Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats piece puzzle together
A few minutes after the NFL wrapped the second and third rounds of its annual draft, Bill Belichick went to the podium at Gillette Stadium wearing a "Watertown Strong" sweatshirt and discussing the players his Patriots had just acquired.
Declaring his belief that "we got good value for our picks, good players, guys that have a lot of things going for them," the coach retrospectively reaffirmed his comfort with his decision to trade out of Thursday's first round, and expressed confidence that the team improved itself. He also shed some light on the process that led to the picks, saying - unlike in some years - he'd personally talked to all the players the Pats took.
"It's a piece of the puzzle," Belichick said. "It's a big puzzle, and there's a lot of pieces."
It's really only now, though, that the puzzle work truly begins.
In a year when the draft was said to lack elite, polished, plug-and-play talent, the Patriots spent their earliest picks on a pair of players who the coaches will need to get their hands on before really having an idea of what they can do or how best they'll be able to contribute.
Before they have an idea of where and how they fit.
In the case of Jamie Collins, the Southern Mississippi product who the Pats took with the first of their two second-round choices (52nd), the possibilities have previously seemed almost endless. He was a high school quarterback, then moved to safety full-time when he got to college, and played as a true freshman.
As he bulked to 250 pounds, he transitioned to linebacker, then this past year he moved to defensive end. He took well to that transition, registering 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss in 2012, though the question now is whether New England will deploy him as an edge rusher, or if his primary responsibility will be as a coverage linebacker on passing downs.
His freakish athleticism - evident in his array of positions as well as his NFL Combine record broad jump - says he could physically do either of those jobs. And the Pats could, frankly, use help in both areas. But ultimately it'll be up to Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the positional coaches to determine exactly how to maximize his skills.
"His junior year he was a 3-4 outside linebacker, where he was on the line but he was in coverage, whereas this past year, he wasn't in coverage very often," Belichick said. "He has a lot of versatility. We'll see how it goes."
Ideally, a second round pick would be more certain and solid than "we'll see how it goes" - but such was the nature of this class of prospects, and that's part of what explains the Patriots' choice of Marshall's Aaron Dobson with their other second rounder.
Wideout was a position of need, and only two receivers were unavailable when the Pats' original pick arose at 29th overall. They traded out of that spot partially because they projected they could wait and still get a player of similar ability, and even after a few other receivers went off the board, Dobson was the guy they liked.
He's got good size at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he's got enough speed to be a vertical threat, and while pundits consider him raw because he didn't put up huge numbers and didn't play against the best competition, that could be an asset. It should mean he's shapeable, especially if he's as heady as Belichick suggests.
"He had a good understanding and grasp of learning, taking new information, processing that and being able to understand it and apply it," the coach said. "He's a pretty impressive kid. He's a mature kid. He's pretty smart."
With their two third-round picks the Patriots took a pair who played together in the defensive secondary at Rutgers, in cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon - the latter so unexpected his mother asked, "My baby, where's your clips at?" when the networks hadn't readied any video highlights for his selection.
Ryan has good size and is physical, which should at least make him a special teams commodity if he doesn't immediately earn his way into the nickel or dime packages at corner, while Belichick's connections to Rutgers convinced Belichick of Ryan and Harmon, "I think we're getting some high quality guys there as well as good football players."
Saturday the Patriots added a couple more intriguing pieces. They chose Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Steve Beauharnis - another Rutgers product - with two seventh-round picks after packaging their third selection in that final round with track star Jeff Demps to acquire bullish back LeGarrette Blount from the Buccaneers. He topped 1,000 yards as a rookie in 2010, but the 247-pound 26-year-old had only 41 hauls in 2012, and Tampa Bay was eager to move on. Blount is expected to compete with second-year man Brandon Bolden for a roster spot.
The more intriguing acquisition came earlier in the day, when the Patriots spent the 102nd overall choice on Texas Christian receiver Josh Boyce. Having scored well on the Wonderlic intelligence test and run the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at the Combine, he is at least an interesting addition - and someone Belichick is counting among the options in his reworked receiving corps, according to his Saturday interview on NFL Network.
"We've lost guys for one reason or another, but with (Danny) Amendola coming in as an inside guy who can also play outside - but primarily an inside receiver - and the two players that we added in the draft with Dobson and Boyce, they're fast guys that play primarily on the perimeter," he said. "They have good size. They're tough. They've shown up in the kicking game and blocking and things like that. They're smart players that are mature.
"Hopefully, they'll fit in well with our offense."
Indeed, that's the ultimate question of the 2013 Draft from a Patriots perspective.
So now that it's over, let the puzzle assembly begin.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.