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Upsetting the status quo? Will labour uncertainty affect the Patriots draft strategy?

With a plethora of draft picks at their disposal, the Patriots are the undoubted power player in the 2011 NFL Draft.  With six selections coming in the first three rounds of the draft, the Patriots are poised to move up and down the draft boards in typically calculated fashion to find what they truly covet -value.  More important that any single player, the Patriots place a premium on value and their approach to the draft is wholly based on this concept.  However, the elephant in the room is not going away any time soon - the small matter of an unresolved and unsigned Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Currently, there is no indication that a deal is forthcoming, despite ongoing mediation talks taking place under the supervision of the courts.  With the opening round of the draft a mere week away, can we really expect a typical draft performance from the Patriots, one based on finding value?  It will be intriguing to discover the effect the labour uncertainty will have on the Patriots drafting philosophy.  Any variance in drafting ideals will depend on a number of factors...

Effects of a rookie salary cap

This is one of the key matters in the current labour dispute.  Without going into too much detail, owners essentially want financial protection from high round busts and players want to ensure all money saved under a rookie salary cap goes back to veterans and not into the owners back pocket.  Subjectively, this could certainly affect the way the Patriots choose to look at the draft and how they approach their selections.  As has been recently reported, Bill Belichick likes to approach each pick like he wants to trade it away and if there is not a deal which provides more value than a player the Patriots are interested in, they will make their selection.

In part this has typically been done to give the Patriots more financial flexibility.  The Patriots have six players on their roster who were 1st round picks made by the Patriots.  Recently, the Patriots have traded back in the draft if there are multiple prospects available who grade out the same, principally because in moving back, the Pats can still get one of these players at cheaper cost.

However, under a rookie salary cap, while the Top 10 picks in the draft would likely still receive rich contracts, it could dramatically alter the drafting strategy of the Patriots from a financial perspective.  Instead of moving back and settling for a player from a group of players who have a similar grade, the Patriots could trade up and take the best of that group at a comparatively reasonable cost.

While some may see this as a defining factor, I don't buy it as much.  Bill Belichick views draft picks as currency and the Patriots like to be in a position of power in the draft.  If the Patriots trade up rather than down, they will ultimately give up current or future picks which limits their capacity to control the draft.  Bill Belichick rarely if ever falls in love with a prospect, so radically changing his philosophy based on a rookie salary cap would appear to eliminate his control of a draft.  To me, the Patriots will always look to trade down and utilise their system of value application since it is the key to controlling your draft rather than hoping prospects fall to you.

Specific to the 2011 draft, it will be particularly prudent for the Patriots to apply the status quo to drafting, since it would be foolish to simply assume a rookie salary cap will be in place for the 2011 season.  Doing so and subsequently seeing no rookie cap put in place could cause some serious problems with agreeing cap friendly contracts with prospects.

Trading for future picks?

No one knows how long the current lockout will continue.  However, this has led to some rather alarmist questions regarding the 2012 draft and whether or not it will actually take place, since if no CBA is agreed, then there will be no draft.  While I don't think any deal is forthcoming in the near future, I sincerely doubt it will affect the 2012 draft.  But, the fact remains there is no deal and teams must take this into consideration and weigh up the risk, however minimal it may be.

In my opinion, the Patriots will approach this factor much like the potential rookie salary cap: assume things will go ahead as normal.  The primary factor for this being that the strength of the 2012 draft could be considerable.  We already know how strong the 2010 draft was, league wide, as many junior players declared early for the draft, what with the upcoming labour uncertainty and a potential rookie salary cap on the horizon.  Furthermore, the 2011 draft is saturated with senior players who had to enter the draft, whereas many of the juniors chose to stay in college, in part because they didn't want to enter the league when they do not know if or when they will be permitted to participate.  All those junior players will be entering the 2012 draft, together with some quality senior players and so, while probably not as strong as the 2010 class, you can see how the 2012 draft could be a strong one.

Therefore, it comes down to the Patriots trade picks into a potentially stronger future draft as has been their custom, or do they feel the risk of the 2012 draft not happening is too great.  Personally, I think they stick with their philosophy.

When will the 2011 Free Agency period begin?

The Patriots do not like to be held to ransom by any player and they take steps to acquire talent so as to never be in such a position.  However, the fact is they have a number of key free agents including starting left tackle Matt Light and Logan Mankins, who has not signed his franchise tender and wants a satisfactory long term deal.  Had a CBA been agreed, then the Patriots would have some clarity going into the draft of how they would need to address these positions, as was the case last year with the re-signing of Leigh Bodden.  Now, it could be that they do not wish to bring Light back and will give Mankins the long term deal he wants.  But when free agency resumes, if the Patriots have not addressed these positions in the draft, it would leave Mankins and particularly Light with extremely good leverage for contracts.

Knowing this could certainly alter the Patriot drafting strategy when it comes to players.  They would like to acquire their future starting left tackle (or right tackle if Vollmer moves over to the left side) and would also appear to want to add depth to their interior line.

The Patriots will have a list of prospects they feel will fit the bill for these positions.  However, the simply uncertainty of what will happen with Light and Mankins inflates this need to a point where the Patriots may deviate from their typical drafting strategy. For example, let's say the Patriots grade Anthony Castonzo at the same value as Robert Quinn, JJ Watt, Cameron Jordan and Julio Jones.  In this example all those players are available at 17.  Typically, the Patriots would look to trade down a few spots to acquire future picks and still get one of these players.  However, at the current time, they could be somewhat forced to make the pick (this is just an example).

I acknowledge this is quite an extreme view of things since the situation would not be that different if the CBA was not an issue and they wanted to see how the draft played out before resigning a veteran.  However, the simple fact that choice has been removed from the equation may indeed remove an element of choice when it comes to assessing trades during the draft.

Overall, I do not think that the Patriots will alter their draft strategy too much from any other year.  In this writer's opinion, the fact there could be a rookie salary cap and a slight chance the draft will not happen in 2012 will not change the mindset of approaching the draft with a view to acquiring more picks to be in a controlling position for current and future drafts.  Bill Belichick will be business as usual in this regard.  However, with free agents unsigned, this will be more of a factor in influencing how the Patriots operate on draft day with a view to trading down and finding more value.