Patriots Mailbag: Dissecting Bill Belichick’s Comments During Pre-Draft Press Conference

The Pats head coach played things close to the vest as he always does in his pre-draft press conference.

479
0
SHARE

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick played things close to the vest during his pre-draft press conference, which isn’t a surprise, but there were tidbits of information that were telling. 

Belichick’s response to several questions sparked interesting discussions while considering the context of New England’s current quarterback situation and draft position. 

The first response was to a question about how the team is evaluating the 2020 college season, which was greatly altered by the pandemic; many players opted out, some schools played shorter seasons, and some prospects didn’t have the opportunity to play a season at all. 

“In some respects, the 2019 film is probably better, more of an apples-to-apples comparison,” Belichick said of the usefulness of the 2020 season. “But at the same time, we know that players get better with another year of experience, so there were a lot of players that improved from ’19 to ‘20 as they would normally do.”

Belichick caveated his answer at the end by crediting player development for those that improved in the pandemic season last fall. Still, given the uneven circumstances, the Patriots may treat prospects that made a big leap or took a noticeable step back differently than others.

For instance, quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Mac Jones were projected to be mid-round selections at this time last year. Now, they’re potentially going second (to the Jets) and third (to the 49ers) overall. 

Similarly, most believe that Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’s best tape was in 2019, and Fields only played eight games in 2020 due to COVID shortening the Buckeyes’ schedule. 

On the other hand, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance didn’t have a 2020 season with the FCS shutting down their football programs for the year. 

If that’s the case, we could read way too much into Belichick’s remarks and conclude that they may have Lance, or more likely Fields, higher on their board than Wilson or Jones based on 2019. 

Another telling answer from Belichick was that he acknowledged the team was working through trade-up scenarios. Although, he kept it reasonable, saying they were more small trade ups. 

“I’d say normally something would happen and there could very well be a player there that either you don’t expect to be there or maybe he is a couple spots, maybe at 12, 13, he’s still on the board, and you really thought that he’d be gone in the top six, seven picks. Then the question comes, do you move up and try to get that player that’s fallen a little bit? Those are kind of the scenarios you got through,” Belichick said. 

The Pats head coach also mentioned that the team would take swings on upside and “overdraft” a player that they have rated lower because they might not get the prospect at their next pick or roll the dice on upside. 

The final connecting of the dots was Belichick crediting assistant director of player personnel Dave Ziegler, national scout Matt Groh, and consultant Eliot Wolf for “carrying the ball” in the pre-draft process. 

Do you know who the only quarterback prospect is that Ziegler Groh, Wolf, and now Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels saw throw in-person during a pro day? Justin Fields. 

Piecing together Belichick’s words and what you hear around the league, the Ohio State quarterback is at least on their radar. Heavier emphasis on 2019 film, discussions about trading up for a player that might “slide” that they have rated highly, and sending all their big scouting guns to Fields’s pro days; there’s too much smoke to ignore all the signs pointing to their interest in Fields. Now we’ll have to see if he falls far enough into their range to make it happen. 

Getting to your questions now, thanks as always to those that asked them this week. If I don’t answer you here, we are doing another live Q&A on our YouTube channel this Tuesday. 

One other content note, I’ll begin rolling out my Patriots big board with the 50 best fits for New England in this year’s draft starting on Monday, so be on the lookout for that as well. Without further ado, let’s empty this week’s mailbag:

My favorite defensive prospects for the Patriots in the first round are Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins and the two corners, Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn. Collins brings terrific size (6-4, 259) and athleticism to the second level of the defense in coverage or run pursuit while also possessing intriguing skills as a pass-rusher. Collins can rush off the edge or blitz up the middle effectively. Although I prefer Micah Parsons overall, I think Collins is a better fit here on the field and in the locker room. Surtain and Horn are both can’t-miss corners for New England. Surtain’s technique in press coverage is superb for a college prospect, and he’s got good length and athleticism as well. Horn is an alpha-dog on the field that plays a physical brand of press-man and has excellent ball skills. If the Patriots come away with either Surtain or Horn, they have a day-one starter at outside corner. I’d be good with all three at 15, but they might be able to trade down and still land Collins, which is an enticing path to take if the quarterbacks are gone.

That’s a tough question to answer this year, and I find myself constantly flip-flopping on the top wideouts in this year’s class. I don’t think you can separate Chase, Smith, and Waddle, and all three are graded equally for me. I also have a lot of love for Rashod Bateman, who I think has a case as the best blend of pure talent and route-running in the draft (right up there with Smith). But if I had to choose my favorite, it would be Clemson’s Amari Rodgers. Rodgers reminds me of 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel, who I also loved in the 2019 draft. The Clemson receiver is built like a running back and carries the ball like one on schemed touches and after the catch. He has good separation skills at the top of his routes and the versatility to play off the line of scrimmage as a schemed weapon. Rodgers would be a great fit in New England as an Edelman replacement.

