Patriots

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

It’s one of the rites of spring. This is the time of year NFL fans across America overemphasize the importance of their team’s coach or general manager popping up at a particular program’s pro day. You can set your watch to it. 

Coach X showed up at University Y so you KNOW he wants Player Z!

The pro day circuit is just one aspect of the pre-draft preparation process for NFL clubs, though. The information gleaned from stops on college campuses through March and early April is, as Bill Belichick might say, just part of the evaluation mosaic. 

The tape matters. The combine matters. Private workouts matter. Official visits matter. Claiming a meeting or an interview between a player and a club at any one of these spots will dictate a draft-day match is foolhardy. 

Still . . . it's interesting to track teams’ whereabouts in order to see if any trends develop.

Here we'll lay out where the two primary players in the Patriots front office, Belichick and Nick Caserio, have been spotted over the last couple weeks since pro days kicked off. Their itinerary may be nothing but a sliver of a view into where the team's interests lay, but we’ll take that sliver with the understanding that it is what it is.

MARCH 7: ALABAMA

Belichick made his seemingly annual trip to the University of Alabama to catch up with old friend Nick Saban and see some of the college game's top prospects. The Crimson Tide could have more than a dozen players drafted, and most of their top prospects reside on the defensive side of the ball. Receiver Calvin Ridley, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne shoild be long gone by the time the Patriots pick at No. 31, but there are plenty of other talented defenders they could have a shot at. Linebacker Rashaan Evans (6-foot-3, 234) would be an interesting fit for a defense that could use an addition to its second level. Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (6-4, 297) is intriguing because of his versatility as a base end who could rush from the inside in sub situations. Safety Ronnie Harrison (6-3, 214) also seems like a Patriots type. Even punter JK Scott could be on their radar. 

MARCH 14: WISCONSIN

Caserio headed to Wisconsin's pro day, where linebacker Jack Cichy posted a very strong short-shuttle (4.28 seconds) and three-cone times (7.10). He's an off-the-ball type who measured in at 6-foot-2, 234 pounds and is projected by NFL.com to go on Day 3. The Badgers don't have quite as many pro prospects as Alabama, but they have seven or eight who could hear their names called on draft weekend. Corner Nick Nelson (5-11, 208) and edge defender Leon Jacobs (6-3, 230) were two of Wisconsin's best players, and would’ve been worth a look from the Patriots director of player personnel. 

MARCH 19: NC STATE/TOLEDO

Belichick kept a close eye on the defensive linemen participating in NC State's pro day Monday. Bradley Chubb is expected to be the first defensive player taken in the draft so the Patriots won't have a shot at him (which Belichick admitted to Chubb following the workout), but defensive tackle BJ Hill (6-4, 315) may have been of interest. He's thought of as a mid-rounder after a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl and a solid combine. Kentavius Street (6-2, 280) is really powerful as a defensive end and could be had toward the end of the draft. Belichick also reportedly spent some time watching backs Nyheim Hines (5-8, 197) and Jaylen Samuels (5-11, 233) run routes. 

Caserio, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the workout put together by Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside (6-2, 201). Our Mike Giardi put together a piece on Woodside, who tested well at the combine and is considered to have a good football IQ, earlier this offseason. Read it. Caserio was joined at Toledo by Patriots scout Patrick Stewart, who was also present for Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta's pro day.

MARCH 20: SOUTH CAROLINA

Belichick went from NC State to South Carolina where he reportedly met with tight end Hayden Hurst for the second time. Hurst (6-4, 250), a walk-on who played two years of minor-league baseball, may be the first tight end taken in this year's draft. Linebacker Skai Moore (6-2, 221) was extremely productive for the Gamecocks, leading the team in tackles all four years of his career, which Belichick clearly appreciated. Moore told reporters after his pro day work out that he met with Belichick for an hour and that Belichick told him he's a great player. Belichick and Moore also met at the combine, Moore said.

So what can we make of Belichick and Caserio's stops thus far? We’re careful not to make too much of these stops visits, but here are some quick-hitting thoughts . . .

* They appear to want more information on the draft's second (or third) tier of quarterbacks. It should come as no surprise that the Patriots won't be in the running to select passers like USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen or Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. But the group that includes Woodside, Lauletta and others -- perhaps Washington State's Luke Falk, whose pro day will be at Utah State on Mar. 28, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, and Western Kentucky's Mike White -- seems to be of interest.

* Are the Patriots looking for their next playmaker at tight end? Even with Rob Gronkowski on the roster (assuming he returns in 2018) the Patriots could use another pass-catcher at this spot. Their interest in Hurst is intriguing. If they pop up at South Dakota State's pro day on Mar. 30 -- home of Dallas Goedert -- then that might be an indication they are considering a running mate and heir apparent for Gronkowski. 

* Outside of offensive tackle, off-the-ball linebacker might be the biggest need the Patriots have not addressed via trade or free agency this offseason. It would come as little surprise if they opted for a rookie (or two) who play that position in this year's draft. Evans is among the draft's most talented at that spot, but there are some questions around the league as to whether or not he'd be the traffic cop that, for instance, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower have been for the Patriots. Getting a closer look at Cichy and Moore would also seem to indicate that New England is taking a close look at a newer (smaller) breed at that spot. Belichick has long liked bigger linebackers, but as the speed of the game picks up perhaps he’ll be more open to going small(ish) here. The Patriots were represented at Viriginia Tech's pro day on Mar. 14 (home of top linebacker prospect Tremaine Edmunds) and it'll be interesting to see if they show up at Boise State (home of Leighton Vander Esch) on April 3. Belichick is reportedly headed to Georgia's pro day on Wednesday, where he'll have a chance to see athletic off-the-ball 'backer Roquan Smith and athletic edge player Lorenzo Carter. Either would immediately provide the Patriots front-seven with a shot of athleticism. 

* That Belichick has seen a boatload of talented defensive linemen at Alabama and NC State isn't a shocker. While they may not have a glaring need up front for 2018 — especially after trading for Danny Shelton and signing Adrian Clayborn — both Shelton and Malcom Brown could be elsewhere in 2019 if the Patriots don't pick up their fifth-year options. Trey Flowers is also headed into a contract year. 

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Josh Allen tweets are evidence he was recently a teenager

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AP Photo

Josh Allen tweets are evidence he was recently a teenager

First . . . 

If Twitter existed in 1983, when I was Josh Allen’s age, I probably would have spent less time squeezing blackheads, playing air guitar and reading the little paperback, Truly Tasteless Jokes. 

I worked in a bookstore at the Hanover Mall and that compilation of racial, ethnic, disabled, homophobic, anti-Semitic and mind-bogglingly offensive jokes (there was a subsection of dead baby jokes) was a runaway New York Times bestseller. In fact, it was top-selling paperback in the country that year

Growing up in a not-especially-diverse area, I was at a remove from the people these jokes were most offensive to. 

They were just jokes, just words. I could laugh at jokes about the Irish or about Catholics, even as my mother went bananas any time a nun or priest was lampooned. Having a little sense of humor, being able to laugh at oneself, mocking stereotypes with outrageous humor; I guess that’s the way I viewed the jokes. 

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But I did know enough not to walk around the house with it. It was hidden next to other reading material under my bed. 

The success of the first book spawned imitators and led to think-pieces, none of which I read. If I had, maybe this quote from a July, 1983 NYT article may have sunk in. 

''There is a lot to make fun of, but not the foibles of human beings who have already suffered a lot,'' said John Hope Franklin, who is the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University. ''We should be coming to grips with the dignity of the human spirit, not embarrassing or shaming whole groups of people. The success of these so-called joke books is a sad testament to the taste of this country.''

Or this one from Jacqueline G. Wexler, then-president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, said: ''I think it's the most wholesome thing in the world when ethnic groups laugh at themselves. But it's dangerous when someone else does it to you, because almost always there's an element of denigration.''

My point, as it relates to Allen, is that when you’re 16 your world doesn’t extend much past the end of your nose. You know right from wrong, sure, but you may not deeply and intimately know why something is truly “wrong” because you haven’t yet developed empathy.  

