Before we begin our draft preview, a quick note on a tweet by Chad Finn about how Seattle giving New England five free yards at the end of the Super Bowl demonstrated their coach’s inability to prep them for the big moment.
Something about that comment stuck with me, and not just the fact that I agreed with it. Then it hit me: I’d heard Bill Belichick discuss this before.
Starting at the 3:08 mark of this “Mic’d Up” video, we see him talking with young defensive lineman Marquise Hill (RIP). The coach stresses the importance of avoiding an offsides penalty when they have the offense backed up on their own one-yard line.
To illustrate the point, Belichick says, “Half the distance to the goal line. How far is that?” and holds his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart. Then, he lays out the situation in a way that, in retrospect, could not feel more prescient:
“So why not try to draw you guys offside, right? That’s the cheapest five yards they can get. That’s the situation. They’re backed up: you’ve got to get ready for a hard cadence. That gets them off the goal line. They miss it, what’ve they got to lose? Nothing. Two inches. They’re on the one-yard line anyway.”
Fast-forward several years later. The Patriots use a hard cadence. The Seahawks give them five yards. That’s the situation.
On to our preview, listing the types of players that tend to get the call to Foxboro.
The Patriots have nine picks in the 2015 draft. We expect a few trades, and we’ve picked up on quite a few tendencies over the past 15 drafts, so please don’t take these Guys as straight predictions. It’s just a review of specific details of New England’s draft history and how it might apply to 2015.
DAY ONE – Round One (One pick, 32nd Overall)
The First-Round Solid-Bet Guy: As we mentioned in our Round-By-Round Review of the past 15 Patriots drafts, New England does consistently well choosing first-rounders. We look to strengthen their offensive front this year. The last time the Pats chose an offensive lineman in the first round? Nate Solder, 2011. The last time they picked up an OL at number 32? Logan Mankins, 2005. Time to see if they can nab another first-stringer here.
Possible Pick: Laken Tomlinson, Duke Offensive Lineman (6-3, 323). Tomlinson seems like a solid fit for New England’s interior. He possesses the size, the smarts, and the experience, having played right guard at Duke for 52 games over four years, earning All-ACC honors three times. He put up a respectable 25 bench-press reps of 225 pounds at the NFL Combine. While his 5.33-second 40-yard dash won’t get him on the Olympic podium (as has been said before, why the heck are linemen running 40 yards?), his 31.5-inch vertical was seventh-best among O-linemen.
If Belichick and Co. think they can get a lineman of similar quality early on Day Two, expect them to trade down here.
DAY TWO – Rounds Two And Three (Three Picks: 64th, 96th, Compensatory)
The Who’s-That-Guy? Guy: The Patriots have presented their fans with a few head-shakers in this area of the draft. Names like Sebastian Vollmer, Tavon Wilson, and Duron Harmon weren’t exactly flying around New England households before the home team picked them up, but all contributed on the team’s recent championship run. Going by this history, look for the Pats to call out a name that will have the pundits skipping to the backs of their notebooks during the broadcast.
Possible Pick: Ronald Martin, LSU Strong Safety (6-1, 217). Martin has solid size and has shown good instincts during his time at LSU. He tied for third on the team with 73 tackles, and had two interceptions (including the game-clincher at Ole Miss), nine pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles.
The Injured Guy: New England takes chances on Day Two, including players who have suffered injuries in college or before the draft. While Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling comes to mind as a gamble that didn’t pay off, one must also consider tight end Rob Gronkowski, who came out of Arizona after missing his junior year with a neck injury. Then more injuries happened while in Foxboro. And then? Gronk Time.
So, maybe worth the risk?
Possible Pick: Cedric Reed, Texas Defensive End (6-6, 271). Reed had knee surgery last month to repair a torn meniscus he played through in 2014. Despite that, he still managed 73 tackles, with 10 tackles for loss (5.5 sacks) and eight quarterback hits. He has the height and overall size to excel as a versatile player in New England’s system. Especially with two fully functional knees.
The Alabama Guy: Belichick and ‘Bama coach Nick Saban go back farther than the wall art at Pech Merle. They run defenses based on similar concepts. You’d think the Pats would select players like linebacker Dont’a Hightower and former NE defensive end Brandon Deaderick more often. We think this year they just might.
Possible Pick: Xzavier Dickson, Outside Linebacker (6-3, 260). Dickson ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, an agreeable number for a man his size. He had 42 tackles in 2014, including nine sacks and 10 QB hits. Though not blessed with great strength (a meh 19 bench press reps), he has the size and scheme familiarity that could help him contribute to a defense that keeps opposing QBs guessing more than your grandma playing pop culture charades.
