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Patriots HC Bill Belichick on evaluating traditional skill sets, instincts and awareness

You ask New England’s head coach a good question, you will get a good response.

The majority of journalists and fans consider Bill Belichick’s press conferences a dull affair. And you can see why, as the New England Patriots’ head coach often gives the same answers over and over again.

He doesn’t want to talk about the rationale behind a roster move? “We do what we think is best for the team.” He doesn’t want to talk about what is going on around the league? “We just focus on [insert next opponent].” They are the best possible answers Belichick could give but they are boring to the casual listener.

However, Belichick does not answer all questions with short unsatisfying sentences – at least when you ask the right questions.

During yesterday’s press conference, he was confronted with such a question; one he genuinely tried to answer as well as he could while giving as much insight as possible. Belichick was asked about rookie cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc’s ability to find the ball, and how this skill gets evaluated as compared to more traditional measurables like speed or size?

Well, it’s a valuable skill. That’s a good question. Logan Ryan is another guy that did it in college. He has done it here. Some guys have a real knack for that, other guys not as much. Sometimes it’s a little bit acquired, sometimes it's just instinctive.

Belichick acknowledges that Ryan, who is the Patriots’ number two cornerback and has earned the nickname “instant offense”, is a player with the ability to find the football. Technically, he may not be the soundest corner but he has good instincts, plays opportunistically and has been able to take advantage of ill-advised throws or receivers’ miscues.

The best example I ever had was Everson Walls. He didn’t technically do hardly anything right from a fundamental standpoint. You would never take another player and say ‘Look, do it the way Everson’s doing it. This is the way you would want to do it,’ but in the end [he had], I don't know, whatever it was 56 career interceptions. It was a lot, it was over 50. He did things but he could find the ball and he had a great instinct for quarterbacks, routes, pattern combinations and so forth, so certainly it wasn’t a speed and measurable thing. You would have released him on those measurables – that's why he wasn't drafted – but as a football player he’s productive.

Walls, who finished his career with 61 interceptions (57 in the regular season, four in the playoffs), started his career with the Dallas Cowboys before moving to the New York Giants, where Belichick was defensive coordinator at the time. As Belichick noted, Walls was never a great technician and is thus a great example for the difficulties evaluators have when weighing traditional skills and instincts.

When I was in Detroit, Lem Barney, [was the] same kind of thing. Len probably had better measurable skills coming out but at that point he made a lot of plays and he made them on his instinctiveness, ball skills, awareness, etc. Ty [Law], I mean Ty was a first round pick, but Ty had that, too. There are a lot of first round picks that don’t have that and he had that.

Barney, who played for the Lions from 1967 until 1977, finished his career with 56 interceptions, while Law, who won three world championships with the Patriots and was one of the great cornerbacks of his era, finished with 59. Both, together with Walls, are prime examples for players taking advantage of their instincts and knowledge of the game – even if their technique or traditional measurables are not as polished.

It’s definitely an important skill and it really separates good from great players, or average to good players. But it’s not the easiest thing to evaluate and sometimes some of those plays are circumstantial more than they are great instinctive plays. They’re fortunate the way they happen, but when a guy starts making enough of them then you know it’s something a little special. It’s tough to evaluate.

Belichick basically points out that some interceptions or pass breakups are more the result of being in the right position by chance. However, once they start to happen regularly they might as well be the result of a player’s instincts.

The Patriots’ head coach was then asked how much the evaluation of non-classic measurables has changed over the years and how likely it is that a scout mentions a “knack for the ball” despite other skills lacking.

Every year. I think there are those guys every year, and I think the hard part is, in your question Dan [Roche], is taking it from the college level to the pro level. So, you can be a good instinctive college player and have it not be good enough in the NFL, or it might be good enough in the NFL, and sometimes there are other factors that become the overriding factor; speed, quickness, explosion, those kinds of things that maybe those guys just can’t get quite close enough to make those plays at this level that they made at a different level.

Belichick draws a correlation between instinctiveness and physical skill, pointing out that a player needs a certain set of skills to give himself the best chance to take advantage of those instincts. As the coach said earlier, this might be the difference between an average player and a good player.

Coming out of college and those things, it's one thing and then seeing that transfer – I'm not saying it doesn't transfer – but transfer it to the level of high-production maybe like it did at the college level just isn't always the case. A lot of those guys end up coming up short just like a lot of the size and speed guys that have the physical talent end up coming up short because they may not have the instinctiveness or awareness or whatever it happens to be, whatever adjective you want to put in there, to do it at this level, whereas in college or high school, whatever, there are measurables; their size, speed, power and all is just enough for them to be better than their opponents. Once that playing field levels out a little bit here then the instinctiveness, awareness, anticipation, those kinds of things, they become more of a factor. But it's a tough thing to evaluate. You need time.

With the physical talent differential in the NFL being not as big as it is at the lower levels of football, Belichick notes that a player’s “soft skills” often become more important than his “hard skills” like size, speed and strength. While the initial question was asked in regards to rookie cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc, this final paragraph of Belichick’s two answers holds true for every prospect – which is exactly why players like Chad Jackson or Shawn Crable never panned out in the NFL: the physical skills are good enough to work in college and high school but the mental skill set is not.