FOXBORO — Understand this when trying to get inside the minds of the Patriots and their approach to the draft: We know nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Unless you are inside the war room and have been on the Pro Day circuit with Bill Belichick, personnel director Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort, there is no possible way to get an idea of who they might pick or even who they may be targeting.
That’s why all that talk about their supposed interest in Lamar Jackson had to be taken with a huge grain of salt – and perspective.
Did they really think a quarterback that would necessitate changing their offensive machinery and design after Tom Brady would be worth a first-round pick? Almost certainly not. Does taking Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta in the middle rounds make sense in the Patriots value system? Probably. Again, you never know anything for sure because you don’t really know HOW they judge a player and what value they place on them. You’ll never know that until you start to see how much and when they play in camp, preseason and the regular season.
There were the obvious needs going into this draft, namely offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher depth. But did anyone see the Patriots taking Sony Michel with their second first-round pick Thursday?
Belichick has had a long history of taking the player when and where he wants, regardless of the consensus big board value to other teams. Consensus, after all, is actually a four-letter word to the Patriots coach and his value system. Did Belichick care that most teams didn’t have Joe Cardona on the board at all when the Patriots selected him in the fifth round in 2015?
That’s not to say the Patriots are completely off the reservation. Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn was widely regarded as the most versatile offensive lineman in the upper tier of the group coming into Thursday’s Round 1. And when you step back and put all the “puzzle pieces” together as Belichick told me on April 13, it makes sense. Kirby Smart, with Alabama pedigree on Nick Saban’s staff, has become the new Greg Schiano, delivering talent to Foxboro year after year. So when Wynn’s name was announced at No. 23, there was little surprise.
But eight picks later, with the likes of edge linebacker Harold Landry and Kirk Ferentz-coached Josh Jackson still on the board, the Patriots went (Kirby) Smart again, taking stud running back Sony Michel.
“I was kind of ready for anything to happen, anything to happen at the moment,” Michel said. “It was kind of a shocker for it to happen this way, but I’m just tremendously excited and honored.”
Why was it a shocker to Michel himself?
“I just kind of didn’t expect the Patriots to call me,” Michel added. “It’s one of those deals – this process has been so long and kind of not expecting the call. You’re kind of just watching TV and just to get the call before the pick and it’s like ‘Man, this is neat.'”
See, it’s not just Patriots fans who can get floored trying to figure out how the Patriots approach the draft. It’s the player himself.
What’s becoming really clear from their experience with David Andrews and Malcolm Mitchell, the Patriots like what their getting from Georgia. Could it be as simple as good players, coached well and with good character and work ethic?
“Everything goes in – the traits, I would say, the football traits a player possesses are very important, especially for our program,” Caserio told me. “I mean we want smart, tough football players – mentally tough, physically tough – that are going to have to go through the rigors of our program and our going to work. They’re going to get up, they’re going to come back the next day. Are they going to be able to do it again and be able to sustain it over the course of a long period of time? So a player’s ability to do that, it’s hard to measure but you try to put that all together as one but those football traits are pretty important, especially around here because we ask a lot of our players and our players work their tails off.
“The expectation is when a rookie comes in, like yeah he’s far behind but like is he going to work? Is he going to take the coaching? Is he going to improve? Is he going to go back? Is he going to study? Okay the next day is he going to come back? Is he going to do the same thing? Is he going to develop a routine for himself? So a player’s ability to do that is going to give him at least a chance to be competitive, whether or not that means he’s going to be successful, I mean that’s a whole separate conversation because your performance on the field in the end is the most important thing. But those football traits and those football characteristics from that perspective are pretty important.”
There was no trading up or trading down on Day 1. There was no big move up the board to take Tom Brady’s successor. There was no trading down for more picks. There was only staying put and taking two players from the same school. Of course, the Patriots executed a trade before Day 2 started Friday, dealing for yet another offensive tackle of starting caliber, acquiring right tackle Trent Brown from the 49ers and San Francisco’s fifth round selection for New England’s third round pick, meaning the Patriots will be finished early Friday after their two second-round picks.
Here’s the bottom line when considering how the Patriots draft: They want the best players on the board that they know will come in and quickly assimilate to the culture, work hard to pick up technique and learn how the Patriots want them to play.
As Belichick has often preached, it’s never been about the need as much as it has been about the best available player they think can produce and deliver quickly. It’s the formula that’s been used going back to taking Tom Brady with the 199th pick in 2000. It was the same with another Georgia product in Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman and continues now with Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise. All of the above were drafted and contributed to a winning program almost immediately.
Just sit back and appreciate how the Patriots keep everyone guessing. Like the weather, draft unpredictably is New England’s biggest constant.