New England Patriots – 2012 Draft Grade

Draft Grade: B-

Everyone seems hesitant to critique the Patriots draft. I don’t scare easy, and I’m lukewarm on the Patriots draft decisions.

If professional integrity isn’t enough incentive to convince the so-called critics to do their job, maybe Belichick’s recent track record is. It isn’t so long ago (2007) that Belichick went an entire draft without selecting a player destined to play more than four years on his team. Do you think he walked away from that draft any less smug than this one? Granted, Belichick has found a few gems in recent years, but his hot-and-cold record deserves at least an objective review. Let’s take a look.

One note at the outset: the Patriots don’t get an automatic upgrade for netting two first-round picks. They made a deal to get first rounders long before this draft, and have reaped the rewards and costs of that trade. But it didn’t happen on draft day or the lead up, so it doesn’t count as a draft decision, and doesn’t contribute to their grade.

The Patriots draft this year was a mix of hits and misses. Chandler Jones was a good pick. He gathers himself and pushes the pocket against tough competition, and it’s quickly apparent on film. He has a quick first step and good reaction. He’s a finisher, and his motor doesn’t quit. The results also show up in the box score. You can’t ask for much more in a first round defensive lineman, and the Patriots got him after the top 20.

Donta’a Hightower is a miss. Not in the sense that he won’t be a good player; he just doesn’t appear to be great value. He doesn’t seem exceptionally quick to the ball, doesn’t read plays well, and sometimes fails to break down and tackle effectively. His play also shows up in the box score—he didn’t have overwhelming stats.

It’s pure speculation, but my guess is that Hightower attracted the Patriots’ brass because he is “versatile.” Even if this is true, and even if playing multiple fronts within the confines of the 53-man roster presents an advantage for the Patriots (their defense didn’t exactly carry them to the Super Bowl last year, but that’s another column), a GM still has to balance versatility with quality play. Julian Edelman is versatile; the Patriots determined this offseason that they are a superior team with Brandon Lloyd catching a lot more passes than the more versatile Edelman. I didn’t see enough plays from Hightower at the outside linebacker spot to think I would prefer him over, say, Courtney Upshaw in that role. And Hightower is certainly not the equal at the middle linebacker position of guys like Sean Spence or DeMario Davis taken several rounds after him. He was drafted too high, regardless of his versatility.

Don’t forget that the Patriots traded up for Hightower, too. He essentially spent two picks, a first and a fourth, on one player. Belichick might argue that one Hightower is more likely to make his roster than, say, both Upshaw and Davis (whom he could have had in the first and the fourth, respectively). But this is where draft uncertainty comes in. It’s an inexact science, and a GM is more likely to identify one (and possibly a second) difference maker from two picks, each of whom excel at a narrower sets of skills, than that same GM is to identify the combination of skills that will make a single player great at multiple positions. Statistics says this is poor risk management. Belichick just plain got it wrong.

The Patriots also got it wrong the next round in Tavon Wilson. He’s not a starting safety or corner, period. Even if this player transforms himself under Belichick’s guidance, it’s still a bad call: the Pats had a pick at 62 that was almost guaranteed to net them Wilson. The only explanation for this pick is this: Belichick is so cocky in his player evaluation and cares so little for others’ assessments that he’s not willing to consider the almost certainty that he can wait for a guy he likes. If another team nabbed Wilson before 62, they were making a mistake, too, and Belichick would have had another quality player fall to him. He should have waited (probably several rounds).

Bequette is a good pick in the third. I heard him called a “high-motor” guy. That seems like a backhanded compliment for a guy who just happens to lack the natural get-off of star pass rushers. Bequette has a skill set that isn’t easily learned, even if it’s not leaping out of the gym. He’s disciplined; he finds the ball extremely well; he pushes the pocket; he plays the run strong and finds the edge on the outside rush. This guy may get double-digit sacks and improve your run defense – at a third round price. Great find.

Whether to sit tight in the fifth round or trade back is a decision that requires a little more familiarity with the back end of the Pats’ roster than I’m willing to invest.

The Pats did get a find in Dennard in the late seventh round. Seventh round picks should be invested like any other, but I’ll take the trade-off of unquestioned talent for questionable attitude at that price any day.

The Pats walk away from this draft improved, and may have found 2-3 blue chip players at a good price. That said, they seemed to waste other picks entirely. Long term, this is a formula for success in the regular season, but not necessarily a deep playoff run every year. That’s what you see on the field.

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