ATLANTA — When it comes to roster construction and maintaining his still-enduring Patriots dynasty, Bill Belichick doesn’t just have a type. He has types, plural.
There is no room for conventional wisdom, either. These are the types Belichick values, not those NFL Combine superheroes that self-appointed gurus talk up before the draft. We’ve seen this, marveled at it, for 19 seasons now. We know Belichick’s types.
Among them: Versatile players with a particular set of skills at certain positions, players that meet a high standard in both mental and physical makeup, players with leadership skills who also know how to listen, players who carry themselves as if they have something to prove even if they do not, players willing to shift positions, sometimes even players from specific schools.
These are players who may not be right for every team — many are underdogs in one way or another — but they’re the precious ones determined to be right for the Patriots.
They’re the Belichick guys.
“If I had to put three of them together, characteristics he’s looking for in a Patriot, it would be smart, fast, and nasty,’’ said Matt Light, the Patriots’ left tackle from 2001-11.
“Look, they’ve won with a lot of different types of guys. But the ones that stick around, the ones that end up making the great plays you remember, they’re not always the flashiest, but they’re more cerebral. The guys that consistently go out and perform at a high level also bring a physical component to their style of play.”
Another former Patriot narrows it down even further.
“Can you play football? It’s a really a question that gets lost around draft time, when people get caught up in 40-yard-dash times and three-cone-drill times,’’ said Rich Ohrnberger, a Patriots offensive lineman from 2009-11.
“If you’re a receiver with elite speed, can you catch the football? You have a great vertical leap, but can you make a tackle as a cornerback?
“Height, weight, measurables, are they a factor? Sure, to a certain extent. What the Patriots focus on is, is this guy tough enough to play in this system, is he smart enough to play in this system, and is he a good football player? Those are tenets they don’t deviate far from.”
Belichick isn’t one to ruminate on the nuances of roster construction during a week when there’s a Lombardi Trophy at stake. But he has rhapsodized at length in the past on what he looks for in a Patriot, never more so than during a lecture at an Ohio State coaches clinic in April 2017.
“For me, tough, smart, dependable,’’ he said. “That’s where I would start. Tough — mentally and physically. Smart — good decisions, good football understanding, high football IQ. Dependable — critical situations, you can count on those players to perform under pressure.
“You can count on those players to execute what you want to execute as a team. The tougher the game, the more critical the game, the more important the situation, the more I want the tough, smart, dependable player in the game, in the eye of the storm, making a decision that needs to be made for us to win.”
Because Belichick has been the Patriots coach and roster-builder for 19 seasons now, there has been a large sample size of fascinating common threads on the roster through the years, a true Belichick guy lineage. Among the quirkier patterns: He has found great value in players who played other sports (Chris Hogan, Nate Ebner) or positions (Julian Edelman, James Develin) in college. And he’s found success with Rutgers players (Devin and Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan) who played for his friend Greg Schiano.
Then there’s his approach to special teams. Belichick often emphasizes playing well in all three phases of the game (offense, defense, and special teams). But few teams treat the three phases as relatively equal, with special teams often the afterthought.
Belichick treats special teams with the utmost importance, and there is never a lack of special-teams-focused players on his roster, from Larry Izzo and Matt Chatham in the early years to Ebner, Matthew Slater, and Brandon King currently.
“You really have to have a high level of professionalism and buy-in, a willingness to do a very difficult and intense job without any adulation,’’ said Chatham. “Ultimately, you really have to want to do that job. You really have to dig the game. You have to enjoy it.
“I think Bill appreciates those that do it well.”
When Belichick spent a fifth-round pick on Slater in the 2008 draft, it seemed a curious choice since Slater didn’t seem to have an NFL position. Seven Pro Bowl selections later, he’s on the short list of the best special teams coverage players ever.
“What people didn’t know is that Slater was a monster special teams player at UCLA,’’ said Ebner, another special teams ace who was better known as a rugby player at Ohio State. “Coach Belichick probably valued that before most other coaches did.”
Tom Brady, of course, is a one-man quarterbacking lineage, save for understudy Matt Cassel’s 15 starts when Brady was injured in 2008. What is fascinating is how Belichick has continued to discover his type of players time and again at certain positions, to the point that there’s an uninterrupted lineage of excellence among multiple players.
For instance, the Patriots have had an uncanny knack for finding third-down backs. Kevin Faulk is the most beloved of the lot among the fandom, but J.R. Redmond, Shane Vereen, and James White were certified Super Bowl heroes.
And the Patriots have had just three primary slot receivers through the years: Troy Brown, Wes Welker, and Edelman, all of whom ranked among Brady’s most trusted targets at one time or another. Belichick has been notoriously terrible at drafting wide receivers (where have you gone, Chad Jackson?), but he has been able to acquire often unheralded pass catchers who contribute when they’re needed the most, among them Deion Branch, Danny Amendola, and David Patten.
“When you have a guy that walks in the locker room for the Patriots, he might not be great at one thing, but good at a lot of things,’’ said Nate Burleson, who was a receiver for 11 years in the NFL (though none with New England) and counted Branch and Randy Moss among his teammates.
