FOXBOROUGH - By the end of the NFL draft, the Patriots had made enough trade downs (two) and off-the-wall picks (Tavon Wilson in the second round, and a former rugby player in the sixth) to make it a normal selection weekend for coach Bill Belichick.
And it was also a very productive three days for the Patriots.
In 21st overall pick Chandler Jones, New England landed the type of athletic front-seven player the team has lacked for some time. When Jones fully matures as a player, the Patriots could have a piece with a similar skill set to that of young Giants star Jason Pierre-Paul.
Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower will raise the linebacking corps almost immediately with his tough, experienced, and physical play. And he is also versatile enough to rush the quarterback in passing situations.
On the second day, Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio, and director of college scouting Jon Robinson saw something in Wilson, the Illinois defensive back, that not many other teams did: a player with positional versatility between safety, cornerback, and linebacker that can help combat the rise of passing offenses almost immediately.
And in Arkansas end Jake Bequette, the Patriots added a player with a 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound frame who can rush the passer, defend the run, and disrupt passing lanes on a variety of downs and in different packages.
On Saturday, the Patriots found Ohio State safety Nate Ebner, who has more experience in rugby than football. But if he can tackle with the type of speed and ferociousness in pads that he exhibited without them in his YouTube rugby highlights, not only will Ebner quickly become a fan favorite, he’ll make a difference on special teams now, and possibly on defense down the line.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard possesses the type of skills to play immediately, but off-field concerns caused him to plummet to the seventh round. The Patriots obviously had some concerns or else they would have taken him earlier. But in being a final-round pick, the Patriots basically have nothing to lose and much to gain by picking Dennard. It’s not a stretch to say he could emerge as a starter at some point this season.
Northwestern receiver Jeremy Ebert, the Patriots’ final pick, is a tough, physical, and smart slot receiver. With Wes Welker, Julian Edelman (restricted free agent), and Anthony Gonzalez all entering the final year of their contracts, Ebert has a chance to stick for development on the roster because of his special teams play, or on the practice squad.
The Patriots likely aren’t done tinkering with the roster - end Andre Carter could return - but the draft marked the end of a very busy period on the defensive side of the ball.
Between free agency and the draft, the Patriots have not only added more talent to the defense, but most importantly for Belichick, they now have a variety of options at all three levels of the defense: the line, linebackers, and secondary.
The options, for Belichick, are literally endless.
“On paper, I think there are some possibilities for that,’’ he said. “It will be interesting to see how it goes with some of those players.’’
The Patriots now have linemen - Trevor Scott, Jones, Bequette, Jermaine Cunningham, and Markell Carter - who can drop back and play linebacker.
Hightower is the type of linebacker who can easily move down the line in situations.
In the secondary, Steve Gregory, Wilson, Patrick Chung, Ebner, and Josh Barrett can play linebacker in sub packages and effectively play the run.
Cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Gregory, Chung, Wilson, Dennard, Sterling Moore, and Malcolm Williams all have the ability to play safety.
Flash back to the beginning of last season, and the roles for most of the Patriots were fairly well defined - for fans and opponents. And the 31st-ranked Patriots defense got chewed up.
Only later, out of necessity, did we see any versatility become evident.
Now, the Patriots set off into an offseason of great expectations with a defense that can emerge like a chameleon when the season starts. No one knows what it will eventually look like. That’s likely the way it will go week to week during the season, especially when opponents try to game plan offensively.
The Patriots have the potential to dictate the style of the game defensively with the scheme they choose. Usually that’s what the opposing offense does.
“I do think that with some of the players we’ve added on the defensive side of the ball, guys have different skills and maybe they will be able to do some different things for us,’’ Belichick said. “It’s hard to say exactly what that will be until you actually get them doing it and putting it all together to see how effective we are individually and collectively as a team doing different things, changing things up and how versatile the players are.’’
Now we’ll wait to see to them roll the ball out in what figures to be a highly competitive training camp in all three defensive areas.
Where does the rest of the AFC East stand after the draft?
Bills: Buffalo could emerge as the Patriots’ toughest competition in the division after it followed a free agency period that brought pass rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, with two top talents in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and offensive tackle Cordy Glenn at positions of need. Fourth-round cornerback Ron Brooks has a chance to improve the depth of a unit that has had injury problems. In later rounds, look for linebackers Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder to inject some much-needed youth into that group.
Jets: Rex Ryan bet big that North Carolina end Quinton Coples can shake off the bad tape he showed as a senior and deliver on his immense talent at 6-6 and 284 pounds with 4.78 speed. Scouts question whether he wants it bad enough. If Ryan can’t get the best out of Coples, Ryan could be out of a job after this season. The Jets added Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill, who blazed 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. But are quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow good enough to get the ball to Hill, Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller, and Jeremy Kerley? The better question is, can the Jets give those quarterbacks enough time to distribute the ball? The Jets have not addressed big weaknesses at left guard (Matt Slauson) and right tackle (Wayne Hunter). They expect to improve from within.
Dolphins: In the second draft for general manager Jeff Ireland, Miami did well again acquiring some nice pieces at areas of need: tackle Jonathan Martin, end Olivier Vernon, tight end Michael Egnew, and running back Lamar Miller. But, as always, the success of the Dolphins will ride on the quarterback. Will Ryan Tannehill, who lacks playing experience, develop into a talent worthy of the eighth overall pick? Will veterans Matt Moore and/or David Garrard operate well enough for the Dolphins to compete?Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard.