FOXBOROUGH — Patriot Place is usually the home of trading places on the first night of the NFL Draft. Nobody mines and manipulates the draft board for value like Bill Belichick, who is like a pick-accumulating puppeteer with his fellow NFL decision-makers. But His Hoodiness decided instead of making a big trade he would take a big body.
In what might have been a bigger shocker than Matt Fraser scoring the game-winning goal for the Bruins in Game 4 of their Stanley Cup playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens, the Patriots stood pat at No. 29 in the first round and drafted defensive tackle Dominique Easley from the University of Florida.
It was practically an article of faith that in one of the deepest NFL Drafts in recent memory the Patriots would auction off their first-round pick to the highest bidder, the same way they did last season, when they sent No. 29 to Minnesota for a second-round pick, a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick, and a seventh-round pick.
But following the familiar catchphrase of doing what is in the best interest of the team, the Patriots tabbed Easley, who fits the profile of the upfield interior defensive lineman they’ve been looking for since they traded for Albert Haynesworth in 2011. Just when you think Belichick is going to zig he zags.
“The way the board ended up we felt real good about Dominique being available at 29,” said Belichick.
Exercising the pick continued the Patriots’ off-season augmentation — don’t call it loading up, that’s for salary cap spendthrifts like Denver. The NFL has become a quarterback league and the only way to stop them is to smother their wide receivers and bury them in the pocket. Defense in the league is now about skill over scheme.
Belichick is still as erudite a coach as you’ll find stalking an NFL sideline. But the Patriots were 26th in third-down defense last season. They had porous rush defense after losing defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly to injury, but that wasn’t their undoing in the AFC Championship game. It was pass defense. Peyton Manning carved up the Patriots’ pass defense like a Christmas ham, passing for 400 yards on 32 of 43 passing and leading the Broncos to 507 yards of total offense.
The selection of the 6-foot-2-inch, 288-pound Easley continued the Patriots’ offseason upgrading of their defense. They went out and signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to upgrade their secondary.
Trying to get a penetrating defensive tackle that can push the pocket and help push the Patriots over the top has been a priority. Haynesworth and Jonathan Fanene failed to fit the bill. The Patriots are banking on Easley, who had 5½ sacks in four seasons at Florida, doing better.
“In college his stats might have been a little bit deceiving,” said Belichick. “A lot of times he was the disruptive player on the play, but he wasn’t the guy making the tackle. It wouldn’t be on the stat sheet, but the reason the play wasn’t successful was because of his penetration, being disruptive. He has a good knack for that. He is an explosive player.”
Easley will fit in to the interior line group immediately in one regard — he’s coming back from a major injury. Wilfork was felled by a torn Achilles’ tendon in the fourth game and Kelly suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament the next week.
Easley tore the ACL in his left knee in 2011 and had his 2013 season truncated by a torn ACL in his right knee. Belichick dismissed any health concerns with Easley.
Belichick would say that if Easley had been in a wheelchair on draft night.
We’ll see if the big guy is a caveat emptor pick or a value pick.
However, the Patriots have done well in the Belichick era when they have selected defensive linemen in the first round. Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Chandler Jones all became stalwarts.
As the draft droned on, the Patriots were finally on the clock at 11:19 p.m. Their pick was announced on television at 11:26 p.m.
Everyone was waiting for the Patriots’ habitual tradedown in the draft. Down and out isn’t just the state the Patriots have been left in after losing the last two AFC Championship games by double digits, it’s usually their draft mantra.
Patriots’ fans will point out that under Belichick the Patriots had traded down in the draft 16 times and traded up 17 times. But that’s a prime example of the potential mendacity of raw numbers with no context. The Patriots trade up a lot — in the second round.
In only three prior seasons 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 Warren and twice climbing the board six places in 2012 to nab Jones and LB Dont’a Hightower.
“There are always conversations,” said Belichick. “But we felt good about Dominique, and a couple of teams behind us that you know...we just didn’t want to take a chance on it.”
For awhile it looked like the Patriots could have a quarterback decision to make at No. 29 with Johnny Manziel. Johnny Football got the Heisman stiff-arm for 21 picks before the Browns flipped their second first-round pick (No. 26) and a third-round pick to Philadelphia to move up to No. 22 and take the freefalling, polarizing passer.
The parlor game being played at Gillette Stadium was what would happen first -- a winner in the Bruins-Canadiens game or Johnny Manziel being drafted. Fraser and the Bruins won, as Manziel wasn’t picked until 10:42 p.m., going to the Cleveland Browns at No. 22, about 10 minutes after the Bruins won in overtime.
The Patriots have their franchise QB. Their focus is on building a team that can stop one.
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