“[Patriots] players bring a certain versatility to the table. Look at those wide receivers. Welker, Amendola, Edelman.
“Take Randy Moss. He’s one of the best deep threats of all time. He goes to Oakland, people said he lost a step, then he reinvented himself as a New England Patriot. It’s about doing so many things well, but when you walk in those doors, you shed who you were before, and you adapt to whatever they’re teaching.”
The Patriots have had an impressive history under Belichick in finding talent at one of the most demanding spots on the roster: the linebacker/defensive end/pass-rushing/edge-setting hybrid who is charged with doing just about everything a defensive player can do, save for covering a speedy deep threat receiver.
These players — among them Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, and Rob Ninkovich — habitually are among the smartest and most versatile Patriots.
During a news conference Wednesday, CBS analyst Tony Romo saluted Ninkovich, who is now with NBC Sports Boston and was in attendance, for all that he did for the New England defense. He might as well have been saluting every Patriots player — including the ascending Kyle Van Noy — who has played the position under Belichick.
“He had multi, multi positions,’’ said Romo, who cites the “Ninkovich role” frequently during CBS’s Patriots broadcasts. “His job on any given play was to rush the passer, cover the back, drop back into zone, reroute a tight end . . .
“It was constant, his movement and his ability to learn the plan each week and understand it. You’re going to rush, but if it’s a pass, you’re going to drop. It’s unique.”
Romo used a term that is about the highest compliment a Patriots player can get, and certainly one of the hardest-earned.
“Rob, he was the rare guy . . . well, he was a Belichick guy, I call it.”
Belichick’s kind of guys
A look at some categories of Belichick’s guys and common threads on his rosters through the years.
Special projects: Belichick has found capable players in all sorts of places and roles – college wrestlers and rugby players, converted quarterbacks, quarterbacks who didn’t play in college, etc.
■ Stephen Neal (2002, 2004-10), Julian Edelman (2009-), Cordarrelle Patterson (2018- Matt Cassel (2005-08), James Develin (2012-), Nate Ebner (2012-)
Superb third-down backs: Great lineage of change-of-pace backs throughout his tenure. Many contributed in a major way to a Super Bowl win.
■ J.R. Redmond (2000-02), Kevin Faulk (1999-2011), Danny Woodhead (2010-12), Shane Vereen (2011-14), Dion Lewis (2015-17), James White (2014-)
Rutgers guys: Belichick has drafted several Rutgers players. Many were surprise picks. Almost all have worked out. His sons played there for coach Greg Schiano.
■ Duron Harmon (2013-18), Devin McCourty (2010-), Jason McCourty (2018-), Logan Ryan (2013-16), Steve Beauharnais (2013), Tim Wright (2014), Kenny Britt (2017), Tiquan Underwood (2011)
Special teams aces: Belichick carries players specifically for special teams skills. Not all teams do.
■ Larry Izzo (2001-08), Matt Chatham (2000-05), Matthew Slater (2008-), Brandon Bolden (2012-17), Nate Ebner (2012-), Brandon King (2015-), Albert McClellan (2018-)
Slot receivers: Like with third-down backs, there’s direct lineage here through the entire era. All were/are essential contributors.
■ Troy Brown (1994-2007), Wes Welker (2007-12), Julian Edelman (2009-)
Reliable receivers: The Patriots have had trouble drafting receivers, but not finding ones who were unheralded but came through in big spots.
■ Deion Branch (2002-05, 2010-12), David Givens (2002-05), David Patten (2001-05), Danny Amendola (2013-17)
Linebacker or end? Both: Outside linebackers and ends have tremendous responsibility with the Patriots. They have traditionally been among teams smartest and most versatile players.
■ Willie McGinest (1994-2005), Roman Phifer (2001-04), Mike Vrabel (2001-08), Rob Ninkovich (2009-16), Kyle Van Noy (2016-)
Massive middlemen: The Patriots often employ extra-large interior linemen as the fulcrum of the defense.
■ Ted Washington (2003), Keith Traylor (2004), Vince Wilfork (2004-14), Albert Haynesworth (2011), Akiem Hicks (2015), Danny Shelton (2018-)
Two-way players: Belichick hasn’t hesitated to use offensive players on defense and vice versa during certain situations and circumstances.
■ Richard Seymour (2001-09), Dan Klecko (2003-05), Mike Vrabel (2001-08), Julian Edelman (2009-), Troy Brown (1993-2007)
Shadow roster alumni: Belichick has often had a reliable veteran or two that he would call upon when help was needed.
■ Patrick Pass (2000-2006), Rosevelt Colvin (2003-08), Junior Seau (2006-09), Andre Carter (2011, 2013), Ray Ventrone (2007-08), Ross Ventrone (2011)
Cornerback keepers: The Patriots have had a recent knack of finding talented cornerbacks as undrafted free agents.
■ Randall Gay (2004-07), Kyle Arrington (2009-14), Malcolm Butler (2014-17), Jonathan Jones (2016-18), J.C. Jackson (2018)