“Ooh, a movie? Is Montgomery Clift in it? He was amazing, that Montgomery Clift.”
The Ohio State Guy: Another Belichick Bud, Coach Urban Meyer, has had quite a few of his players make their way to Foxboro (if written a few years ago, this would be called “The Florida Guy” after Meyer’s previous address). Having a member of the college football national champion probably wouldn’t hurt.
Possible Pick: Doran Grant, Cornerback (5-10, 199). Grant had five interceptions in 2014, along with nine pass break-ups. The senior took on a leadership role this past season as the only returning starter for OSU’s secondary. He also won the Iron Buckeye Award, given out by the team’s strength coach for dedication to the weight room – this paid off with 21 reps in the NFL Combine bench press, good for second-best among cornerbacks (Josh Shaw, 26).
DAY THREE – Rounds Four Through Seven (Five Picks: Two Fourths, One Sixth, Two Sevenths)
The Other Offensive Line Guy: As we’ve mentioned before in this space, the Patriots nailed last year’s Round Four offensive line picks like they were shingles on a Nantucket cottage. Getting starting center Bryan Stork and solid backup Cameron Fleming early on Day Three? Not too shabby. As they often do, New England could try to further stockpile OL assets here.
Possible Pick: Jamon Brown, Louisville Offensive Lineman (6-4, 323). Brown played both right and left tackle for the Cardinals and projects to guard in the NFL. Not fast, but quick-footed for a man roughly the size of a newspaper kiosk. Brown went to Louisville as a defensive prospect and switched to offense as a freshman. Helped his team average almost 400 yards of offense per game.
The Take-A-Shot-On-This-Receiver Guy: There must be some trick to learning that offense. Bethel Johnson in 2003. Chad Jackson in 2006. Aaron Dobson in 2013. All second-rounders. While Dobson still has a chance to produce in Foxboro, his clock is ticking. Who figured a converted college QB from Kent State would turn into their most prolific receiver? No, the Pats probably won’t find another Julian Edelman in Round Seven (more on that below), but they could take a Day Three shot at a productive pass-catcher.
Possible Pick: Matt Miller, Boise State (6-3, 220). Miller missed the second half of this past season with ankle issues (so he could also qualify as The Injured Guy). Said injury could work out for New England, giving them leeway to take Miller late and, if necessary, put him on IR for a so-called “redshirt” year. Miller was a preseason Fred Biletnikoff Award Candidate (outstanding college football receiver) and won Academic All-Mountain West Awards two years in a row. In five games, Miller caught 28 passes for 461 yards (16.5 avg per catch, 92.2 avg per game) and three touchdowns.
The Special Teams Guy: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski (Fourth Round, 2006). Matthew Slater (Fifth Round, 2008). Punter Zoltan Mesko (Fifth Round, 2010). Longsnapper Jake Ingram (Sixth Round, 2009). Malcolm Williams (Seventh Round, 2011). Nate Ebner (Sixth Round, 2012). Remember hearing about the Slater pick and wondering where he fit? Considering Belichick recently compared him to former Patriot and long-time special teams ace Larry Izzo, the coach always knew what he was looking for there.
Possible Pick: Mark Nzeocha, Wyoming Outside Linebacker (6-3, 239). Nzeocha – a former safety – might not possess the size to play every down at outside linebacker in New England’s system, but he showed a great nose for the ball for the Cowboys. He totaled 101 tackles as a junior (including 10 or loss), and as a senior he had 59 stops, with two sacks, five pass break-ups and two forced fumbles in only seven games (he tore his ACL in October). Fits as a special teamer who could fill in as a quicker ‘backer in passing situations. Put up a respectable 24 bench reps at the combine.
The Sixth-Round Small School Guy: Last year, New England took Zach Moore, a defensive end out of Concordia-St. Paul. In 2011, they brought in Markell Carter, a defensive end from Central Arkansas. In 2007, they chose Justise Hairston, a running back from Central Connecticut. While most of the Patriots’ small school players come to Foxboro via rookie free agency (a certain West Alabama cornerback whose name rhymes with Balcolm Mutler comes to mind), they’ve used the sixth round to add potential depth.
Possible Pick: Edmond Robinson, Newberry Outside Linebacker (6-3, 245). Small school guys need to excel in testing to help get noticed; Robinson did his part by running an equestrian 4.61-second 40 and putting up a macropodidae-like 10-foot-1 broad jump. The linebacker led the Wolves with 68 tackles, including 7.5 for loss. He also broke up five passes and recovered two fumbles. As a junior, Robinson was named to the All-South Atlantic Conference team with 66 tackles, 12 for loss and 2.5 sacks.
