The first question after the draft is always, will these players help the team? Owners, personnel executives, coaches, players, fans — all wonder to some degree whether the young players, whom teams painstakingly have researched, will develop into contributors.
But this year in New England there’s a second question being asked almost as frequently: What’s up with all the Rutgers players?
Bill Belichick drafted three Scarlet Knights — cornerback Logan Ryan, safety Duron Harmon, and linebacker Steve Beauharnais, and added a fourth, corner Brandon Jones, among the numerous undrafted players signed in the hours after the draft ended.
It isn’t the first time Belichick was particularly enamored with drafting several players from one school in the same year. In 2010, he took Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, and Aaron Hernandez, who played at Florida under one of Belichick’s coaching friends, Urban Meyer.
All three are still with the Patriots, with Hernandez and Spikes big contributors.
Those Gators-turned-Patriots had experience on the biggest stage in college, playing in the Southeastern Conference and winning a BCS national title.
The relationship between Belichick and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is well-documented and goes back several years.
Belichick was frequently on the New Jersey campus while his son Stephen was a member of the lacrosse team before serving as the long snapper on the football team as a senior. In addition, Schiano had spent time as an observer at Patriots practices.
Belichick helped Schiano get his current job as head coach of the Buccaneers last season when he gave the Glazer family a positive review.
The first Schiano-era Rutgers player drafted by the Patriots was Devin McCourty in 2010. The team also brought in receiver Tiquan Underwood and defensive lineman Alex Silvestro.
Then came this year’s flood of Scarlet Knights.
“I think certainly it’s coincidental to a degree,” Belichick said Saturday. “I’ve known Coach Schiano for quite a while. I’d say the players he recruits and the program he runs is in a lot of ways similar to what we do.
“So the fact that he’s recruited those kids four to five years ahead of when they come into this league and they’ve been in a program that’s, in a lot of ways, probably similar to ours, then it’s probably not that surprising that we would like some of the kids he’s produced, both talent-wise and in total makeup. These three guys [Ryan, Harmon, and Beauharnais], 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.
“So there’s a common thread. They’re football guys that work hard at it, that have had good careers there and that continue to get better because it’s important to them. And they’re smart, instinctive players.”
Harmon also credited Schiano’s ways with making him and his teammates NFL-ready.
“He’s instilled in his players a great football mind-set. We know how to prepare for games. We prepare like professionals at Rutgers University,’’ Harmon said. “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 Schiano instilled that in us and I think Coach Belichick saw those characteristics from Rutgers football players. He knows what he’s going to get from the Rutgers football players.”
All four played on a Scarlet Knights’ defense that ranked in the top 15 in the FBS in nearly every major category this past season — fourth in points per game allowed (14.2), sixth in rushing defense (97.15 yards), 10th in total defense (311.6 yards per game), and 14th in completion percentage allowed (54.5).
In 13 games, the Scarlet Knights gave up 13 passing touchdowns and pulled in 18 interceptions.
The four new Patriots all were key parts of that unit. Another friend of Belichick — Alabama’s Nick Saban — had the best defense in the country and the Patriots didn’t pick any of those players.
As Belichick so clearly holds the Rutgers program in high regard, the players feel the same way about Belichick’s team.
“I respect everything that the Patriots organization does; I think they’re a class act,” Ryan said. “I think that’s how it was run at Rutgers. I think the reason why Rutgers guys have success at the Patriots is because we’re built to play football on the field, but live like a professional off the field. That’s something that we’re taught, and that’s something that I’m going to bring to the Patriots organization.”
There is one other question when it comes to Belichick acquiring Rutgers players: If they are as NFL-ready as Belichick believes them to be, why hasn’t Schiano drafted any of his former players?
As with any freshly drafted player, only time will tell if the mentor (Belichick) or the student (Schiano) has made the right choices.