Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- What do we make of the franchise-record eight draft-day trades made by the Patriots this weekend? Does it tell us anything about Bill Belichick's future with the team?

I understand the suggestion that because Belichick and Nick Caserio dealt for future assets -- they finished the weekend having added a second-round pick and a third-round pick in 2019 -- then Belichick must want to stick around to see this thing through. Because he's invested in picks down the line, maybe he wants to be around for the foreseeable future.

Maybe. But I'm not reading that much into it.

I'm not saying he's about to retire soon, either. I just don't believe these 2019 picks are tea leaves that need reading. 

Whether he was 48 years old (as he was during his first Patriots draft in 2000) with a long career ahead of him or 66 years old (as he is now), I think he'd handle the draft the same way. He'll care about the well-being of the team after he's retired. He'll cares about the people who may take the reins when he's done. And he'll always be an economics major from Wesleyan whose approach to find value wherever it's hiding is embedded in his DNA after 18 years as a head coach in New England, five in Cleveland and 20 more as an NFL assistant.

Even if Belichick was about to hang up his whistle, if he saw an opportunity to add an asset and punt on what he considered a weak cross-section of a particular draft? As he did on Friday when he traded a second-rounder for a future second and a fourth? I think he'd take it. It's who he is.

 

Here are some other thoughts from three days of tracking the draft . . .

PATRIOTS KNEW THEY WERE GOING TO DRAFT A QB?

We all thought they would. And they did. They drafted a quarterback. Danny Etling. LSU. Seventh round. But to hear Caserio say after Day 3 of the draft, "We knew we were going to add a quarterback to our team at some point" was a little surprising.

That sounds as though the Patriots had identified a need and resigned themselves to filling it at some point before the end of business Saturday. If they had made that position a priority, why wait until the seventh round? Especially at that position. They had the draft capital to maneuver just about anywhere they wanted on the board.

The easiest explanation for the team's wait-and-see game plan could be this: The first-round quarterbacks weren't deemed worth the cost; the Patriots were down on the perceived second tier of quarterbacks -- Kyle Lauletta, Mason Rudolph, Mike White, Luke Falk -- relative to the rest of the league; and they felt like Etling (a non-combine invitee) was a similarly-talented player who could be had later.

We'll see how Etling pans out. But to identify a need at the most important position on the roster and then wait almost until the massive neon "CLOSED" sign has been lit at Jerry's World . . . It raises an eyebrow.

In 2014, the Patriots identified quarterback as a need -- Belichick's "age and contract situation" explanation couldn't have been an on-the-spot revelation -- and they invested a second-round pick in one. 

This time around, they must have been confident there was no Jimmy Garoppolo-type waiting to hear his name called. 

"There's no template like, 'Well we're going to take one here, we're going to take one there.' You just evaluate the player," Caserio explained, "and we think Danny has some decent traits and some decent qualities to work with, so we'll put him in our program and see how he does."

PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS ABOUND

Putting together our "Prototypical Patriots" series has become one of the more enjoyable few weeks of the year for me. By going back through Belichick's history of drafting certain positions in New England, trying to figure out what he likes in terms of measurements/athletic testing/production, and then applying it to the current draft class, it helps give me a sense of some of their targets come draft weekend. 

 

At least that's the goal.

This year the Patriots selected nine players, and five of them were dubbed "prototypes" in our series. Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel and Duke Dawson were all on the list at their respective positions. (Wynn made it as an interior lineman, not at tackle.) Christian Sam and Braxton Berrios were also identified.

But there should've been more.

Based on heights, weights, athleticism, production and backgrounds, both Ja'Whaun Bentley and Etling should've made the list. Bentley being a three-time captain at Purdue alone should've had him on there. Neither player was a combine invite, and so they weren't really on my radar during the process. But that's on me. Need more grind.

Western Carolina corner Keion Crossen (5-foot-9, 178 pounds) didn't meet the size standards to make the list at his position, though his athletic testing numbers at the Wake Forest pro day were off the charts. Florida State tight end Ryan Izzo, meanwhile, has the size to be a Patriots prototype, but his testing numbers kept him off.

So what did we learn? You'll never believe this, but Belichick loves players from the SEC. Even at quarterback. (Etling was actually the second LSU quarterback taken during Belichick's tenure. He selected Rohan Davey in the fourth round in 2002. Belichick also took SEC product Ryan Mallett out of Arkansas in 2011.) Belichick is also still a big fan of positional versatility, special-teams ability, players with experience in pro-style schemes and captains. At linebacker, as the rest of the league gets smaller, Belichick still likes his thumpers.

Speaking of . . .