Thirty-three years later (holy crap), among the tens of thousands of people I have friends, co-workers, relatives -- people I love and respect deeply -- from all sorts of racial, ethnic and religious groups. I can attach faces and feelings to the people those jokes references and I laughed at. When you really reflect on it, it’s embarrassing. 

I’ve turned out mostly OK on most days. I imagine that, despite his tweets from 2012 and 2013, Josh Allen will as well. 

And 5

1. Check out the walk-up song for every prospect who made the trip to be at the first round in person tonight. Five Drake songs were requested by the 22 prospects who’ll be in the room. There are zero for Oingo Boingo. 

2. Peter King wouldn’t have theorized as vividly about the Bill Belichick-Rob Gronkowski-Drew Rosenhaus confab if he wasn’t really plugged in on what went down. And King theorized that Gronk came in from the woods in an effort to prevent being traded.  Adam Schefter’s tweet saying that “there will be no trade this season” is iron-clad as well. And those assurances, in my opinion, are vital for Gronk for two reasons. First, the perception that the team was fixing to deal him this offseason has been lurking for months. Second, Gronk does not want to be separated from Tom Brady. 

3. Gronk’s allusion to his workouts, how terrific he feels and his “pliability” underscore once again  that he feels it’s important to remind everyone how he’s working out and who he’s working out with while he’s been away. I think Alex Guerrero’s great and Gronk’s results (not to mention Brady’s) speak for themselves. Beating everyone over the head with it at every opportunity does nothing to mend the wounds that have clearly opened between Guerrero’s program and the one espoused by Bill Belichick and strength coach Moses Cabrera. Enough. 

4. The release of rapper Meek Mill this week and the remora-like attachment to the cause from Sixers owner Michael Rubin (and, by extension, Robert Kraft) brought to mind the essay by Tom Wolfe from 1970, Radical Chic. All I know about the case is what I’ve read and that means I know that the judge, Genece Brinkley,  seems to be loving the celebrity this has generated. But Wolfe’s essay, which details a 1966 dinner at Leonard Bernstein’s New York apartment in which the city’s ultra-elite hobnobbed with Black Panthers in bizarrely cloying fashion, reminds me of Kraft talking outside the Pennsylvania prison after a recent visit. I mean . . . why?

5. Time invested on a prospect is no guarantee of a team being “sold” on a player. In fact, if a team meets multiple times with a prospect, it’s almost a guarantee there are unresolved issues (injury, character, communication skills) that need further investigation. The report that the Patriots met twice with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was viewed as evidence the Pats are hot on his trail. And they may be. The talent and character are there and so is the upside. The level of accuracy and how his skills will translate and develop when running an NFL offense will be developing. There’s boom-or-bust all over him. Here’s a list of players the Patriots hosted in Foxboro (it’s not complete but an interesting read) .

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Prototypical Patriots: Ward, Alexander check every box at corner

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USA TODAY Sports Photos

Prototypical Patriots: Ward, Alexander check every box at corner

For the Patriots, cornerback falls into the category of positions they could address . . . but don't have to. Trading for Jason McCourty earlier this offseason gave Bill Belichick some proven depth at the position with Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones already on the roster. And if Cyrus Jones can bounce back from injury to give the Patriots anything defensively, that would be a plus. 

Still, you can never have too many corners. And there are a handful in this draft class who fit the Patriots profile. When it comes to cover men Belichick has drafted highly in the past, there are certain physical traits he's after: You should be at least 5-foot-10 and weigh at least 183 pounds; you should run at least a 4.5 (though Logan Ryan and Darius Butler were outliers there); you should clock at least a 6.75-second three-cone (though, again, Butler was slow there); you should have a 4.21-second short-shuttle or better; you should jump at least 33 inches in the vertical and 116 inches in the broad. 

If you're a good tackler, if you can play inside and out, if you can play man and zone, if you have clean footwork? Those improve your chances of being taken by the Patriots even more. 

PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS - Previously in the series:

Let's get to some of the prospects in this class who hit most, if not all of those requirements . . . 

 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

DENZEL WARD, OHIO STATE, 5-11, 183

Speed to burn (4.32-second 40), explosive athleticism (134-inch broad jump), and experience under both Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano? Ward is undersized by some standards, but the Patriots have no issue with taking sub 6-foot corners. They'd have to trade up to draft Ward, but he might be worth it depending on how far he falls. 

JAIRE ALEXANDER, LOUISVILLE, 5-10, 196

Alexander hasn't received nearly as much as his college teammate Lamar Jackson in terms of being a good fit for the Patriots, but he's one of the best fits in the draft class for New England -- regardless of position. An injury last season may bump him down draft boards, but the Patriots could view any type of slide as a chance to pounce on the aggressive, confident, and extremely quick (4.38-second 40, 6.71 three-cone, 3.98 short shuttle) cover man.

JOSH JACKSON, IOWA, 6-0, 196 

Another coaching connection here for Bill Belichick. Jackson had an incredibly productive year under Kirk Ferentz as a pass-breakup machine. He doesn't meet every athletic marker the Patriots like (4.56 40, 6.86 three-cone), but they might make an exception in order to acquire a player with good size and arguably the best ball skills in the class. He may not make it to No. 23.

MIKE HUGHES, CENTRAL FLORIDA, 5-10, 189

Hughes didn't necessarily nail the 40 (4.53 seconds), but he checks just about every other box the Patriots have drafted in the top-100 before at this position. Is he a late first-rounder? An early second-rounder? He's tough, but he'll need to take to the coaching he gets at the next level in order to refine his game. 

ISAIAH OLIVER, COLORADO, 6-0, 201

Another corner with projectable traits, Oliver has rare length (33.5-inch arms) and size to play press-man on the outside. A decathlete during his freshman season at Colorado, he was named a first-team all-conference corner last season even though his year was shortened due to a leg injury. Oliver also has some punt-return experience. 

DUKE DAWSON, FLORIDA, 5-11, 197

Dawson has experience playing in the slot, which the Patriots will like, and he's accustomed to seeing some of the best competition in the country. He has the size the Patriots like from their "star" corners, and he tested well (4.49-second 40). He reportedly made a visit to the Patriots during the pre-draft process and could warrant a Day 2 selection, though his shuttle (4.39 seconds) and three-cone (7.02 seconds) from his pro day were not great. 

IMPERFECT BUT INTRIGUING

ALABAMA CORNERS

Both Anthony Averett and Tony Brown could end up piquing Bill Belichick's interest in this draft. They meet the size requirements of Patriots corners, and they obviously come from the most well-respected college program at One Patriot Place. Athletically, they miss the mark in a couple of areas, but maybe Belichick is willing to look past that. Averett's vertical (31.5 inches), three-cone (6.93 seconds) and short shuttle (4.4 seconds) don't quite meet the standards of top-tier Patriots cornerback picks of the past. Brown's vert (31.5) and three-cone (6.78) are also a shade below the ideal marks in New England. 

DONTE JACKSON, LSU, 5-10, 178

One of the fastest players in this year's draft class, Jackson is a little light compared to other Patriots corners Belichick has drafted early. In all likelihood, there's another team out there who would be OK with selecting Jackson before the Patriots are. 

MJ STEWART, UNC, 5-11, 200 

Stewart can cover and play the run. He can play zone or man, inside or outside. Sounds like a Patriot, right? And he may be. But he doesn't hit many of the athletic measures set by other top-tier Patriots draft picks (4.54-second 40, 6.9-second three-cone, 4.28-second short shuttle). His explosiveness is solid, though (35-inch vert, 118-inch broad).

HOLTON HILL, TEXAS, 6-2, 196

Physically, Hill has just about everything a team could want in a boundary corner. (Though, from a Patriots perspective, his vertical jump and three-cone marks were a little underwhelming.) But there are questions about his maturity that will knock him way down draft boards. He could become a roll-of-the-dice, high-upside pick late in the draft if he's still available on Day 3. 

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