The New England Patriots have been known to zig when others zag, and the 2023 NFL Draft was no different.
While Bill Belichick, Matt Groh and the Patriots front office addressed a premium position in Round 1 with cornerback Christian Gonzalez, they spent their next six picks on a defensive end, a safety, three interior offensive linemen and a kicker, eschewing what many viewed as key needs at offensive tackle and wide receiver.
So, what led to those decisions? Mike Lombardi is a good person to ask; the former NFL executive worked closely with Belichick in both Cleveland (director of player personnel in the 1990s) and New England (assistant to the coaching staff in 2014-15) and is intimately familiar with how the head coach/general manager operates on draft weekend.
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Lombardi joined Phil Perry on the Next Pats Podcast to explain what the Patriots' 2023 draft says about how Belichick views his team.
"I see a draft that really is about team-building," Lombardi said. "I see a draft that's about understanding who could be a free agent in 2024, who we might have to replace. I see a draft that put an emphasis on trying to win the offensive and defensive lines with the thought process, and getting more speed on defense.
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"So I think it pretty much played the way Belichick visualizes most drafts, which is to find young players to develop and to replace older players who perhaps are going to make a lot of money in free agency."
"I think a lot of it has to do with the players in the draft, right?" Lombardi said. "I mean, you can't invent things. And I think probably the Patriots went into this draft feeling like there were some down-the-road offensive linemen, especially with the interior, that they could perhaps get later on on Day 3, as opposed to picking one on Day 1."
Lombardi then explained a philosophy he learned from legendary NFL head coach Bill Walsh that Belichick uses in New England: In order to properly scout draft prospects, you need to properly scout your own team first.
"You've got to scout inside out, not outside in," Lombardi said."You have to grade your team and you have to understand what your team's all about. And then once you grade your team, that determines your team needs. We also know age of players, when players careers start to end. Like I've said on my podcast, the grading system that Bill and I worked on in 1991 borrowed from the Cowboys system that goes back to the '60s. So there's no player that you're grading that hasn't been graded before."
That internal scouting process apparently led Belichick to prioritize interior offensive linemen and special teamers over offensive tackle and wideout, where they waited until the sixth round to draft Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas. Whether those were the right positions to prioritize remains to be seen, but Belichick clearly has a system, and he's sticking to it.
To hear more from Lombardi on the Patriots' draft strategy, whether they purposely tried to sabotage the New York Jets in Round 1 and more, subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast or watch on YouTube below.