ONE MAN'S MIKE IS ANOTHER MAN'S WILL

Just before the Patriots selected Bentley in the fifth round, I texted an NFL defensive assistant coach to ask him about Christian Sam (above). The Patriots still hadn't taken a linebacker, Sam had made a visit to New England during the pre-draft process, and he seemed like a sensible fit. This coach had been locked on linebackers throughout the pre-draft process.

"Mike," was the quick text back. "Good instincts in the box. Physical. Will hit you. Not a great space player . . . Probably the best Mike left on the board."

The Patriots went ahead and took Bentley, then they grabbed Sam in the sixth round.

Hours later, Caserio stepped to the podium at Gillette Stadium.

"Bentley’s a little bit more of a ‘Mike’ linebacker," he said, unprovoked. "Sam is probably a little bit more of a 'Will' linebacker."

So was the above assistant wrong? No. Not from his point of view. But the Patriots clearly see Sam differently.

To me, this is a perfect illustration of how the Patriots are still in some ways adhering to what's looking more and more like an old-school approach at the second level of their defense. They like their linebackers big. Have for a long time. But the rest of the league is shrinking at that position in order to get faster.

 

So where Sam is considered an athletic run-and-chase "Will" linebacker in New England, he'd be considered a true "Mike" in many other systems because of his size (244 pounds), his 40 time (4.75 seconds), and his style of play.

Bentley, listed at 260 pounds on Purdue's website, is a "Mike" in New England. He might not make another roster unless he was on the end of the line of scrimmage, which is where coaches had him play at the Senior Bowl. Too big. It's almost like teams couldn't envision a player with his frame playing off the line in 2018. The Patriots, on the other hand, welcome that kind of power in the middle -- even if it comes at the expense of some speed. Caserio said definitively on Saturday that Bentley was an off-the-line player.

Is that the right approach? Debatable. But the Patriots seem to feel like they're better prepared to beat opposing offenses with bigger 'backers, players like Bentley and Sam, as opposed to some of the 225-pound hybrids listed at linebacker these days.

One thing is for sure. Bentley appears to have the Patriots mindset to be a "Mike" in their defense. Take a listen to him here in this video, which was shot soon after he took over starting middle linebacker duties as a freshman at Purdue.

"I just want to continue to have the team in the right spot," Bentley says. "Everybody being in a gap. And on pass plays, everybody being in the right coverage, the zone, everybody on one accord. Because if everybody's on one accord, can you really run a wrong play?"

Sound familiar?

Asked about defensive communication in 2014, Belichick gave a response that he's reiterated at different points in press-conference settings over the years.

"I think communication starts with, number one, knowing what to do and number two, being decisive and doing it with confidence," Belichick said at the time. "Even doing the wrong thing can be OK as long as we’re all wrong together."

BACK AT IT AGAIN IN ROUND 5

Until taking Bentley in the fifth round with pick No. 143 overall, the Patriots hadn't made a pick in the fifth round since taking long-snapper Joe Cardona in 2015. Their most recent fifth-round pick before Cardona? Marcus Cannon in 2011. 

They've often dealt their fifths away. Why? Inside the Pylon's Dave Archibald did an interesting writeup on the topic in 2016. Has to do with hit rates in the later rounds.

 

"I mean, look, some of it's a 50/50 proposition," Caserio said, "and the further on you get down the road, the percentages go down."

RESOURCES AT RUNNING BACK

Caserio was asked on Saturday night exactly why the Patriots had invested so heavily at running back. MassLive.com's Kevin Duffy pointed out the Patriots were top-five in the NFL in running back spending in 2017, and they added a first-round running back in Sony Michel (above) on Thursday night. 

When many teams around the league seem to be devaluing that position -- it's the fourth-cheapest position in the league when it comes to franchise-tag values -- the Patriots are not. 

"It’s not a matter of resource allocation, it’s a matter of just – like we talked about – when we picked Sony, it’s about picking good football players."

What makes Michel more valuable than some others, as we pointed out on Thursday night, likely has to do with his production in the passing game. All three first-round running backs taken in this year's draft -- Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny and Michel -- have value in that area. Michel is the least-experienced receiver of that group (64 catches at Georgia in his career), but he might be the best pass-protector in the class, according to some experts. That matters. It certainly matters to the Patriots. 

"The biggest adjustment at running back, especially from college to the pros, is the variables and the multiples," Caserio said. "I mean, with some of the guys, pass-protection is like a mystery. It’s like, 'Block this guy, but you also have to block that guy over there.' It’s not even humanly possible. ‘Do this, do that, look there, and if he doesn’t come, go over here.’ We’re not doing that."

And to avoid that, they've invested. 

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