Draft notes: Patriots have so far targeted players that fill specific roles

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The Patriots have brought on five players in the first three rounds of this draft. All but one has a specific set of skills that – for this team at this time – addressed a particular need the Patriots have.

The Patriots often go to great verbal lengths to insist they don’t draft for need. “Good football players,” they’ll say. “We’re looking to add good football players.”

Everybody is. But in this draft, the Patriots were looking to add things they do not have. With N’Keal Harry, the Arizona State wide receiver, the Patriots got a big, physical receiver with great hands and a knack for making contested catches. The team didn’t have one of those.

Next, they took a 6-foot-4 corner, JoeJuan Williams from Vanderbilt. The team didn’t have a 6-4 corner capable of looking eye-to-eye with the league’s collection of big wideouts. Now they do.

Chase Winovich from Michigan is a smallish edge player for the Patriots but he addresses the pass-rushing need that Adrian Clayborn didn’t fill last season.

Tackle Yodny Cajuste could be the left tackle if Isaiah Wynn can’t go at the start of the season because of his Achilles. Or he could be the swing tackle the Patriots don’t really have now that La’Adrian Waddle is in Buffalo. Either way, there was a need there.

You’ve heard the phrase “the exception proves the rule”?

It would seem that Damien Harris, the third-round running back, is that because when Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio discussed Harris he was the lone selection that seemed to fit that “best player available” category.

“He falls into the ‘good football player’ category that's been consistently productive over the course of however many years,” said Caserio. “…this guy has been a pretty consistently productive player, so this is more of, I would say, falls into good football player category relative to the other options that we were looking at on the board, that's where he kind of fell.”

There’s nothing wrong with drafting for need. There are no nits to pick with the logic behind any of the picks. The Patriots, as Bill Belichick said in his pre-draft press conference, evaluate their on-field performance after every season and look at the roster to see if they have staffing at the spots that needed addressing. All those picks except for Harris definitely do.
And Harris too fills a need, though a less obvious one. The need he should fill is the direct backup to Sony Michel who carried an exceptionally big workload in 2018. Rex Burkhead and James White aren’t the between-the-tackles threat that Michel is. Harris could be.

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
We all spent a ton of time in the past couple of months trying to peg the tight end the Patriots would go after in this draft. With three rounds gone, the answer so far is none of the above. T.J. Hockenson (eighth pick), Noah Fant (20th), Irv Smith (50th), Drew Sample (52nd), Josh Oliver (69th), Jace Sternberger (69th), Kahale Warring (87th) and Dawson Knox (96th) are all off the board.

Among the players left at the picked-over position are UCLA’s Caleb Wilson (more receiver than blocker), LSU’s Foster Moreau (more blocker than receiver) and Stanford’s Kaden Smith (comes from a program that produces quality tight ends).

While there’s plenty to like about the five players the Patriots have added so far, there is reasonable restlessness afoot that nothing’s been done in the draft about tight end. But it’s also worth noting that two of the most productive rookie tight ends taken last year were fourth-rounders (Carolina’s Ian Thomas and the Jets’ Chris Herndon). The outstanding George Kittle was a fifth-rounder in 2017.

Caserio rightly pointed out that no team is done roster-building in late April.

“As we all know, there are other opportunities to add players to our team,” he said when asked about the lack of tight ends. “Once the draft is over, then we enter the next phase of the team-building process. It's kind of an on-going thing. We're kind of at a fixed point in time right now in this three-day period, but we have a long runway in front of us so let's say we'll just continue to the next phase. In the interim, we just take it step-by-step, day-by-day and just try to pick players that we think fit us the best regardless of how we get them here.”

POWER CONFERENCE
Since 2014, the Patriots have taken players from places like Concordia, Eastern Illinois (twice), Troy, Youngstown State, Western Carolina and Marshall. But the past two seasons, they’ve leaned hard on talent from the power conferences – Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 and the SEC (twice). Last year, all but one of their selections (Keion Crossen) came from a power conference.

Caserio indicated how important it is to evaluate players against top competition since that’s what they’ll be seeing on Sundays in the NFL.

“One of the things you try to do with most players regardless of the position they play is watch them against the best competition possible because that's a little bit more of an indication of what they're going to see on a weekly basis,” he said. “As we all know, in the SEC there's a lot of good players. We haven't run the stats yet, but I'm sure if you go back and look at the first two rounds, we're talking probably multiple players that played in the SEC that were picked. It's nothing new, but those players are good players and they're playing against one another on a week-to-week basis.

“So you try to evaluate them against the best competition because ultimately that's what they're going to play against,” Caserio continued. “It's not necessarily going to be against a program that isn't quite at the level of some of those other teams. It's a part of the evaluation. You want to see them play and how they play against some of the better players.”

LOTS OF POLISH
All the players selected so far by the Patriots have presented well in their conversations with the media. There’s a level of maturity and professionalism that’s worth noting. Caserio was asked, in a somewhat joking tone, if the Patriots only courted smart players.

“Depends on what your definition of smart is,” he said smiling.

After stating that the bottom line with each player is how well he plays, not how intelligent he seems, Caserio gave insight into how the team tries to pin down how much players can process. Because it’s a lot.

“They're going to get a lot of information so some can handle more information than others,” he said. “All of us learn at different levels and capacities … Every player is different and once they get here, you start the process. Even if a person is smart or we perceive him as smart, maybe he has a little bit of trouble initially grasping a concept or the technique is new for him and he has a hard time adapting or adjusting.

“But we look at all the attributes that go into their profile and the intelligence level of a player because ultimately, things change, right? The game happens fast, there's going to be adjustments [such as], ‘OK, they're playing this technique, they're playing this front, they're playing a certain way, we have to adjust in-game, we've got to go to something else.’ Can a player adapt quickly enough? The more players like that that you have on your team in your system, it just gives you an opportunity to make some of those adjustments and changes. It's more a credit to them and their coaches and their family and their background, how they were raised. Look, we have no impact on that. That's all we can do is evaluate it, but it's certainly an important part of our process.”

CAJUSTE IN THE SWING OF THINGS
Yodny Cajuste was mostly a left tackle at West Virginia but he said on his conference call that he’s played on the right side as well. That will be big because, as often happens, rookie tackles get called on to back up both spots. 
 
“It's like when we drafted Nate [Solder] in [2011],” said Caserio. “He played left tackle at Colorado. Well, his first year [in New England], he basically was the third tackle, jumbo tight end and he was playing right tackle. [Sebastian] Vollmer, Vollmer played left tackle primarily at Houston, he ended up playing both sides [in New England]. Trent Brown didn't play left tackle until he came into our program. So whatever their background is, that might be where their experience level is, so if we try them somewhere else, we'll see if they can handle it. …Nothing's going to be predetermined. Their experience is what you see, but how that projects, we'll find out when he gets here.”
 
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