Barmore would be my worst-case scenario at 15 for multiple reasons. First, I don’t see a defensive tackle prospect worthy of a first-round pick in this class. Second, Barmore is a streaky player in a penetrating three-technique mold that would likely be very role-specific for the Patriots. My guess is he’d get on the field in Adam Butler’s old role, primarily playing on passing downs only; is that worth a top 15 pick? Barmore is not a two-gapper and is inconsistent against the run because he wants to explode off the ball into the backfield. When he misses with his get off, he gets pushed backward. He could develop into a more well-rounded interior defender, but at this stage, I don’t view him as an every-down player in New England’s scheme. At 15, you need more than a role player. 

Eichenberg is a stud. He’s got a tackle-sized frame, heavy hands and people-moving qualities as a run blocker, and a stout anchor preventing rushers from going through him to the QB. I’m certainly not ignoring him on purpose, and his physicality would fit in well at either tackle spot for New England. But one interesting note on Belichick and Notre Dame players: he hasn’t drafted anyone from Notre Dame since 2007. For whatever reason, the Patriots stay away from Notre Dame guys. Still, if they pull the trigger on Eichenberg in the second round, I definitely wouldn’t be disappointed. He should be a starter for a long time in this league. 

To me, the only quarterback worth drafting on day two is Mond. There is untapped potential there given what he was working with at Texas A&M and the conservative play-calling he dealt with at times. Pro Days can be overrated, but I think we saw with Mond that there’s a lot more arm talent there than what he displayed on tape. My concern is that he’ll now get overdrafted and present poor value as a potential late first-rounder or early second-rounder. I’d take him at 46, but I’m not trading up for Mond. Outside of Mond, I’d wait till the fourth round and see if Newman or Mills lasts, but I’m not taking on either on day two. In summary: Fields in round one, Mond at 46, Mills or Newman on early day three.

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder. I was very impressed with Ridder’s 2019 tape and thought he would’ve been QB6 in this class if he came out this year. He made the right call going back, though, as he might be a first-round pick next year. Ridder saw the field well, had impressive downfield accuracy, and is very athletic. We’ll see what the 2021 tape looks like, but he’d be my early favorite out of the 2022 class. 

Due to his size, I expect TCU safety Ar’Darius Washington to be a day-three pick, and that’s a guy I’d pound the table for in the later rounds. Washington’s aggressive play-speed reminds me of Myles Bryant. He had terrific reps both as a deep safety and closer to the line of scrimmage with some excellent downfield ball skills. Washington has day two tape and would be a steal on day three because he’s only 5-foot-8, 176 pounds. The Pats have developed those undersized DBs into good players in the past. 

The Raiders releasing Hurst came as a surprise to many. Vegas runs a 4-3 system, and Hurst wasn’t asked to penetrate on stunts and other schemed pressures as much as he would in New England. Still, he certainly has pass-rushing upside and was an effective pass-rusher on a per-snap basis. Hurst also had a heart scare that caused him to slide in the draft but was considered a first-round talent on tape, and we know Belichick likes to take those gambles. If they feel he can make the scheme switch, Hurst would bring some pass-rushing punch to a defensive line group lacking in that area.

Good question and this should be a fun competition to monitor in camp. I’m sure there are scenarios where Bill Belichick can convince himself to keep all three on the roster, but my early take is that Vitale ends up being the odd man out. Vitale sitting out last season puts him behind the other two in terms of developmental track in the system, and it seems too early to give up on a third-round pick in Keene, who I’m hoping they’ll use more at fullback or H-Back. Johnson is the closest thing they have to a Develin-like lead-blocker, so as of now, I think he sticks around while Keene learns that role. 

The Patriots might not view him as someone they want at deep safety full-time, but Kyle Dugger could theoretically wear all of McCourty’s hats. McCourty plays in the box or in man coverage at times, which is how they used Dugger last year, and Dugger has a background as a college free safety where he was an effective ball hawker. With Dugger’s athletic profile, I think he can be versatile enough to take on McCourty’s role. The question is, do they want him more in the Chung mold? I’d like to see him roaming more than Chung did to hunt takeaways.

I want to say Myles Bryant, but the Jalen Mills signing adds another obstacle for Bryant to see significant playing time. If the team remains out on re-signing Rex Burkhead, J.J. Taylor certainly has a good chance at backing up James White. Pats running backs coach Ivan Fears acknowledged that the team viewed Taylor’s rookie season as a redshirt year like White and Shane Vereen had. Taylor showed impressive burst and elusiveness as a ball carrier. Plus, they were already flexing him out as a receiver and using him out of the backfield. We are all putting pass-catching backs in our mock drafts, but the team may think Taylor is the next guy. He’s a little more Dion Lewis than White.