By: Steve Balestrieri
“Some guys do one thing very well, other guys have some versatility, other guys can do a lot of different things. Whatever their deal is, it is. And that’s what they come with.” Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, at his Thursday post draft press conference
The New England Patriots did both the unusual and the normal during the 2012 NFL Draft this week at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The normal was that the Patriots drafted players that were versatile (a common Belichick theme) and they did the inevitable trade down, that actually made quite a bit of sense this season. But what they also did, was trade up in the first round to select two players that the team coveted, something that they don’t normally do.
The Patriots and Belichick after the 2011 season which saw them lose in the waning moments in the Super Bowl to the Giants, knew that the defense needed an upgrade, and in the draft they spent the first six of their seven picks on defense.
A common theme heard before the draft was that the Patriots needed to upgrade their front seven and a secondary that was under fire all season. At the ESPN Draft Party held at Gillette Stadium on April 5, the question was asked of the panel what the Patriots needed to do more, draft secondary help or get help with the pass rush in the front seven.
The reply from the esteemed panel of Mike Reiss, Adam Jones, Adam Schefter and Tedy Bruschi was that the Patriots needed to upgrade the front seven and specifically the pass rush, which has been inconsistent since Willie McGinest left town. Bill Belichick obviously agreed with that sentiment because the Patriots added a lot of front seven help and players who are extremely versatile.
Below are listed the Patriots draft picks for the 2012 NFL Draft:
(Round, Player Selected, Overall Player Selected, Name, Position)-
1 21 (21) Jones, Chandler DE
1 25 (25) Hightower, Dont’a ILB
2 16 (48) Wilson, Tavon FS
3 27 (90) Bequette, Jake DE
6 27 (197) Ebner, Nate DB
7 17 (224) Dennard, Alfonzo CB
7 28 (235) Ebert, Jeremy WR
Chandler Jones while at Syracuse played with both his hand down and standing up, something he’s said he’s comfortable doing. Jones was raved about by NFL analyst Mike Mayock as someone who is the best pure pass rusher in this draft. Mayock thinks in 2-3 years Jones may be the best defensive player taken in 2012. Extremely, high marks, eventually the Patriots will work Jones into the “Elephant” role popularized by McGinest. But for this season, at least initially, I see Jones as a sub-rusher, a dedicated pass rusher. As he becomes more comfortable in the Patriots scheme, they’ll add more and more to his plate.
Don’t’a Hightower was primarily an inside linebacker for Alabama, but he also was moved around the field quite a bit in Nick Saban’s schemes. Expect more of that here as the Patriots have the flexibility and versatility to move Hightower inside or outside. He did play some DE in the Crimson Tide’s sub-packages. Right now he’s expected to compete with Rob Ninkovich for snaps at SLB position.
Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Hightower will give the Patriots a big, physical presence at LB with the flexibility to move players around and mix and match. The depth now at LB is a position of strength for the team.
Tavon Wilson’s selection garnered a collective spewing of wrath at Belichick as being either a wasted pick or someone who could have been taken much later. While his selection at #48 was a surprise to the fans and draftniks, it wasn’t to the Patriots.
The team had scouted him extensively, and apparently so had other teams, he had been worked out by six other teams, and rumor has it that San Diego, choosing right after the Patriots were poised to pluck Wilson. Much of the criticism leveled at Wilson may be because he was never settled at one position. He started at corner for Illinois, and when injuries piled up, they asked him to play strong safety. Last year he moved back to corner but started another game at safety when the need arose.
In other words a classic Belichick player, versatile, flexible and willing to play whatever role the team needs. So Wilson will be primarily a safety but could also be a slot corner if the need arises. This summer it will be interesting to see how he adapts and plays in the role the coaches put him in.
Jake Bequette is another versatile player who moved all over the field for Arkansas. Primarily a DE, he’s played inside, outside and even some at OLB, which he did at the Senior Bowl. “Every Sunday, I would turn on NFL games and it seems like half the teams in the league now at least are running a 3-4 kind of hybrid defense or a 4-3,” Bequette told the press. “I know New England is very flexible, and you watch certain players, they have certain outside linebackers who play standing up and in the three-point stance on passing downs. I’m very excited, and if that’s what the coaches want me to do, then I can’t wait to do it.”
Bequette again, fits that flexible, versatile mold the Patriots covet in their players. Not the most gifted athletically, the 6’5, 275 lb Bequette possesses a relentless motor and drive and never quits on a play. Bequette, Jones and Trevor Scott will all vie for playing time at the “Elephant” position. If the Patriots return Andre Carter (if healthy I think they do) he will provide the veteran leadership and presence that Belichick loves to have.
Nate Ebner, S from Ohio State while still raw football wise was an accomplished rugby player who possesses great athletic ability and a willingness to get his nose dirty by coming up and making a tackle. Former Patriot LB and now Ohio State Mike Vrabel was probably consulted on this pick, Belichick always respected Vrabel and it will be interesting to see how they try to work Ebner into the system. One possibility would be the hybrid LB/S role they have used from time to time in their dime package.
Alfonso Dennard, CB from Nebraska was considered a strong 3rd round talent prior to landing in hot water this week for a fight and an assault allegation. The team looked into it and deemed him worthy of the risk. If so, Dennard is a steal in the 7th round.
Dennard has the ability to start at either corner or safety (versatility, thine name is Belichick) and while not the biggest of corners, has outstanding athleticism, his vertical jump at the combine was 37 inches. But best of all, Dennard is a corner who CAN play press coverage. Total low-risk, high-reward move for the Patriots.
And finally, the Patriots did select an offensive player with their final pick and # 238 in the draft with Jeremy Ebert, WR from Northwestern. Ebert is mainly a slot receiver, which is a tad surprising considering the team already has three (Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Anthony Gonzalez).
Ebert, like Edelman was a high school QB who transitioned to WR, but he had very good production from the slot in his senior season, 75 receptions for 1060 yards and 11 TDs and he has the ability to play special teams so his value, at least initially will be tested there. If successful, he may play himself into a larger role especially if Welker and Edelman leave after next season.
The Patriots value players who are versatile and flexible and they drafted seven players who are both. The defense needed an influx of talented, athletic playmakers and they have succeeded in getting that. Now the defense is deeper, more talented and versatile to play in many fronts as well as substituting freely, keeping fresh legs on the field.
While giving draft grades the day after the draft ends is patently ridiculous (check back in 2-3 years), it is safe to say that the Patriots identified their needs and selected players that should fill the needs perfectly. Now they have to prove it on the field. One thing is for sure, the training camp competition should be outstanding this summer. I can hardly wait…