Bill Belichick doesn’t just have to find the next quarterback for the Patriots. He has to start replenishing the NFL’s oldest roster, and finding the next young wave of talent to keep the franchise competitive for the next decade.
If history is a guide, he’ll rebuild like he always has — up the middle.
“Make defense defend the middle of the field first by running and throwing inside — work from the inside out in terms of blocking and protection,” Belichick wrote in 1991 when he was head coach of the Browns. “When defense commits more players inside then we can attack the outside (run & pass).”
Belichick’s philosophies on football — his overall plan of attack on offense and defense, and what he looks for in each position — were so sound that the Ravens continued to adhere to them long after Belichick was fired. Last month, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, posted Belichick’s scouting documents on social media. The reports are 29 years old, but many of them still apply.
On offense, Belichick’s philosophy is simple: Attack straight ahead. Make them stop you.
Think power running backs that drag defenders through the cold January air, such as Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, and LeGarrette Blount. Think slot receivers dominating the middle of the field, such as Troy Brown, Wes Welker, and Julian Edelman. Think two-tight-end sets and I-formation football.
Only once did the Patriots feature a dominant player on the outside — Randy Moss for three seasons. Otherwise, outside receivers have been role players for the Patriots.
“Need some type of powerful element in the running game, need big upfront people to knock guys off the ball,” Belichick wrote.
The Patriots have usually had big offensive linemen under Belichick. Nate Solder was 6 feet 8 inches, 325 pounds. Marcus Cannon is 6-6, 335. Trent Brown was 6-8, 325. Sebastian Vollmer was 6-8, 320. Logan Mankins was 6-5, 310. Damien Woody was 330 pounds. Four of the five offensive linemen in 2007 were 6-4 or taller.
It’s one reason why it is unusual for the Patriots to have Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. At 6-2, 311, he’s a little undersized for what they usually have at the position.
“Need (north-south) backs, need at least two like Kevin Mack who can punish straight ahead,” Belichick wrote. “Need 1 eligible receiver who is a point of attack blocker — (Tom) Rathman, (Maurice) Carthon type guy — who can execute the blocking in the running game.”
Belichick likes straight-ahead, physical running backs, such as Smith, Dillon, and Blount. The current roster has three, though it is certainly not the best group the Patriots have had: Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and Damien Harris. Michel has been decent in two seasons but doesn’t break enough tackles. Burkhead has great versatility but is often hurt. And Harris couldn’t get on the field as a rookie, though it is too early to write him off.
Belichick also loves having the “point of attack” blocker — fullbacks and tight ends who are crucial in the run game. Think Marc Edwards, Heath Evans, James Develin, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Dwayne Allen. Even as the NFL evolves with mobile quarterbacks, run-pass options, and Air Raid offenses, expect Belichick to prioritize a fullback and a blocking tight end.
“Passing game must protect QB in the middle,” Belichick wrote. “Need size and strength guys who won’t get driven back.”
More talk about the importance of size up front. Belichick believes it is important to be a bully on the offensive line, especially when you play outdoor games in December and January.
And the comment about protecting the quarterback up the middle is interesting. A couple of years ago an offensive line coach mentioned to me that with the Patriots, the interior offensive line is more important than the tackles. With an offense based on short quarterback drops and quick passes, the only way for a defense to really disrupt the Patriots’ offense is right up the middle — as we saw the Giants do in both of their Super Bowl victories against New England.
It explains why Belichick has invested so much in the interior offensive line of late, giving Shaq Mason a big five-year extension and Joe Thuney the franchise tag. It also explains why the Patriots are able to take someone such as Brown off the scrap heap and turn him into the highest-paid tackle in the league (for the Raiders). Most NFL teams spend a bulk of their money on a shutdown left tackle, but the three guys inside are more important for the Patriots.
“Backs and TEs need to be able to catch, not necessarily need to be elusive — 3rd down receivers who can get off [line of scrimmage] and not get jammed and obviously catch the ball,” Belichick wrote. “Want 3 receivers and RB type guys, (Dave) Meggett/(Eric) Metcalf type — when the defense takes away all the inside stuff then we will go outside with run and pass.”
This highlights once again the importance of running backs and tight ends in the passing game. At running back, Kevin Faulk, James White, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead have all thrived in New England — not because they are the quickest or toughest to tackle, but because they are steady and reliable.
It also explains why Belichick has used two first-round picks on tight ends (Daniel Graham and Ben Watson), why he doubled up on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010, and why he targeted solid No. 2 tight ends over the last few years (Scott Chandler, Martellus Bennett, Allen). In this offense, outside wide receivers seem like afterthoughts.
Finally, Belichick has four overriding rules for offense:
“To be successful must be able to: 1. Run ball; 2. Pick up blitz; 3. Pick up third downs; 4. Score.”
The only one that seems out of date is the first. Analytics have clearly shown that throwing the ball is the best way to score, and the best way to win. But running the ball still has a place in today’s NFL, and the Patriots’ offense has operated the best when it has had good run-pass balance.
I asked Jeremiah if he thinks Belichick would still rank his list this way in 2020.
“I think I might flip the order around, but the four keys would remain the same,” he said. “I’d move score to the top — I think that speaks to the importance of finishing drives and red-zone efficiency.”