The post-draft hysteria has died down by now, but the Patriots can never avoid the controversy. Think back to past years. Mayo a reach in 2008. Multiple Reaches in 2009. McCourty in 2010. Ridley in 2011. And now? Tavon Wilson, DB out of Illinois in 2012. The pick left almost all Patriots fans (including yours truly) scratching their heads. Who is Tavon Wilson? Mel Kiper didn't even have him in his draft notes. Initially, the reaction was anger. This guy is UDFA level? Slowly more information leaked out. Multiple teams had him in for visits. Still, even if he was capable of playing like a second-rounder, multiple teams had him graded as a seventh-rounder. Even one of the supporters of the pick, NFL scout Chavous told the Herald that he had him as a fourth-rounder.
Some fans have offered that the Patriots panicked because the Chargers or another team was interested. I just don't see the Patriots making a knee-jerk reaction.
So why did the Patriots take him so early? I have two possible answers.
ANSWER ONE: The Patriots went with the board.
John Harbaugh recently defended his questionable selection of AJ Jenkins in the first. His answer rung a bell for me. In essence, he said that he sets his draft board based on how he thinks about people. Not based off other teams. If a player is on the board at a pick and he's the top, Harbaugh isn't going to lower him because other teams will pass. He's going to trust the board. If a player is rising like crazy due to hype, he isn't going to reach. If a player is dropping for no apparent reason, he isn't going to adjust the board to get the best value. He's going to stick to his board. Such an approach leads to the "reaches" that we complain so much about. But there is no doubt that it can be highly rewarding if the scouting department is good.
The Patriots have that luxury. They have one of the best scouting departments and Bill has a reputation for trusting his board. He saw Tavon Wilson as the top-rated player on the board at the time. For Bill, Tavon was the BPA and it didn't matter what others would do. Bill marches to his own drum. This was pretty much the reaction from the media. Of course, this raises the question: even if you have a guy rated 2nd round, if no one else agrees, why not steal him in the fourth? He'll still be available.
That's why here's...
ANSWER TWO: The Patriots drafted for need.
Let's lay some background. Everyone agrees - the Patriots are going all-in. I've already written a post about the Rainy Day Fund concept so I won't reprise those thoughts here. The bottom line is that the team is throwing every player they can get into training camp. We're bringing tons of WRs, signing for depth, drafting first-round D playmakers, etc. The competition at every roster spot is intense, even at fullback. But a glaring need that didn't get fully addressed? Safety.
Sure, we signed Steve Gregory, but most scouts and personnel men have tabbed him as a backup. In other words, he's an upgrade over the other guys we had out there, but he's really best with limited time. Fair enough. But the safety FA market was tiny. Landry went to the Jets, Griffin and Tyvon Branch were franchised, and few top safeties came on the market. I bet Bill tried to offer a third-rounder for Ed Reed but the Ravens declined. ;)
So now the Patriots realize that the only way to get a starting safety to pair with the fragile Chung is through the draft. Well, let's look at the draft options. You have Barron who is way out of reach, and then Harrison Smith. I'm sure the Patriots had Smith lower than Jones or Hightower on the board. When the Patriots traded up, they traded out of the Smith range. By the time the first round was over, the two top safeties were off the board. So who's left?
According to Illinois' coach, Ron Zook, Wilson was the third-best safety in this class. Of course, it's a biased opinion, but let's make the reasonable assumption that the Patriots agreed. At this point, Wilson could probably come later. But why wait? The safety talent dropoff was admittedly steep this year. Why risk the Chargers making a surprise pick? You see, a team that already has its safety position stable would pick Wilson in the fourth. But the Patriots don't have any backup plans. Every time in the past that NE has traded down, they've had backup plans. Either they had a FA lined up or they had multiple players they were comfortable with drafting. This year, in a poor safety class, they had three guys who they thought of as potential starters. If they somehow lost out on Tavon, they'd be forced to go into camp with Gregory, Brown, and a converted McCourty. Who's that you mention? Oh!! Yes! And we can always try Slater back there. In other words, a true starting safety won't be available unless they obtain Wilson.
So why wait? Wilson is the BPA at the biggest position of need left for the Patriots. They have no backup plans. They desperately need him. They can't afford to play guessing games about other teams...and lose the game. They can't afford to gamble and so they don't. On the surface? The pick seems uncharacteristic, strange, dumb, and a host of other unflattering adjectives. But put yourself inside Bill's mind and you can see the reasoning. The Patriots tend not to take risks when drafting. Instead of taking a gamble on Wilson like everyone is supposing they did, Bill actually did the safest thing he could. Draft the last viable safety left on his board before anyone else thought about it to make sure he had him.