2011 NFL Draft Analysis: New England Patriots—In Bill Belichick We Trust?
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I was listening to local sports radio (my bad) here in Boston the other day and the hosts were discussing the Minnesota Vikings' selection of quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th pick. They laughed at the choice saying it was a massive reach and terrible.
I was struck by the ridiculousness of these comments. These two guys know very little about why the Vikings picked Ponder. They heard Ponder would be available in the second round and they heard he’s not as good as some other quarterbacks in the draft that were still on the board. What these two local sports radio hosts know is greatly outweighed by what they do not know.
I am reminded of a quote from one of the greatest shows to ever air on television—West Wing. “Toby, the total tonnage of what I know that you don’t, could stun a team of oxen in its tracks.”
They do not know what the Vikings saw in the hours of film they watched on Ponder, or what they heard or sensed in the interviews with the former Florida State quarterback. Disagreement with the pick is not the problem; the problem is dismissing the choice as a joke and assuming the Vikings are clueless. That’s the thing about ignorance though—it is loud.
In Belichick we trust?
Yes and no. The reaction to this latest draft brought back memories of 2009 and the backlash over Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 in Indianapolis. Belichick often makes decisions that make it clear he does not care about the opinions of the media or general populace - this angers a lot of people.
If you give credence to a Patriots draft pick because it was made by Belichick, you'll often be labeled as "drinking the kool aid" or as an "In Belichick We Trust" guy. We should trust Bill Belichick more than we trust the average sports radio caller or host.
After all, Belichick has been coaching professional football for 35 years. His list of achievements is long: won three Super Bowls as head coach of the New England Patriots and two as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, three Coach of the Year honors, four AFC Championships, and he's the only NFL coach to have four seasons of 14 wins or more.
You know his resume, so why am I repeating it here? Well, for one, I point to Belichick's resume as the result, in part, of his draft and football strategy, which go hand in hand. This massive list of accomplishments is the proof in the proverbial pigskin pudding.
Assuming you value measured, intelligent, and accurate analysis, any criticism of Belichick's draft dealings should not be vehement, but tempered due to his immense success. This is not to say that we should not scrutinize or question his decisions. He has made mistakes such as Laurence Maroney (first round), Bethel Johnson (second), Chad Jackson (second) and a long list of guys you do not even remember because their contributions in the NFL were so minute).
From 2001 to 2010, Belichick drafted 91 players and of these, 35 have made meaningful contributions in the NFL. So, yes, he's missed on a bunch of guys (56 by my count, although it is too early to tell on a few players) as have most NFL player personnel people.
In general, criticism of drafting decisions of NFL executives and coaches should be balanced by the fact that they have greater access to information and have invested more time, money, and effort than any outside individual ever could. This is not to say we should not analyze or question Belichick and his colleagues.
This is to say, take the commentary beyond reactionary and emotional rebuke, beyond "that's a terrible pick." Right or wrong, these decisions are fueled by immense resources and experienced people. So, a meaningful question is, "what are they thinking?"
What are the Patriots thinking?
Here is a theory on Belichick's strategy for this draft. Given his access to all the film and game plans of the previous season, Belichick sees a young defensive team that got better and better as the 2010 season progressed. He sees an offense that in the biggest game of the year allowed five sacks of his all-world quarterback, an offense that scored three points in the first half, an offense that lacked a threatening running game and allowed the Jets defense to key singularly on the passing game.
Thus, the second- and third-round picks on the pass-protection capable, speed/power combo of running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Perhaps Belichick believes that putting pressure on the quarterback is as much scheme-driven as player driven, and is aware that at some point there will be free agents available to address any remaining deficiencies. He is likely aware that his team won 14 games and allowed the eighth fewest points per game in the NFL in 2010.
Belichick may be thinking about Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden, two veteran defensive players returning in 2011 that were lost to injury for all of 2010. He sees his aging future Hall of Fame quarterback, aging left tackle Matt Light and perhaps deemed Brady's blind side/health priority No. 1, thus the pick of OT Nate Solder.
The retirement of Stephean Neal and the aging Alge Crumpler surely played into the Patriots' decision to draft G Marcus Cannon, and former Red Sox closer turned blocking tight end Lee Smith. Maybe Belichick has noticed the ever-growing prevalence of passing in the NFL and hopes to return to a time when he had four or five players he trusted in the secondary, thus the selection of cornerback Ras-I Dowling with the 33rd pick overall.
It's possible that Belichick expects great things in year two from DE/OLB Jermaine Cunningham, who had a promising rookie year. There are numerous explanations for the Patriots' decisions on draft day, and perhaps it's just the vocal minority, but I don't think the oft-repeated "Belichick has lost his mind" explanation is valid.
More Like Bore-ichick
One of the chief problems that many commentators and fans likely have with this draft is that it bored them. I sat at the bar (glass empty) until the 28th pick, hoping for a little excitement, and then I left with a twinge of self-disgust for failing to recognize what was obvious—there would be no excitement, just more unused draft picks for another year.
I blame the lockout (I think we should all start blaming the lockout for any misfortune that befalls us). See, the lockout has left us football fans desperate for excitement, for signs that football is still here and that we have a season to look forward to. So, as the first round neared its end, I was like the guy at the bar with last call goggles—anything started to look good. Maybe the Pats will draft Ryan Williams or Da'Quan Bowers or...someone!
