Adaptability key to Belichick's NFL Draft approach with Patriots


FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick is the NFL's lone head coach who has more than 40 years of experience in the league. He's had to adapt. He's had to be malleable in what he believes makes good players, what he believes is the right approach to build teams. He's had to alter what it is he's looking for in the draft.  

He admitted as much in his pre-draft press conference at Gillette Stadium. While he has standards for what he's looking for at certain positions in the draft, those standards haven't been concrete. They can't be. 

"We have our standards at each position: height, weight, speed and other criteria are a standard," Belichick said Wednesday. "Some players are below that standard and are good football players. Some players are below that standard and aren't good football players. Some players are above that standard and are good. Some players are above it and are not as good. That's not the final evaluation, but it is a standard. Those standards have changed.

"When I came into the league when I was with the Giants, the standard for defensive tackles was 6-[foot]-2, 285 pounds. Offensive linemen -- 6-5, 285, 290. Those guys now would look like midgets. It's changed. And our standards have changed. But relatively speaking, you're evaluating what the player's total performance is going to be, not just the standards."

Projecting a player's performance from the college game to the pro game is an imperfect science, but it's impossible without a role in mind for a given player. And, over the years, roles have transformed across the league. Quarterbacks have become more athletic. The passing game has become king, particularly out of 11-personnel with three-receiver formations on the field more than any other.

That wasn't the case when Belichick took over in New England back in 2000. But it is now. And it impacts both sides of the ball. Better have a roster that can handle it.

"If two-thirds of the league have running-type quarterbacks and quarterbacks that are athletic and are gonna scramble and are gonna be those kind of players, then you better get ready to defend them," he said. "If teams are gonna be in three-receiver sets for the majority of offensive formations, then you better be ready to put five defensive backs on the field and be ready to have a slot corner. If you want to have a slot receiver, then you need to have a slot receiver if you're gonna put three out there. Somebody's got to play in the middle."

Belichick added: "This is another year with a lot of big receivers, 6-4, 225, 230, whatever they are. Somebody's going to have to cover these guys one of these days. I don't know if it's going to be all this year or not. There's plenty in the league right now that fall into that category. Seems like there's a little bit more of an emphasis towards the smaller, quicker slot receivers. Better find somebody to cover those guys, too, and vice versa." 

Belichick and the Patriots have, of course, already addressed some of those things to keep up with the times.

They've seemingly preferred bigger, stronger, pocket-pushing defensive linemen lately — Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown — than the types of rushers who are considered twitchier and more explosive. Why spend on speed rushers if the quarterbacks are faster and going to run right by linemen — even the athletic ones -— who lose contain? (To that end, it'll be interesting to see how the Patriots replace sub-rusher Adrian Clayborn. Do they roll with Derek Rivers or invest in another pass-game-only specialist? Or do they find another Flowers-type to pair with Michael Bennett, giving them multiple versatile run-game/pass-game ends on the field at the same time?)

The Patriots also went out of their way to draft a slot corner early last season. That was second-round pick Duke Dawson's projected role in New England, but he suffered a hamstring injury in training camp and didn't play a snap in the regular season. While versatility is tantamount in Belichick's defense, a player like Dawson, who showed at Florida that he could keep up with a variety of SEC slot options, can be valuable even if he's somewhat of a specialist. 

Areas the Patriots could try to address as the game continues to evolve moving forward? Finding a way to limit pass-catching backs could be on their radar. Ditto for defending tight ends in the red zone. Picking up a third-down receiving weapon would make sense as well. At the bye week last year, we identified those areas as three the Patriots would have to try to improve on during the season. 

Perhaps a Swiss Army knife defender in the mold of Patrick Chung — who is working his way back from offseason surgery — who can run with both backs and tight ends would make some sense as an early draft-weekend investment. Pursuing an inside receiver who could help convert third downs for Tom Brady would also be a worthwhile pursuit. (That's a relatively clear-cut need for the Patriots, who were interested in signing Adam Humphries and Cole Beasley as free agents this offseason.)

"Usually they kinda hit you in the face," Belichick said of the areas on his roster he and his front office try to address in the offseason. 

"Usually you sit there the end of the year and say, 'Well, we had a lot of trouble blocking this player or defending this type of player,' or whatever it is and it kind of becomes a need for you. 'Do we have to change our scheme to do this,' which probably isn't that easy or you would've already done it? 'Or do we have to have another certain type of player that we don't currently have that has a certain skill set?' "

The Patriots are consistently zigging where others zag, they find market inefficiencies that others haven't, and those have contributed in a huge way to their success over the last two decades. But even they know they can't always dictate where things are going. If the NFL is moving one way, they have to be ready for it, and the draft can be the well from which the Patriots pluck players to keep up with the ever-changing league around them.

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