When it pertains to the NFL Draft, the relative return to normalcy I’m looking forward to has nothing to do with Roger Goodell awkwardly hugging draft picks on stage again.
No, my draft normalcy is watching Bill Belichick do something with his first-round pick that leaves certain mock-draft geniuses befuddled but too gun-shy to rip the pick. Give me a decent TV, an assortment of salty snacks, and a bewildered draft expert, and you have my traditional recipe for draft-day good times.
I know, sometimes doing the unexpected doesn’t work out best for the Patriots. As it turns out, spending a first-rounder on a defensive lineman with knee ligaments made out of the finest of linens is not wise, as the Patriots found out with Dominique Easley in 2014.
But there are notable times in the first round when it has. When the Patriots took Fresno State guard Logan Mankins with the 32d pick in 2005, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said he had him pegged as a third-rounder. Mankins ended up being the second-best guard in Patriots history after the best guard in the history of the sport, John Hannah.
Five years later, the Patriots took Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty after trading down to the No. 27 choice. Not to pick on Kiper, who I enjoy, but he said McCourty’s greatest value was probably as a special-teams gunner.
Eleven seasons into his career as a quintessential Patriot, McCourty long ago became one of three players in NFL history to make All-Pro at both cornerback and safety. The others, Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott, glided into the Hall of Fame. To be fair, McCourty also has been darned good on special teams when he’s played there.
I’ve found myself hoping Belichick does something unexpected in this year’s long-, long-, long-anticipated draft, which commences Thursday night with the first round. But the more I think about it, the more I don’t believe that is possible. There are just too many plausible possibilities this year for Belichick to pull off a genuine surprise.
The most anticipated potential plot twist is the possibility of trading up from the No. 15 spot to select the quarterback of the future. There’s plenty of scuttlebutt about the Patriots doing their due diligence on the teams drafting ahead of them and surveying the landscape to find out what deals to move up might be available.
If they did trade up to draft a quarterback, it would be by far the most exciting first-round move they’ve made in Belichick’s 21 seasons of running the show. And it would solve the mystery of which quarterbacks they covet in this draft and which ones leave them lukewarm. But even that kind of move is reliant to a large degree on what happens in front of them.
I suspect they covet North Dakota State’s athletic and intelligent Trey Lance, with the idea of letting him understudy for at least a year behind a veteran. But so much depends what the 49ers do in that No. 3 spot. Will it be Alabama’s Mac Jones, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, or Lance? Their decision will ripple through the rest of the draft.
(I said “a veteran,” rather than “Cam Newton,” as a potential mentor for Lance because I still believe the 49ers will move on from Jimmy Garoppolo, and the Patriots would welcome him back on a reworked deal. The 49ers reportedly still want a first-rounder for him, which is absurd. They got him for a second-rounder and won a bunch of games and made a Super Bowl when he was healthy. They still owe the Patriots a gift. A third-rounder should do it. You’d think 49ers GM and Patriots training camp legend John Lynch would be able to work out a deal with his former team at some point.)
It seems possible to me that the Patriots could do the boring thing, stay at No. 15, and take the best defensive player available. Cornerbacks Jaycee Horn (South Carolina) and Patrick Surtain II (Alabama) are likely to be gone. But if one somehow slid, that would be an enticing addition. Linebacker Zaven Collins out of Tulsa is an athletic marvel whose skill set sounds an awful lot like that of another Collins, former Patriot Jamie. A player with that toolbox is always a welcome addition.
Or maybe they’ll pass up adding a skill-position player and take a defensive lineman like Alabama’s Christian Barmore, perhaps even by trading down a few spots. It’s not exactly what the phrase “go big or go home” means when you’re daydreaming about adding the next franchise QB, but hey, we all wanted a dazzling running back like Kevin Jones or Steven Jackson in 2004, and that Wilfork fella ended up working out OK, right?
There are only two potential developments I can think of that would qualify as stunning if they actually happened. One would be drafting 166-pound Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith with the No. 15 pick. The Alabama receiver is a one-man lightning storm, but his particular skills differ from what the Patriots tend to look for in a receiver. Of course, their approach at that position hasn’t exactly served them well lately, so perhaps a changeup there is necessary, if not outright overdue.
That other development that would qualify as a surprise: Trading up in the draft, and then filling an offensive skill position other than quarterback. Ja’Marr Chase? Jaylen Waddle? I can’t see either happening. And as zany as a three-tight-end offense with Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, and Florida star Kyle Pitts might sound in theory, the Patriots aren’t giving up that kind of draft capital for anything but Mr. QB of the Future.
If Pitts, Chase, or Waddle to the Patriots is your daydream, it’s best realized by making a trade on Madden 21. But don’t worry — this should be the year that the Patriots’ draft decisions are at least as compelling as anything that can be conjured up in a video game. The only surprise Thursday night will be if there are no surprises at all.