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NFL Draft Analysis – New England Patriots: In Belichick We Trust?

Photo by Keith Allison via Flickr

I was listening to local sports radio (my bad) here in Boston the other day and the hosts were discussing the Minnesota Vikings selection of quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th pick.  They laughed at the choice saying it was a massive reach and terrible.  I was struck by the ridiculousness of these comments.  These two guys know very little about why the Vikings picked Ponder.  They heard Ponder would be available in the 2nd round and they heard he’s not as good as some other quarterbacks in the draft that were still on the board.  What these two local sports radio hosts know is greatly outweighed by what they do not know.  I am reminded of a quote from one of the greatest shows to ever air on television – West Wing:  “Toby, the total tonnage of what I know that you don’t, could stun a team of oxen in it’s tracks.” It’s aggravating to hear such bold-faced ignorance parading around as expertise.  Whether it’s NFL or partypoker, the ridiculousness is amplified by the confidence with which it’s delivered.

They do not know what the Vikings saw in the hours of film they watched on Ponder, or what they heard or sensed in the interviews with the former Florida State quarterback.  Disagreement with the pick is not the problem; the problem is dismissing the choice as a joke and assuming the Vikings are clueless. That’s the thing about ignorance though – it is opinionated and loud.  

In Belichick we trust?

Yes and no.  The reaction to this latest draft brought back memories of 2009 and the backlash over Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th and 2 in Indianapolis.  Belichick often makes decisions that make it clear he does not care about the opinions of the media or general populace – this angers a lot of people.  If you give credence to a Patriots draft pick because it was made by Belichick, you’ll often be labeled as “drinking the kool aid” or as an “In Belichick We Trust” guy.  We should trust Bill Belichick more than we trust the average sports radio caller or host.  After all, Belichick has been coaching professional football for 35 years.  His list of achievements is long: won three Super Bowls as head coach of the New England Patriots and two as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, three Coach of the Year honors, four AFC Championships, and he’s the only NFL coach to have four seasons of fourteen wins or more.  You know his resume, so why am I repeating it here?  Well, for one, I point to Belichick’s resume as the result, in part, of his draft and football strategy, which go hand in hand.  This massive list of accomplishments is the proof in the proverbial pigskin pudding.

Assuming you are someone that values measured, intelligent, and accurate analysis, any criticism of Belichick’s draft dealings should not be vehement, but tempered due to his immense success.  This is not to say that we should not scrutinize or question his decisions.  He has made mistakes such as Laurence Maroney (1st round), Bethel Johnson (2nd), and Chad Jackson (2nd) (and a long list of guys you do not even remember because their contributions in the NFL were so minute).  From 2001 to 2010, Belichick drafted 91 players and of these, 35 have made meaningful contributions in the NFL. So, yes, he’s missed on a bunch of guys (56 by my count, although it is too early to tell on a few players) as have most NFL player personnel people.  In general, criticism of drafting decisions of NFL executives and coaches should be balanced by the fact that they have greater access to information and have invested more time, money, and effort than any outside individual ever could.  This is not to say we should not analyze or question Belichick and his colleagues.  This is to say, take the commentary beyond reactionary and emotional rebuke, beyond “that’s a terrible pick.”  Right or wrong, these decisions are fueled by immense resources and experienced people.  So, a meaningful question is, “what are they thinking?”

What are the Patriots thinking?

Here is a theory on Belichick’s strategy for this draft.  Given his access to all the film and gameplans of the previous season, Belichick sees a young defensive team that got better and better as the 2010 season progressed.  He sees an offense that in the biggest game of the year allowed 5 sacks of his all-world quarterback, an offense that scored 3 points in the first half, an offense that lacked a threatening running game and allowed the Jets defense to key singularly on the passing game.  Thus, the 2nd and 3rd round picks on the pass-protection capable, speed/power combo of runningbacks Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.  Perhaps Belichick believes that putting pressure on the quarterback is as much scheme-driven as player driven, and is aware that at some point there will be free agents available to address any remaining deficiencies.  He is likely aware that his team won 14 games and allowed the 8th fewest points per game in the NFL in 2010.  Belichick may be thinking about Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden, two veteran defensive players returning in 2011 that were lost to injury for all of 2010.  He sees his aging future Hall of Fame quarterback, aging left tackle Matt Light, and perhaps deemed Brady’s blind side/health priority # 1, thus the pick of OT Nate Solder.   The retirement of Stephean Neal and the aging Alge Crumpler surely played into the Patriots’ decision to draft G Marcus Cannon, and former Red Sox closer turned blocking tight end Lee Smith.  Maybe Belichick has noticed the ever-growing prevalence of passing in the NFL and hopes to return to a time when he had four or five players he trusted in the secondary, thus the selection of cornerback Ras-I Dowling with the 33rd pick overall.  It’s possible that Belichick expects great things from DE/OLB Jermaine Cunningham in year 2, who had a promising rookie year.  There are numerous explanations for the Patriots’ decisions on draft day, and perhaps it’s just the vocal minority, but I don’t think the oft-repeated “Belichick has lost his mind” explanation is valid.

More Like Bore-ichick

One of the chief problems that many commentators and fans likely have with this draft is that it bored them.  I sat at the bar (glass empty) until the 28th pick, hoping for a little excitement, and then I left with a twinge of self-disgust for failing to recognize what was obvious – there would be no excitement, just more unused draft picks for another year.  I blame the lockout (I think we should all start blaming the lockout for any misfortune that befalls us).  See, the lockout has left us football fans desperate for excitement, for signs that football is still here and that we have a season to look forward to.  So, as the 1st round neared it’s end, I was like the guy at the bar with last call goggles – anything started to look good.  Maybe the Pats will draft Ryan Williams or Da’Quan Bowers or… someone!  Alas, it was not meant to be.  I was left disappointed and slightly disgusted.

