The Patriots have made a habit in recent years of collecting draft picks and rolling them over year after year like they were an IRA or a mutual fund. That practice came to an end last night when instead of moving back for more picks the Pats actually moved up in the draft to get players that they targeted. The change in philosophy makes a lot of sense due to the new NFL draft structure and rookie salary pool. With all the salaries tied so close together the value of picks have deteriorated, The old NFL draft value chart made by Jimmy Johnson back in the late 80′s has turned obsolete. Gone are the days where you can net a 1st round pick in the next draft for someone to move up in the 2nd round. Belichick and his staff adjusted accordingly and used their own chips as currency to get the players that they wanted. Here’s a look at the two players that the Patriots drafted:
21st pick overall Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse – Jones is a guy that really flew up the draft boards in recent weeks. The pick has gotten a lot of publicity but hopefully fans temper their expectations a bit, at least at the outset, because Jones is a bit of a project guy. He’s at 266 right now but will probably develop into a playing weight of about 280-285 in 2 or 3 years. That’s when he should really hit his stride as a player. He’s got 10 sack potential and will be a versatile lineman with the ability to excel against both the run and the pass but he will probably be a work in progress for the first few years. The Pats are probably going to run a more hybrid scheme this year, mixing the 3-4 in with the 4-3. I think Jones will see the majority of his action in the 4 man front replacing Mark Anderson in a platoon with another DE, either someone picked today in the 2nd round or a veteran, perhaps even Andre Carter when he is healthy from his knee injury. Long term Jones will be looked at as a cornerstone for the defensive line that will likely be running primarily out of a 4-3 base defense. The 3-4 players that the Patriots used in their hey day are pretty much all gone with the exception of Vince Wilfork who can play both schemes anyway. With the spread offense en vogue in the NFL these days defenses are using a ton of nickel packages and that means 4 down linemen which is why the 3-4 is sort of fading away again. Jones is a great pick to develop during the transition. He probably couldn’t have gotten drafted into a better situation, with Bill Belichick and Pepper Johnson and the rest of the defensive staff in New England as good as any in the league at developing defensive players, particularly defensive linemen. I would give this pick a B+ with the only red flag being that he was a late riser which I am always weary of. That means that his game film is not as good as some other guys but his workouts were better, which doesn’t always translate to a better player on the field. However with Belichick and his staff ready to develop him he could not have found himself in a better situation.
25th pick overall Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama – In a move that should shock no one Belichick moved up in the 1st round again (ok maybe that should shock you) to take a player from a Nick Saban coached defense. Dont’a Hightower is as versatile a linebacker as they come. In a 3-4 he is strictly an inside guy but in the 4-3, which I suspect the Patriots will be moving towards, he is a guy that can play all 3 LB spots if need be. He’s got great size (6’2″, 265 lbs.) and good speed and can move sideline to sideline but can also rush the passer if need be. I would imagine that the Pats will use a heavy rotation involving Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, and Hightower this season with only Mayo getting more snaps than Hightower. Brandon Spikes will probably get the most snaps in the middle this season but I can see Hightower playing with Mayo in the nickel packages. Spikes is good when he is on but he is inconsistent. I can see Hightower eventually usurping Spikes in the middle if he plays as good as he has the potential to. Right now I see the guys mixing and matching in spots, Belichick loves to be creative and he can get plenty creative with the top 4 linebackers he has on the field now. Hightower came from a Nick Saban coached team so he knows what it’s like to be well coached and how to play in a complex scheme. His transition into the Belichick defense should be smoother than most and he should be ready to contribute right away. Again this is a good long term pick for the Pats but unlike Jones Hightower will be there on opening day ready to make an impact. I give this pick an A all things considered. Hightower is the prototype for a Bill Belichick defense and he possesses a versatility that you don’t often see in a linebacker.
The Pats pick two more times today. Again a trade UP wouldn’t be out of the question but I can see them trading down with one of their picks to grab a few for Saturday. Alabama DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw looks mighty intriguing sitting there and there is a good chance that Baltimore will be able to snatch him up here. The Pats do still need a lot of help in the secondary. Janoris Jenkins will probably go early 2nd round but the Pats would probably have to move up to the first 2 or 3 picks of the night to get him. Jenkins is by far the best CB on the board and would have been a 1st rounder if he didn’t have character issues. The Pats would find a ton of competition if they tried to move up for Jenkins so maybe staying put would be the best option. Belichick loves picking guys in the 2nd round and has had success in the past few years with Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes among others. I would expect today to be secondary day as they worked on the front 7 yesterday but don’t rule out another front 7 player or an offensive lineman.