Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patience a virtue for Pats
The scenario is familiar, if frustrating, for Patriots fans. After finishing last season with one of football's best records, their team enters the NFL Draft with a pick near the end of tonight's first round. They'll wait hours to find out what New England does. They'll watch 28 other teams make their selections.
Then they'll hear that the Pats traded their pick for future choices, delaying the fun until a later round - if not this year then next. They'll feel the letdown typical of being disappointed that a team with a chance to win now deferred an opportunity to upgrade.
But this time it's the scenario they should be rooting for, because if ever there was a year in which it made sense for the Patriots to deal down and out of the first round, this is it.
Not only is this current draft class considered to be one in which a player taken at the end of the first round is no surer a thing than a player taken a round or two (or three) later, and not only are the Patriots in need of draft capital after previously dealing away their fourth- and fifth-round choices, but New England's areas of greatest need are ones they have not successfully targeted early in drafts during the Bill Belichick era.
If the Patriots enter this three-day process looking to add a starting-caliber player at any position it's outside receiver or defensive back - and while that idea may invoke names like Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Taylor Price and Terrence Wheatley, the scariest part for fans is that those busts have been more the rule than the exception over the past 13 years.
Belichick has generally been effective in identifying linemen, linebackers and tight ends worthy of an early pick. But consider this history in terms of pinpointing passing-game talent: Since 2000, of the 15 receivers, cornerbacks and safeties the Patriots have drafted with in the first three rounds, Deion Branch is the only player who signed a second contract with the team. And Branch didn't do that until he was shipped to and from Seattle and spent four-plus seasons as a Seahawk.
It's not as though these players left because they were paid handsomely by an new team eager for their services, either. More than half of them were released before the end of their rookie deal, including the four aforementioned flops as well as Darius Butler, Brandon Tate, Guss Scott and the immortal Brock Williams - the third-round choice who never even played a game for the Pats.
Only five of the 15 have started more than 11 games for New England, and of that group safeties Patrick Chung, Brandon Meriweather and Eugene Wilson all lost their starting roles before being allowed to walk. Branch and Devin McCourty are the others in that category, while the jury is still out on Ras-I Dowling and Tavon Wilson, second-round picks in 2011 and '12, respectively.
In contrast, the Pats plucked now-starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard 176 picks after taking Wilson last year, and have a decent record of finding value later in the process. Asante Samuel was a fourth-round choice. David Givens and Julian Edelman were both taken in the seventh round. Kyle Arrington wasn't drafted at all, yet last month the Pats gave him the second contract that had eluded all those others.
Each of those examples suggest the Pats could trade the 29th overall selection and still get the same caliber of player they desire, and so does the nature of the talent that's available. According to comments made Monday by New England Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio, the value will seemingly be there if they wait.
"There are some groups that there's quite a bit of depth, there's a lot of good, productive players. The secondary, I think, is an area," he said. "Both the corner and the safety position, I think one of the things that's probably unique about that position, is you've seen a few more players have actually played multiple positions. There's, I would say, versatile players in the defensive backfield."
Those are Patriot-type players, though immediately the Patriots' primary need is a receiver. Specifically one who can help stretch the field.
Of that lot, Caserio said that "there's a fair amount" of guys that comprise a group of "good" players, and spoke about how the sophistication of college offenses has changed the way receivers come prepared for the pro passing game. He also acknowledged that teams (like Cal and Southern California) and conferences (like the SEC) are evaluated differently, based on the nature of the offenses therein.
But a problem with that position, if the Patriots were seeking to use their first-round pick to give Tom Brady another target, is the lack of elite talent available. In grading the prospects, NFL.com graded only four receivers - West Virginia's Tavon Austin, Tennessee's Cordarrelle Peterson, Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins and Cal's Keenan Allen - in a way that categorizes them as "immediate starters."
Maybe one of them will fall to the Patriots, and perhaps they'll pounce. Pats fans will certainly be watching those names as tonight wears on, and getting more excited the longer they remain available. It's all part of the familiar scenario.
But they should be aware that on the same list, there were also 12 receivers rated by NFL.com's gurus as "eventual starters." The smarter strategy might be taking one of them - or somebody else - in Friday's second or third rounds, and in the process adding choices for Saturday's fourth and fifth rounds for the sake of taking flyers or building depth.
Players taken then might not pay dividends come fall. But, this draft year in particular, patience could prove to be a virtue for Patriots fans.
"There are a lot of good football players that you're going to be able to find: early, late, after the draft," Caserio said. "They're out there, you just have to find them."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.