The Rutgers Guy: A quick look at New England’s defensive backfield reveals Devin McCourty (2010), Logan Ryan (2013), and Duron Harmon (2013). I had the chance to contact Dan Duggan, who covers the Scarlet Knights for NJ Advance Media (and for Patriots fans, is a darn fine follow on Twitter.) While we both figured fullback Michael Burton would fit well in Foxboro, Dan called Burton a James Develin clone. Tom Brady has said he thinks Develin is the best fullback in the NFL, so no changes expected there. That brings us to …
Possible Pick: Tyler Kroft, Tight End (6-6, 246). Kroft declared for the draft after a disappointing junior season where he caught 24 passes for 269 yards with no touchdowns. This happened after a solid sophomore campaign with 43 catches for 573 yards (both team highs) and four TDs. Kroft couldn’t run his 40 at the combine due to a nagging ankle injury, but his trainer (and former NFL TE) Anthony Becht tweeted that Kroft was the “purest route runner and pass catcher I’ve seen on tape.” (Again, tip of the hat to Dan Duggan’s Twitter account. I’m telling you: follow that thing.)
The “Now We Draft A Defensive Lineman?” Guy: Many New England fans keeping an eye on the draft expect the Pats to bolster their offensive and defensive lines in the early rounds. As well-versed as we outside of Gillette see ourselves in all drafting matters, the higher-ups there often neglect to take our wishes into account. Some late-round D linemen have included seventh-rounder Brandon Deaderick from Alabama and Kade Weston from Georgia (both in 2010), and sixth-rounder Myron Pryor from Kentucky in 2009.
Possible Pick: Travis Raciti, San Jose State Defensive Lineman (6-4, 292). We considered Tyeler Davison, Fresno State Nose Guard (6-2, 315), but his 8.5 sacks in 2014 and a strong combine make him a little too desirable for this late in the draft. Raciti has experience all along the D-line for the Spartans, serving as team captain for two years while starting 45 games in four years. He tallied 72 tackles in 2014, including 6.5 for loss (three sacks). Also, versatility alert: as well as playing defensive line in high school, Raciti served as a tight end, middle linebacker, and long snapper.
The Seventh-Round Slot Guy: We’re looking at smaller, quicker receivers here, like Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon in 2014 and Northwestern’s Jeremy Ebert in 2012. As we said, they can’t expect to find another Edelman, but don’t forget, the little Edelmaniac was taken here in 2009.
Possible Pick: Christion Jones, Alabama Receiver/Returner (5-10, 182). A-ha! Not just a slot guy and returner, but also an Alabama Guy. Jones had a rough 40-yard dash (4.63) but showed his relative quickness in the 3-cone drill (6.91 seconds). At Alabama, Jones had 19 catches for 264 yards (13.9 avg) and one touchdown and was the Tide’s main punt returner. As a junior, he was named the All-SEC Special Teams Player of the Year by league coaches after averaging 28.7 yards per kickoff return (one TD) and 14 yards per punt return (two TDs). Here’s a link to the highlights of Jones’ stellar night vs. Virginia Tech in 2013, where he scored three times in three different ways.
The Navy Guy: Belichick’s longstanding relationship with the Naval Academy (his father coached there for, oh, 33 years) causes him to cast an eye toward Annapolis. The Patriots have hosted Navy guys before, placing them on the reserve/military list (running back Shun White, for example, stood on that list from 2009 until getting released in 2013). All service academy players have a five-year commitment. They must serve two years, then apply to the Secretary of their appropriate branch for permission to both serve and play. If granted, the remaining three-year, full-time commitment gets doubled to six years in the Reserves. (Thanks to Scott Strasemeier, Senior Associate Athletic Director of the US Naval Academy, for that info).
Possible Pick: Joe Cardona, Long Snapper (6-2, 242). We considered Navy linebacker Cody Peterson and safety Parrish Gaines, but Cardona gets a first look here as he also fits into the Special Teams Guy category. Current Pats long snapper Danny Aiken had a few uh-oh moments this past season where punter Ryan Allen’s Jerry-Rice-like stickum hands bailed Aiken out. Not always easy to notice, but we have to think Belichick did. Cardona has been tabbed the best long snapper in the country this year and received the only invitation to the NFL Combine of anyone at the position. He put up a linebacker-like 30 reps on the bench press. Would the Patriots use a draft pick on someone who can’t play until 2017 at the earliest? Not likely. Still, we bet New England will call for Cardona’s services – at least for a practice stint this spring.
Okay, draftniks, tell us whom we’ve forgotten. What are the Patriots’ tendencies we’re overlooking here, and who would fit best in that category? Please let us know in the comments below.
Chris Warner can tweet and be tweeted at: @cwarn89