Judging an NFL Draft pick the day after the player has been drafted is like judging a marriage based on the wedding. It’s a fruitless and imprudent exercise based on sentiment, opinion, and superficial conclusions.
First-round picks are similar to marriages in that half of them won’t work out, some will be deeply regretted down the line, and on the day of the union, no one thinks they’ll be part of the 50 percent destined for failure. So, I can’t tell you whether the Patriots made a good move by using the 29th pick in the first round to draft University of Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley on Thursday night. Grading the pick at this point is impossible. Check back in three years.
What can be evaluated, debated, and graded now is the approach that led to Easley becoming a Patriot. That approach was a sound one rooted in talent evaluation, not draft pick accumulation. Instead of trading down and out in what is regarded as one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, Patriots coach Bill Belichick trusted his draft board and his scouting convictions and tapped Easley.
“We felt like he was the best player at that point,” said Belichick. ’Nuff said, Bill.
Whether Easley, who had his 2013 season truncated by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and also tore his left ACL in 2011, is a bust or gets a bust in Canton, the philosophy that brought him to Foxborough is hard to knock.
At the end of the day, the draft is about acquiring talent based on making assessments and projections of college players. It doesn’t matter where you pick a player if he can help you. If you trade up, trade down, stand pat, or stand on your head in the war room and then get a player who improves your team, you have done your job.
Too often the Patriots have been lauded in these parts simply for turning draft picks into . . . more draft picks. But that’s adding value only if those extra picks add up to extra talent and the team still gets the player it wanted at the spot it traded out of.
This year, Belichick eschewed auctioning off the Patriots’ first-round pick to the highest bidder for a bevy of picks, like the haul he got last year, shipping the 29th pick to Minnesota for second-, third-, fourth-, and seventh-round picks.
Maybe it was because he couldn’t get the bounty he was looking for. Or maybe it was because the Patriots valued Easley — who likely would have been a top 15 selection if he hadn’t undergone knee surgery in October — so highly that it was hard for a team to pry the pick away from them.
Patriots fans will point out that under Belichick the Patriots had traded down in the draft 16 times and traded up 17 times before this draft. But that’s a prime example of the prevarication of raw numbers without context. The Patriots trade up a lot — in the second round.
In only three years had the Patriots traded up in the first round of the draft — moving up 11 spots in 2002 to take tight end Daniel Graham, advancing one spot in 2003 to take Ty Warren, and twice climbing the board six places in 2012 to nab Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
This was the first time since 2006 the Patriots went into a draft with just one first-round pick that was a selection in the 20s and the team used that pick in its original slot. The last time it happened, the Patriots drafted Laurence Maroney at No. 21.
It’s easier to live with the Patriots missing on their first pick if it’s done with conviction of belief in a player, because New England’s scouting department is one of the best in the NFL.
If Belichick and his brain trust believe the 6-foot-2-inch, 288-pound Easley is the penetrating, pocket-collapsing defensive tackle the team has been searching for since 2011, then whether he has the knees of Greg Oden or not, it’s an acceptable pick.
The Patriots needed more defensive tackle depth with Wilfork (Achilles’ tendon) and Tommy Kelly (torn ACL) returning from serious injuries. Plus, Belichick’s track record of selecting defensive linemen in the first round is like Derek Jeter’s choice of female companions. Richard Seymour, Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Jones all became defensive stalwarts.
What is harder to accept is when the Patriots group players together, make no clear preference among them, and then trade down and out with the belief that if they get one of those players, they’ll be successful.
That philosophy defeats the purpose of astute scouting, which is to identify the subtle differences in players that portend NFL success.
If you slap identical grades on five players, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to have identical NFL careers.
In this case, Easley was the guy the Patriots wanted at No. 29, the guy the team pinpointed as a Patriot.
So strong was the team’s feeling about Easley that it wasn’t worth dealing No. 29 to procure an extra pick or two and gamble that he would still be there later
“There are always conversations,” said Belichick, when asked about trading the pick. “But we felt good about Dominique and there were a couple teams behind us that — we just didn’t want to take a chance on him.”
This time the best deal in Belichick’s mind was the player.
The way the board fell, he was married to the idea of Easley. For better or for worse, that was the right approach this time.