With the NFL Scouting Combine taking place this week, I thought I’d give my personal thoughts about how I try to approach handling analysis on the draft. The Patriots will be looking to add young talent to bolster a championship level roster. Last offseason, the Patriots applied more of a veteran-heavy approach thanks to great drafting from 2011-2015 that led to the team having a boatload of cap space to spend. This year, I think they take the normal approach towards bolstering the middle class of their roster. The only players that would be a consensus Top 10 player on the team that scheduled to hit free agency are LT Nate Solder and RB Dion Lewis.
Teams have a plan to how they will improve their roster in the offseason and the first step is always free agency. Without that piece of the puzzle, it’s tough to project who does what in the draft. The one value of mock drafts is that for fans and sportswriters it gives them some names to look up and write about. Over two months, we’ll see hundreds of mock drafts highlighting various names across the spectrum at different positions. It makes for fun discussions on message boards like this one.
The draft ultimately is unpredictable once the first pick is on the clock because there is no universal draft board or grading system between the 32 teams. However, you can always bank on at least one team trying to make a splash and landing a blockbuster move to trading up in the draft to target a player many pundits would consider a future star player. Last year it was the Chiefs and Texans trading up into the Top 12 at the cost of a future 1st round pick to pick their QB.
To say the Patriots approach the draft differently than other teams is pointing out the obvious. Belichick designs his draft board to separate players into five separate tiers: Starter, Future Starter, Developmental Player, Backup, and Camp Fodder. Note that these designations ultimately will be where players fall under once they step onto the gridiron. At the end of the day, the player is going to develop into a starter, backup, or out of the league by the time his rookie contract expires four years after getting drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent. The Patriots are likely not the only team that uses that grading system considering how many former Patriots executives are in key personnel decision-making positions in the NFL.
Earlier this month, I posted a list of needs for the Patriots to address in the draft. That list will change when the dust settles from free agency and there is a clearer picture on the Patriots’ longer term needs. So my approach to that is to try to anticipate potential roster holes that open up in the next offseason. The reasoning behind that is not every rookie that has starter potential will learn the game fast enough to handle a starter role in Week 1 of the NFL regular season. That’s why the Patriots drafted Derek Rivers, Tony Garcia and Deatrich Wise, in anticipation of losing Rob Ninkovich and Nate Solder this offseason. Nink instead retired a year early, which did scramble the Patriots depth chart before the season begun. Solder may or may not leave in free agency, but with his family situation in mind he may ultimately leave money on the table if the Patriots’ offer is close enough.
The Patriots will send their scouts towards the NFL Scouting Combine and various Pro Days will Belichick attending some of them. I typically don’t like to watch cut-ups and highlights of players before the timed measurables are recorded because the numbers are the framework of a player’s athleticism and a nice reference to see if the tape matches up. Many players will play “faster” or “slower” than the timed measurables because in games they’re wearing pads and helmets vs. the combine where they’re in Olympic sprinting gear, which is why the Combine has gotten the nickname Underwear Olympics. I used the timed measurables to sift through the list of players to try to eliminate it down to a group of 40-45 players at various positions. The Patriots very much value 3-Cone Drill times in terms of pre-draft measurables, which is why I consider that drill as the first filter.
It will be interesting to see how much noise goes around when NFL Draft season begins this week. Like every year, the draft is going to be a media circus from the Combine all the way to the end of the actual draft. Every pundit and scouting website will have their draft boards along with the 32 teams picking in the draft, which adds to the drama of the event itself. At the same time, we should see various reports leaked from agents and team executives regarding a draft prospect and trying to figure out whether it’s a smokescreen or if there’s fire behind that smoke. The next two months should be quite an exciting time for football fans with the draft and free agency quickly approaching.