a press conference when they saw the pick come up and had an amusing reaction to Belichick doing a quintessentially Belichick thing. (I did not take that as mocking the pick, and we should be so lucky as to see more candid moments like that from coaches and execs.)
If you’re among those Patriots fans frustrated with how this played out, it’s understandable. The Patriots got a couple of valuable additional picks (Nos. 94 and 121) to trade down eight spots, but it did allow teams with already superior rosters to add even more talent. The Chiefs took Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie at No. 21. The Bills also took a cornerback, Florida’s Kaiir Elam, at No. 23.
The Patriots, who couldn’t get off the field against the Bills in their playoff matchup, needed cornerback help even before ballhawk J.C. Jackson departed for the Chargers. They need to become a faster and more athletic team in general. Adding a guard doesn’t fill any of the holes that became obvious late last season. It merely fills a hole created by the puzzling decision to trade Shaq Mason to the Bucs for a mere fifth-round pick.
But just remember, as you’re griping that Belichick reached, there’s a decent chance that this ends up being a stellar pick. Those aforementioned 2005 and 2010 selections, when Belichick zagged when fans all wanted someone who would zig, might have been the two most criticized No. 1 picks in real time that Belichick has made.
I’ll never forget how staggered ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. was when Belichick took Fresno State guard Logan Mankins at No. 32 overall in ‘05, or how he indicated that Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty might be best suited as a special-teams gunner when he took him at No. 27 in 2010. Both picks weren’t popular. Both will receive one of those sweet red jackets from the Patriots Hall of Fame someday.
Perhaps the Patriots could have taken Strange later, though Belichick indicated he had intel that Strange wouldn’t have been on the board much longer, and said the Patriots might have taken him at No. 21 had they remained there.
My hunch, as I noted on Twitter before the draft, is that they were targeting athletic, intelligent Boston College guard Zion Johnson in that spot. I suspect they had to resort to Plan B when the Chargers snagged Johnson at No. 17.
Give Strange a chance. The Patriots have shown their expertise in identifying this type of player, from Light (some thought he’d be a guard coming out of Purdue) to Mankins to Joe Thuney and more.
And if he’s what the Patriots think he is — a Day 1 starter with a grinder’s attitude and a mean streak — you’ll like him before you know it.
Now, in the name of the great Stanley Morgan, can they go out and get some team speed in the later rounds, please?