Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Countdown to Camp 2010: The Draft

For the second year in a row, the Patriots had 12 draft picks and drafted for need instead of taking the proverbial "best player available."  It's always better to be in position to take the highest rated player on the board with each pick; but the Pats held onto some of their veterans too long in 2007 and 2008, so they have to draft for need, even if they reach a bit on some of the picks.

It is still tough to judge a draft this early on, but as we near training camp, here are some thoughts on the draft class of 2010.

1.  New England signed all 12 picks before training camp started.

It's a little like yesterday's update, in that this is the non-glamorous part of the draft.  But training camp starts on Thursday, and the Patriots already signed every single draft pick, and they had a lot of them to sign..  Additionally, most of the rookies participated in off-season workouts and organized team activities.

Might not seem like much, but the Patriots have one of the more complex playbooks in the NFL.  And the advantage of extra time in May and June, along with coming to camp on time, can't be overstated as these rookies try to learn their new roles.

I've often described football as full-contact chess.  If that's true, then signing these guys
early is like getting them a private lesson with Gary Kasparov.  It won't make them prodigies, but they are ahead of a lot of their peers as training camps open.

2.  The Patriots are one of the few teams that make "sheer quantity" work.

Given their level of talent, it usually doesn't make sense to use mid-level first round picks when those players command high salaries and have less than a 50% chance of cracking the starting lineup.  It is better in most cases to trade down mid-level first rounders and stock-pile picks, although the Patriots have used first round picks to great effect when they are high enough selections.

To understand how the Patriots can make either strategy work, consider the 2008 vs. 2009 drafts.  In 2008 they had the 10th overall pick and chose the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (Jerod Mayo).  In 2009 they didn't have a high draft pick, so they traded their first rounder and played hit-or-miss in later rounds instead.

They summarily whiffed on Ron Brace but hit a homer with Sebastian Vollmer.  Second rounder Pat Chung might work out, but seventh rounder Julian Edelman already has.  Darius Butler is a maybe; but long snapper Jake Ingram out-performed the respected veteran he replaced, Lonie Paxton.

2010 saw more stock-piling, including picks in the 2011 draft.  The team traded down and got 12 picks for the second consecutive year.  And if the Pats hit on as many this year as they did in 2009, it will be a very successful draft.  Again.

The surprising strategy this year was choosing multiple players at positions of need.  There are 7 rounds in the draft, so with 12 picks, the Patriots had almost 2 picks per round.  And if they hit on just 50% of the picks (about the average for most teams), that's as many good players as a team that made its regular 7 picks and hit on 85% of them.  And no NFL team consistently hits on 85% of their picks.  None of them.

So piling up picks enabled the Pats to bring in two highly rated tight ends, Rob Gronkowski for all downs and Aaron Hernandez as more of a speed/receiving specialist.  Linebacker Brandon Spikes is a natural fit at inside linebacker, and Jermaine Cunningham seems destined to play outside linebacker.  They also got two offensive linemen and two defensive linemen in the late rounds.  And they still had picks left over for a new punter and of course their #1 pick was a cornerback.

It might not be their favored strategy, but they've made it work recently, so there's no reason to doubt them now.

3.  Willing to over-commit for "special" players.

Some teams never -- and I mean *never* -- draft special teams players.  But not only have the Patriots done so, they've spent relatively high picks on players in support of their kicking game.

When Adam Vinatieri left after 2005, the Patriots drafted kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round to replace him.  And he worked out better than anyone could have expected, sporting both a higher field goal percentage and much longer kickoffs than Adam ever had.  Then Lonie Paxton left after 2008, so the Patriots spent a sixth round pick on long snapper Jake Ingram.  And he handled his new role just about perfectly, misfiring on only one snap all season.

This year, they drafted Zoltan Mesko (great name, isn't it?) in the fifth round to replace terrible punter Chris Hanson, who somehow ranked 36 in a league with only 32 teams.  Based on their success in drafting special teams players -- positions some teams won't even spend a draft pick on -- I would expect  Zoltan ("The Magnificent!") to do quite well.

He punted for a net average of 42.5 yards a kick in college, and wasn't in some dome; he played for Tom Brady's alma mater in the cold weather of Michigan.  So there should be no adjustment to New England wind and winters.  And if past experience is a barometer, the outlook is bright for the Patriots special teams.

So in summary, the Patriots drafted for need this year and stocked up on picks to get as many chances to fill those needs as possible.  They tried to fill tight end with a free agent and two draft picks, linebacker with two draft picks, cornerback with one pick, and punter with another.  Since they spent only very late picks on the D-line, they will have to get lucky with them or one of the 2009 picks to replace Jarvis Green.

But for the last three years the team has a solid record of this, ironically since the departure of Thomas Dimitroff (former Director of Scouting), who left to run the Atlanta Falcons in 2007.  Dimitroff has done a fantastic job rebuilding the Falcons, so it's strange that his last three drafts in New England were so lackluster.  But the change in draft management has to be judged a success so far.

Hope might spring eternal... but you don't have to see things through red-white-and-blue lenses to think the 2010 draft will help the Patriots this year and into the future.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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