Tim O’Sullivan column: If history is a clue, Patriots will draft a defensive lineman
The NFL draft begins tonight at 8, right in prime time. The Patriots, however, won’t be picking anywhere near peak viewing hours. They will be on the clock to make the 29th selection in the first round some time around 11, 11:30. But that feels like the right time for Bill Belichick to reveal his decision – most odd choices and convoluted deals go down in the late hours.
Predicting what Belichick will do with his first-round pick is nothing but guess work, especially with a pick as late as No. 29. He is notorious for doing the unexpected on draft night, and so much of what happens in the bottom of the first round will depend on what happens at the top. Nobody knows who the Patriots will pick, including Belichick.
Of course, that won’t stop anyone from making mock picks for New England,
including me. But since predicting what Belichick will do is so tough, let’s look at what he’s already done. Let’s predict the future by examining the past.
A common complaint from Patriots fans is that Belichick always trades down. Plenty of those fans won’t bother staying up tonight because they believe the Patriots will swap the No. 29 pick for a grab-bag mix of future third rounders. Yes, Belichick does have a history of trading down to stockpile picks. However, during his 14 drafts in New England, Belichick has traded out of the first round only twice, 2013 and ’09, and that leads to the first prediction – the Patriots will make a pick tonight. So go ahead, stay up late.
Figuring out who the Patriots will pick is much trickier business. Let’s start by narrowing things down between offense and defense. During his tenure in New England, 2000-present, Belichick has made 13 first-round picks – one in every year except ’13, ’09 and ’00 (the team traded that pick to the Jets to acquire Belichick), and two in ’12 and ’04. Of those 13 first rounders, eight have been defensive players, including five of the last six first-round picks.
Before jumping on that defensive trend, however, it’s worth noting that two of Belichick’s five offensive first rounders were tight ends – Ben Watson in ’04 and Daniel Graham in ’02 – and one of the Patriots’ top needs this year is at tight end. Now, a big reason why Belichick is so unpredictable is because he doesn’t always address needs. But, with his history of spending high picks on tight ends, the uncertainty of Rob Gronkowski’s health, and the decent depth of quality tight ends available in this draft, the Patriots could easily go in this direction.
History, another need and more draft depth says they won’t take a tight end with their first pick. Not only does Belichick favor defensive players in the first round, he really favors defensive linemen. Four of the eight defensive first rounders have been linemen – Richard Seymour in ’01, Ty Warren in ’03, Vince Wilfork in ’04 and Chandler Jones in ’12. While Seymour and Warren played end in New England’s 3-4 scheme, they were really more like interior linemen, just like Wilfork. And the Patriots need interior d-line help.
The projected starters at defensive tackle are both aging and coming off season-ending injuries – Wilfork, 32, Achilles and Tommy Kelly, 33, knee. Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga were adequate emergency backups last year, but it looks like the Patriots can make a significant upgrade on “adequate” with some of the defensive tackles who should available at No. 29.
There’s 6-foot-6, 310-pound Ra’shede Hageman from Minnesota, a massive human who is more athletic than anyone that size should be, but isn’t all that consistent with his effort. Timmy Jernigan (6-2, 299) is strong and explosive and did nothing but win last year with national champion Florida State, but he reportedly failed a drug test at the combine. Notre Dame’s Louis Nix (6-2, 331) is somehow nimble at 331 pounds, but he wasn’t as dominant as he could have been last season. And Florida’s Dominique Easley (6-2, 288) might have been a top-10 pick if not for an ACL injury, the second of his college career, that ended his season in September.
Which one will it be? Not Hageman – taking a player with a questionable motor isn’t Belichick’s style. Not Jernigan – the Aaron Hernandez cloud is still too close for the Patriots to take another player with reported drug problems. It could be Nix, but the Patriots seem to be moving away from enormous defenders and opting for speed instead. So that leaves Easley.
Taking a player who has torn both his ACLs and projects as more of a second-round pick because of the injuries fits Belichick’s unpredictable nature. Sure, Easley is a gamble, but he came back strong from his ACL injury in 2011, and if he can do the same with this ACL, he could be a steal. He’s also played end in the 3-4 and 4-3, in addition to his experience as a 4-3 tackle, and the Patriots value that kind of versatility. Plus, Belichick has drafted six Gators in the last 10 years.
All that being said, don’t be surprised to see the Pats take Nix. Or a tight end like Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro or Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz. And there’s always a chance Belichick does trade the pick if a team offers him a great deal to jump into the spot so they can land a player who unexpectedly fell all the way to No. 29, like quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Or maybe Belichick will decide to scoop up Bridgewater himself.
Okay, fine. If you really want to know what the Patriots will do, you better stay up late.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)