The Patriots did not draft the sexy pass-rusher (or anyone for that matter) that so many people’s mock drafts predicted.  Here’s a tip to mock drafters in the future, if you hear the Patriots are interested in a certain player, then scratch him off your list; the Patriots will not be drafting anyone you have heard that they are interested in prior to the draft.  So, that narrows the pool of players down a bit for future predictions.  While the Patriots draft day decisions may be boring, the fact remains that every year the team has a legitimate shot at winning a Super Bowl.  How many teams can say that?

Belichick’s Meaningful Contributor Draft Picks Since 2001

These players made meaningful contributions for the Patriots since 2001.  Granted, some on this list are considered disappointments (yes, we’re looking at you Maroney & Meriweather) because their production did not elevate to their draft position, however, they have provided some value to the team.  It is also somewhat early to make a definitive call on many players from the 2009 & 2010 drafts, but as it looks now, 2010 may be the draft of Belichick’s career.

Richard Seymour, DT, 1st round 2001, 6 time Pro Bowl Selection, 4 time All-Pro selection

Matt Light, OT, 2nd round 2001, 3 time Pro Bowl selection, All-Pro selection 2007

David Givens, WR, 7th round 2002:  8 Playoff games – 35 rec. 324 yds, 7 TDs, 2 Super Bowl wins

Jarvis Green, DE, 4th round, 2002: 8 seasons, 232 Tackles, 28 Sacks, 2 Super Bowl wins

Daniel Graham, TE, 1st round, 2002, 5 seasons, 17 TDs, 2 Super Bowl wins, Team Captain

Deion Branch, WR, 2nd round, 2002, Super Bowl XXXIX MVP

Tully Banta-Cain, OLB, averaging over 6 sacks per season in last 3 season with Patriots (9.5 sacks in 2009)

Dan Koppen, C, 5th round 2003, named to the Patriots’ 2000s all-decade team in 2010

Asante Samuel, CB, 4th round 2003, All-Pro and Pro Bowl in 2007

Dan Klecko, DT, 4th round 2003, in rookie season was a blocking fullback on five of the Patriots’ nine running TDs

Eugene Wilson, 2nd round 2003, 2 INTs vs. Steelers in 2004 AFC Championship game

Ty Warren, 1st round 2003, Pro Bowl 2007, 373 tackles, 20. 5 sacks

Ben Watson, TE, 1st Round 2004, From 2005-08 Watson totaled 136 catches, most by a Patriots TE over a 4 yr. span since Ben Coates

Vince Wilfork, NT, 1st round 2004, Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection in 2007, 2009, 2010.

Matt Cassel, QB, 7th round 2005, Filled in for injured Tom Brady in 2009, throwing 21 TDs and leading the team to an 11-5 record

James Sanders, FS, 4th round 2005, 301 tackles, 8 INTs, 6 seasons

Nick Kaczur, OT, 3rd round 2005, 62 games started

Ellis Hobbs, CB, 9 INTs, 2 playoff INTs, 3 KO return TDs including longest in NFL history

Logan Mankins, G, 1st round 2005, Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection 2007

Stephen Gostkowski, K, 4th round 2006, Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection 2008

Laurence Maroney, RB, 1st round 2006, 2,839 total yards, 22 TDs, 4.2 yards per carry, great dance moves

Brandon Meriweather, S, 1st round 2007, 261 tackles, 12 INTs, Pro Bowl selection 2009 & 2010, Big Bang Clock

Jonathan Wilhite, CB, 4th round 2008, 39 games in 3 seasons, 93 tackles, 3 INTs

Jerod Mayo, ILB, 1st round 2008, Defensive Rookie of the Year, All-Pro & Pro Bowl selection 2010

Julian Edelman, WR, 7th round 2009, 44 rec, 445 yards, 2 TDs, playoffs: 2 TDs, set franchise record in 2010 for single-season punt return avg. (led AFC), Led NFL in most Bieber-like hair

Brandon Tate, WR, 3rd round 2009, 24 rec, 432 yards, 3 TDs, 41 kick returns, 1,057 yards (25.8 yard average), 2 TDs

Sebastian Vollmer, OT, 2nd round 2009, started 24 games, 2010 All-Pro selection

Darius Butler, CB, 2nd round 2009, 58 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 TD, 14 passes defensed

Patrick Chung, FS, 2nd round 2009, 133 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INTs, son of reggae artist Sophia George-Chung.  Her song, “Girlie Girlie” (1985) was #1 in Jamaica & Top 10 in U.K.

Zoltan Mesko, P, 5th round 2010, 58 punts, 2,505 yards (43.2 avg., 38.4 avg.), five touchbacks, 19 downed inside 20-yard line, long of 65 yards, only NFL player ever named Zoltan (probably true)

Brandon Spikes, ILB, 2nd round 2010, 12 games, 61 tackles, 1 INT, 3 passes defensed

Jermaine Cunningham, OLB/DE, 2nd round 2010, started 11 of 16 games as rookie, 34 tackles, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles

Aaron Hernandez, TE, 4th round 2010, 45 rec, 563 yards, 6 TDs

Rob Gronkowski, TE, 2nd round 2010, 42 rec, 546 yards, 10 TDs

Devin McCourty, 1st round 2010, 82 tackles, 7 INTs, Pro Bowl in rookie season