There will be no instant grading of the Patriots’ performance in the NFL Draft this past weekend, as anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the draft knows that it takes 2-3 years to determine if a pick turns out well or poorly.
But this definitely feels like one of those, “We’re smarter than the rest of you” drafts from the Patriots, which has become their specialty over the years.
Do the players picked by the Patriots over the weekend represent a draft class or a M*A*S*H unit? They might spend more time with head strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash this year than head coach Bill Belichick.
Easley was still available at 29 after tearing both of his ACLs in the last three years, the latest one in September that knocked him out for the final three months of his senior season?
“That’s fine, we’ll take him.”
Center Bryan Stork was still around at the top of the fourth round after underwhelming at his pre-draft workouts, possibly because of knee and shoulder injuries?
“No problem, we’ll take him, too.”
And guard Jon Halapio was still on the board in the sixth round after a subpar senior season, in which he played most of the year with a sling to keep his torn pectoral muscle in place?
“That’s cool. We’ll take things from here.”
At best, the Patriots stole several undervalued players.
The Seahawks certainly think so, closing up shop for the night Thursday and trading out of the first round after the Patriots took Easley three picks ahead of them. One prominent orthopedic surgeon, who repaired Carson Palmer’s ACL last decade, told the Globe over the weekend that Easley may actually come back stronger from the torn ACLs, similar to a pitcher coming back stronger from Tommy John surgery on his elbow.
Stork was a unanimous All-American and winner of the Rimington Trophy as college football’s top center last year, anchoring an offensive line that protected Jameis Winston as he won a Heisman Trophy and national championship for Florida State.
Halapio was a fifth-year senior for Florida and team leader who probably shouldn’t have been available in the sixth round, if not for the pectoral injury. He’s a thick, 321-pound guard who is a road-grader as a run blocker and was voted a team captain as a senior.
At worst, though, the Patriots used their first-round pick on a kid with weak knees, a second-round pick on a quarterback who might not play, a fourth-round pick on a center who can’t stay healthy (Stork also has suffered migraines and a finger injury that almost required amputation), and a sixth-round pick on a kid who doesn’t have the upper-body strength to play in the NFL.
We’ll need two or three years to figure all this stuff out, of course. But what does seem clear is that the Patriots took the exact opposite approach during this draft as they did in free agency in March.
And yet it’s hard to see the Patriots getting a ton of use out of their draft class before 2015, especially out of their top picks. Easley probably will get some run as a nickel pass rusher, but bet on him being worked back slowly. Garoppolo obviously won’t play unless something bad happens to Tom Brady.
The other draftees probably will be special teamers and backups to start, unless a veteran such as Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, or Shane Vereen is a surprise cut.
That’s not a terrible approach, of course — the Patriots still need to think about the future, and they seemingly drafted several building blocks for 2015 and beyond.
It’s just that it sends a conflicting message to the fans, many of whom were frustrated and angry at the picks. This looks like a team that needed another tight end to complement Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui, another edge rusher to spell Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and maybe a strong safety. Yet none of those positions was really addressed in the draft.
Not taking a safety to replace Steve Gregory doesn’t really bother me. The Patriots have a ton of talent in the secondary between Revis, Browner, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, and Duron Harmon. Belichick said Ryan and maybe another player will get reps at safety this spring. The important thing is to get the talent on the field, and worry about specific positions later.
Not finding another edge rusher was a bit confusing, but perhaps Easley and Will Smith can help on that front. Second-year linebacker Jamie Collins can get after the passer, too.
Their decision not to draft a tight end seems the most perplexing, though, especially given Gronk’s injury history. The Patriots have taken a look at former Jets and Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller this offseason, and maybe they ink him to a one-year deal now that the draft is over (although he is a supreme injury risk given the devastating knee injury he suffered last August).
In my view, the Patriots should go even harder at retired tight end Tony Gonzalez this offseason. Yeah, he’s with CBS now. But the Falcons relinquished his rights to make him a free agent, and Belichick should put the full-court press on Gonzalez to bring him north and let him chase that elusive championship trophy.
Gonzalez, now 38, still had 859 yards and eight touchdowns last year and would be the perfect fit for this team.
Did the Patriots take the right approach in the draft? Again, ask in two years.
But they certainly threw a curveball with their strategy, and took risks on players who were downgraded by injuries. Hopefully, they’re just being smarter than everyone else.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.