“No freaking way!” you must be saying, “Mel Kiper knows everything.”
Your comments are going to divert us off onto a tangent. Make no mistake, I’m primed for it. Just by way of example, Mel Kiper thinks Jarvis Jones is a first-round talent. This, despite Jones’s palpable lack of upper-echelon athletic talent or any statistical indicators of good performance (unless you count coverage sacks or his defensive linemates’ sloppy seconds).
But this post is not about bashing Mel Kuiper. Let’s focus. Swear to God, I know who the Patriots will pick: Datone Jones from UCLA.
Datone Jones fits the Belichick mold perfectly. For a defensive tackle, the UCLA product flashes quickness off the ball, decent agility, and violent hand movement. Most importantly, Datone Jones’s athletic ability permits him to play at spots up and down the defensive line. He’s “versatile.”
Belichick highlighted the “versatility” and “flexibility” of two high draft choices from last year, Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones. The media speculated that Belichick took Tavon Wilson as high as he did because of the position- and scheme-versatility Wilson offered. (Belichick did also emphasize that all three players excelled against top-level college competition.)
I don’t think Datone Jones is the 27th-best talent in the 2013 NFL Draft. You might not either. But one thing should be clear after 13 years of following The Hoodie’s NFL escapades: Bill Belichick does not give a rat’s ass what you or I think.
He kinda should, though. Not in the sense that we can judge NFL talent well. Rather, because our instincts about Datone Jones confirm a larger point about the NFL Draft: it is, fundamentally, an exercise in sorting out good players from bad ones. Versatility, insofar as it clouds a pure assessment of NFL-level athletic prowess, skills, intelligence and effort, is a harmful concept.
Let’s take an example from another walk of life. Let’s say your child, Einstein, goes to school with nine other children. Einstein’s class studies your usual range of subjects in school: math, English, history, foreign languages, PE, music, art (yeah, Einstein goes to one of those schools).
Einstein’s classmates all profile a bit differently. The boy next to Einstein splashes fingerpaint on a piece of construction paper and the teacher feints at the masterpiece’s resemblance to a Jackson Pollock work. The girl in the front of Einstein’s row aces every math and spelling test, but the screeching howl that comes out of her clarinet when she’s blows into the other end sends the other children running for cover under their desks with their hands under their ears. Another student gets mostly B’s, but sits in the corner of the playground during PE and picks his nose and doodles.
Einstein’s last report card was remarkable for one thing: he got a C+ in every class. In fact, every report card your little Einzie-Weinzie has ever gotten includes nothing but C-pluses. Penmanship, touch-typing, even that crappy computer science class where you just enter code into an outdated Apple computer? C-pluses, across the board.
One day, your spouse — acting the conscientious parent — asks you, “Think we should have a chat with Einstein’s teachers about his grades? Help him a bit more with his homework? Get him a tutor or something?”
And you put down your clipboard, peer out from your Patriots hoodie with the cut-off sleeves and scowl, “We like Einstein’s versatility. Next question.”
What the hell was that? Okay, Einstein knows which end of the recorder is up, and you can nearly distinguish the mountains from the trees in his latest art project pinned up on the fridge. But there’s a limited number of students in his class, and a limited number of jobs out there in the world. Shouldn’t your parental instinct force you to question just how fruitful Einstein’s future academic and professional life stand to be if he’s doesn’t perform very well in any one subject? Doesn’t his record string of C-pluses indicate mediocrity in everything, rather than versatility?
The NFL is kinda like that. Lots of different skills contribute value to an NFL team. And the limited number of roster spots, combined with coaches’ innovation in offensive and defensive plays, place a premium on doing more than one thing well. So, if a defensive tackle can demolish offensive linemen, his ability to fake it awfully well in pass coverage on a zone blitz adds a bit of value, and should make a GM think about taking him a little higher in the Draft. (Think: Haloti Ngata.)
Placing too much of a premium on versatility, however, can only lead to mediocrity. You don’t spend a high draft pick on a C+ center, no matter how well he can longsnap and cover punts, because he won’t present much of an obstacle for our A+ defensive tackle from the previous paragraph. For 60 plays a game, he represents a liability, not an asset.
Should the conscientious Pats fan put faith in Belichick to adequately weigh versatility in deciding which players add the most value to the team? Maybe. The aforementioned Chandler Jones, Hightower, and Wilson performed awfully well for rookies in each of their respective roles.
That said, the Patriots have struck gold in the Draft most often by taking players who possess a relatively specific, but exceptional, skill set: Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski, and Nate Solder, to name but a few. The Pats have also made a living off of good scouting (Sebastian Vollmer) and taking a chance in later rounds on players with warts that scared off other teams (Aaron Hernandez would be one). “Versatility” wasn’t a particularly important feature of any of these selections.
An overreliance on versatility could eventually erode the Patriots’ considerable talent base. The team that takes Datone Jones gets a versatile player, no doubt. But he also spends stretches of his games, from the tape I’ve seen, getting pushed around on both run and pass. He isn’t exceptionally quick, and his pass rush skills are not particularly polished. Belichick will probably be the first to pick up on this. As long as he doesn’t let Jones’ versatility cloud his judgment.