Why Did Bill Belichick Target So Many Rutgers Players in the Draft?

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Why Did Bill Belichick Target So Many Rutgers Players in the Draft?
Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the NFL draft, Bill Belichick often uses the buzzword "value" to explain his picks. With his recent history of targeting prospects from specific programs, it's clear that the opinions of people he trusts—be it players or coaches within his circle—factor into his concept of value.

The New England Patriots drafted cornerback Logan Ryan, safety Duron Harmon and linebacker Steve Beauharnais, and signed undrafted free-agent cornerback Brandon Jones just after the draft, bringing their total of Rutgers players on the roster up to six.

What is it about Rutgers players that Belichick is so fascinated by?

Beauharnais showed that he already has the classic Patriots non-answers down, saying, "I don’t know. You’d have to ask the Patriots for that reason but obviously there’s something they see in us that they do like."

Harmon gave an in-depth answer, though, as to what a Rutgers prospect is like:

We know how to prepare for games. We prepare like professionals at Rutgers University. I think a lot of players when they get to the NFL, they don’t know how to watch film, they don’t know how to practice, they don’t know how to do the certain things that you have to do to be a great football player. I think Coach [Greg] Schiano instilled that in us and I think Coach Belichick saw those characteristics from Rutgers football players. 

Say what you will about Belichick and how much value he puts on those relationships, but there's nothing he values more than a good week of preparation leading up to a game.

The fact that Belichick and Schiano are so close should come as no surprise considering what Belichick had to say about Rutgers and Schiano's prospects:

I'd say the players he recruits and the program he runs is in a lot of ways similar to what we do. ...I would say certainly with this group, these three guys, they're all very bright. Football is important to them. They've all been productive. They're unselfish players. They work hard for the team. They do a lot of little things in the game like communication and special teams and all those types of things.

The 2013 draft was not even the first time the Patriots have drafted three players from the same school in one draft—the last time, it was three players from the 2008 National Champion Florida Gators: defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, linebacker Brandon Spikes and tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Belichick had gone to Urban Meyer for opinions and prospects in the past, although he was burned in 2006 with Chad Jackson (more on him later). It worked out for him in 2010, though, with two of the three Florida players now serving as key contributors to the team. 

There's a few key differences between Florida and Rutgers: First is the level of competition. More players in 2013 were drafted out of the SEC than any other conference in the nation, and three times as many players as the Big East. Also, while the Scarlet Knights were consistently a winning team, they were far from a National Champion-caliber "powerhouse" program under Schiano.

Their ability to prepare is important, but it's just one piece of the puzzle. They still have to play.

As it turns out, though, they can. Take, for example, their performance against Cincinnati. The Bearcats averaged 32.3 points per game in 2012, but Rutgers held them to just three points.

Their ability shows up on the field and on the stat sheet.

Rutgers fielded a very good defense in 2012. They ranked in the top 16 in the nation in many major categories, and a staggering fourth in points, but 39th in passing yards and 66th in sacks. Sound familiar, Patriots fans?

Belichick also said that the players all had experience communicating. They will still have to learn the calls, the checks and the intricacies of the defense, but they won't have to learn to gel with unfamiliar faces.

Is familiarity worth the high price tag Belichick puts on it? Not everyone agrees.

Take Harmon, for example; he's certainly the most controversial pick the Patriots made on draft weekend, and it's no surprise that he and Southern Mississippi linebacker Jamie Collins were reportedly the most controversial picks among the Patriots organization (according to Tony Pauline of Draft Insider):

Harmon was another selection that had some in the Patriots war room scratching their heads. From what I’ve been told this was a situation where scouts were overruled and the brain trust made the choice. I was alerted in the weeks prior to the draft Harmon would likely be selected yet no one I spoke with thought he would be a top 100 choice.

If the report is true, this would not be the first time Belichick has overruled the opinions of his scouts on a player, and in the past, it was also a result of the opinion of one of the coaches within Belichick's circle.

He ignored the opinions of his scouts with regard to Florida wide receiver Chad Jackson and Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney in the 2006 draft (according to Michael Holley in War Room)Holley explains that Josh McDaniels' brother, Ben, was a member of the Minnesota coaching staff and gave a great review of Maroney, while Belichick had just begun developing his relationship with Florida head coach Urban Meyer, who thought Jackson's skills would translate to the NFL.

Those two, particularly Jackson, are considered some of the most disappointing picks in recent Patriots draft history.

Belichick and Schiano are quickly forming a trusting bond, though. They are frequent trade partners, though not always in the classical sense. Sure, they engaged in a trade of players, swapping Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick for LeGarrette Blount, but they're also trading information—Schiano, presumably, on former prospects of his at Rutgers University, and Belichick, reportedly, on some of the methods to his coaching madness.

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated reported that Schiano sent the Buccaneers coaching staff to Foxboro to meet Belichick and go over coaching topics and techniques.

The two parties will discuss how the Patriots set up their calendar, how to best approach and organize the preseason, deal with the bye-week schedule and organize various practice schedules. In other words, they're talking about the logistics of running a team, rather than any in-depth discussion of X's and O's.

Considering how close the two have become, it would stand to reason that they would have similar taste in players.

That being said, drafting multiple players from one school is far from unprecedented. The Miami Dolphins joined the Patriots in their one-school hat trick thi year by selecting three players from Florida: linebacker Jelani Jenkins, running back Mike Gillislee and kicker Caleb Sturgis. The St. Louis Rams selected the two explosive receivers from West Virginia, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. 

It is, however, unconventional, and as usual, Belichick has taken the unconventional and adopted it as his own.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.comFollow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from the Sports-Reference.com network, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.

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