In 2001, midway through a surprising season that would turn historic, I approached Bill Belichick in the locker room at Foxboro Stadium.
I asked why the Patriots eschewed the chance to take a wide receiver like David Terrell with the sixth overall pick in April and instead opted for Richard Seymour, a defensive tackle from Georgia.
Terrell was the wide receiver bauble we all presumed Drew Bledsoe had been missing. A downfield threat he could count on not named Terry Glenn. That was what Drew needed. The selection of Seymour was famously panned in part because he managed just 1.5 sacks his final season at Georgia.
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By the time I approached Belichick, Seymour was in the midst of an outstanding rookie season and the Patriots were on a tear.
Back then, I hadn’t been disabused of the fact that guys who handle the ball aren’t necessarily better just because we know their names.
So I asked Belichick gone why he hadn’t addressed the (in my view) more obvious wide receiver need with Terrell or Koren Robinson or Rod Gardner, the receivers taken after Terrell (the eighth overall pick).
“Who’s the best rookie wide receiver in the league right now?” Belichick asked me.
“Uhhhhh . . . "
“Chris Chambers,” prompted Belichick. “The Dolphins took him in the second round. You don’t need to take a wide receiver that high.”
Belichick has stayed true to that philosophy since. He’s never taken a wide receiver with a first-round pick. He’s spent second rounders on four players – Aaron Dobson, Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson, Deion Branch. When the Patriots dealt Brandin Cooks to the Rams on Tuesday and suddenly found themselves with two first-round picks, there was immediate speculation they’d done so to meet the asking price placed on Giants wideout Odell Beckham. Seriously. Rampant .
So no first-round picks on wideouts in 18 seasons, but he’ll spend two on a guy who’s going to want a $90 million contract with $50 million guaranteed? Seems unlikely.
If not OBJ, then who? Have the Patriots loaded up with five picks in the first 95 selections of the draft in order to climb up and take a quarterback? A game-altering defender? Or are they going to sit and patiently let the draft come to them, being prepared to move up or down depending on what’s going on in the first 15 or so picks on April 26?
Bet on the latter. But leave all of the above in play.
The Patriots want to be nimble during the draft. If they see a player they like slipping, they want to get the hell up and get him. If their pick looms and the players on the board are not, in their estimation, worth being selected at that spot, they’ll get the hell out.
In a sitdown I did with Belichick in 2011, he said, "You don't want a pick, you want a particular guy. So based on how you can get that player, that's what really drives the trade. Who do you trade with? You trade with a team that can put you position to get you the player you want."
Simple, right? Except that getting a trade partner isn’t always a layup. Belichick doesn’t have time for teams that waffle or need to convene a meeting to consider a trade. The Patriots travel light -- it’s Belichick and Nick Caserio executing the trades -- and the Patriots will go back to teams they’ve had success dealing with in the past.
With a glut of purportedly capable quarterbacks at the top of the draft -- Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold -- speculation is rife that New England could (COULD!) leap up to get one of them by packaging picks.
Steering clear of the players for a moment, let’s look at the logic there. Tom Brady will be 41. He’s got two years left on his contract. He’s vacillating a bit about his future and going through a “recalibration.” Whoever comes in will get at least one apprentice season watching Brady, probably two. We’ll see after 2019. But Brady is the reigning MVP and has played at a superior level for the past four seasons.
To me, how long the next guy has to watch shouldn’t affect who is selected. For example, if you know the guy isn’t playing until 2020, you shouldn’t let that dictate when you’ll take him. You just need to get the right guy. But trading up and forfeiting two first-rounders in exchange for one who will watch for two seasons (at least) then finally get his shot three years into his five-year rookie deal? I don’t know if that’s great value.
(Besides, I think this quarterback group reminds me of the 2010 class -- Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder in the top 10, Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton in Round 2, Ryan Mallett in the third.)
The value for the Patriots in this draft is in adding good players, not scouring for a couple of great ones.
They are getting up there in age at key positions. Julian Edelman is 31. Chris Hogan, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty and Patrick Chung are 30. Rob Gronkowski is mulling retirement. Donta Hightower is 28 and has had his share of injuries. Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown are entering the last years of their contracts.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have had one pick in the top 59 players in the past three drafts (Malcom Brown in 2014). They’ve had two second-round picks since 2014 -- Cyrus Jones and Jordan Richards.
Have the Patriots done a great job over the years finding great fits and contributing players in later rounds? Yes. Unparalleled. From Brady to Edelman to Flowers and all the other players over 18 seasons, yes.
The Patriots need players. Plural. Trading up to get one alleged plum pick -- especially one who’ll be watching for a spell -- isn’t the way to go.