Alas, it was not meant to be. I was left disappointed and slightly disgusted.
The Patriots did not draft the sexy pass-rusher (or anyone for that matter) that so many people's mock drafts predicted. Here's a tip to mock drafters in the future, if you hear the Patriots are interested in a certain player, then scratch him off your list; the Patriots will not be drafting anyone you have heard that they are interested in prior to the draft.
So, that narrows the pool of players down a bit for future predictions. While the Patriots draft day decisions may be boring, the fact remains that every year the team has a legitimate shot at winning a Super Bowl. How many teams can say that?
Belichick's Meaningful Contributor Draft Picks Since 2001
These players made meaningful contributions for the Patriots since 2001. Granted, some on this list are considered disappointments (yes, we're looking at you Maroney and Meriweather) because their production did not elevate to their draft position; however, they have provided some value to the team. It is also somewhat early to make a definitive call on many players from the 2009 and 2010 drafts, but as it looks now, 2010 may be the draft of Belichick's career.
Richard Seymour, DT, first round 2001, six-time Pro Bowl Selection, four-time All-Pro selection
Matt Light, OT, second round 2001, three-time Pro Bowl selection, All-Pro selection 2007
David Givens, WR, seventh round 2002, eight playoff games—35 rec. 324 yds, 7 TDs, two Super Bowl wins
Jarvis Green, DE, fourth round, 2002, eight seasons, 232 tackles, 28 sacks, two Super Bowl wins
Daniel Graham, TE, first round, 2002, five seasons, 17 TDs, two Super Bowl wins, team captain
Deion Branch, WR, second round, 2002, Super Bowl XXXIX MVP
Tully Banta-Cain, OLB, averaging over six sacks per season in last three seasons with Patriots (9.5 sacks in 2009)
Dan Koppen, C, fifth round 2003, named to the Patriots' 2000s all-decade team in 2010
Asante Samuel, CB, fourth round 2003, All-Pro and Pro Bowl in 2007
Dan Klecko, DT, fourth round 2003, in rookie season was a blocking fullback on five of the Patriots' nine running TDs
Eugene Wilson, second round 2003, 2 INTs vs. Steelers in 2004 AFC Championship game
Ty Warren, first round 2003, Pro Bowl 2007, 373 tackles, 20.5 sacks
Ben Watson, TE, first round 2004, From 2005 to '08 Watson totaled 136 catches, most by a Patriots TE over a four-year span since Ben Coates
Vince Wilfork, NT, first round 2004, Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection in 2007, 2009, 2010
Matt Cassel, QB, seventh round 2005, Filled in for injured Tom Brady in 2009, throwing 21 TDs and leading the team to an 11-5 record
James Sanders, FS, fourth round 2005, six seasons, 301 tackles, 8 INTs,
Nick Kaczur, OT, third round 2005, 62 games started
Ellis Hobbs, CB, 9 INTs, 2 playoff INTs, 3 KO return TDs including longest in NFL history
Logan Mankins, G, first round 2005, Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection 2007
Stephen Gostkowski, K, fourth round 2006, Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection 2008
Laurence Maroney, RB, first round 2006, 2,839 total yards, 22 TDs, 4.2 yards per carry, great dance moves
Brandon Meriweather, S, first round 2007, 261 tackles, 12 INTs, Pro Bowl selection 2009 and 2010, Big Bang Clock
Jonathan Wilhite, CB, fourth round 2008, 39 games in three seasons, 93 tackles, 3 INTs
Jerod Mayo, ILB, first round 2008, Defensive Rookie of the Year, All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection 2010
Julian Edelman, WR, seventh round 2009, 44 rec, 445 yards, 2 TDs, playoffs: 2 TDs, set franchise record in 2010 for single-season punt return avg. (led AFC), Led NFL in most Bieber-like hair
Brandon Tate, WR, third round 2009, 24 rec, 432 yards, 3 TDs, 41 kick returns, 1,057 yards (25.8 yard average), 2 TDs
Sebastian Vollmer, OT, second round 2009, started 24 games, 2010 All-Pro selection
Darius Butler, CB, second round 2009, 58 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 TD, 14 passes defensed
Patrick Chung, FS, second round 2009, 133 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INTs, son of reggae artist Sophia George-Chung. Her song, "Girlie Girlie" (1985) was No. 1 in Jamaica and Top 10 in U.K.
Zoltan Mesko, P, fifth round 2010, 58 punts, 2,505 yards (43.2 avg., 38.4 avg.), five touchbacks, 19 downed inside 20-yard line, long of 65 yards, only NFL player ever named Zoltan (probably true)
Brandon Spikes, ILB, second round 2010, 12 games, 61 tackles, 1 INT, 3 passes defensed
Jermaine Cunningham, OLB/DE, second round 2010, started 11 of 16 games as rookie, 34 tackles, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles
Aaron Hernandez, TE, fourth round 2010, 45 rec, 563 yards, 6 TDs
Rob Gronkowski, TE, second round 2010, 42 rec, 546 yards, 10 TDs
Devin McCourty, first round 2010, 82 tackles, 7 INTs, Pro Bowl in rookie season
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