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How Will Bill Belichick Handle the Patriots’ Most Important Draft in Decades?

Tom Brady is in Tampa, but quarterback isn’t New England’s only position of concern. Belichick will have to get creative to bring in the reinforcements he needs for 2020.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bill Belichick has had some of his greatest successes in the NFL draft by anticipating other teams’ needs. Take 2010, widely considered his best draft, for example: After letting tight end Benjamin Watson walk in free agency, the Patriots were thin at the position. So was the team picking ahead of them at no. 43 in the second round, the Baltimore Ravens, Belichick thought. Sensing they could miss out on the tight end they wanted, the Patriots shipped no. 44 and a sixth-rounder to the Raiders to jump up two spots. At no. 42, they took their guy: Rob Gronkowski.

There’s a good chance that the past decade of football would have played out differently had the Patriots not packaged those picks to trade up for Gronk in 2010. There’s no way of knowing whether the Ravens would have taken Gronk, but they proved Belichick’s hunch correct when they took two tight ends later in the draft (Ed Dickson at no. 70 and Dennis Pitta at no. 114). A small, shrewd maneuver to land arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history may seem like a stroke of genius, but it’s no different from what Belichick has preached to his players for years: the need for situational awareness. In the draft, that means knowing the needs of every team—not just the ones picking ahead of you. “A lot of times it’s not the team right in front of you; it’s a team somewhere else,” Belichick said in 2019. “A team that could be … at a location behind you, that may be looking at a certain position or a certain player that could affect your draft strategy, as well.”

This weekend, however, other teams may find themselves trying to calculate the Patriots’ draft needs more than at any other time in the recent past. Tom Brady is a Buccaneer—as is Rob Gronkowski, who was traded to Tampa Bay on Tuesday after informing the Patriots he wanted to unretire and play with Brady. But the defections from New England don’t end there. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts; defensive tackle Danny Shelton; and safeties Nate Ebner and Duron Harmon all found new homes last month. It’s unclear whether center David Andrews, who missed all of 2019 with a blood clot, will return this season, and the man who replaced him last year, Ted Karras, is now on the Miami Dolphins. The team cut longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski this offseason. Wide receiver remains a concern for fans, and a decade on from the 2010 draft, tight end is a bigger need than ever.

Meanwhile, the Patriots’ past few draft classes haven’t panned out. While the 2019 group is still too fresh to fully judge, the three years before that have left the cupboard bare: Four players of the nine drafted in 2018 are currently on the roster, just two remain from the four picked in 2017, and only one is still hanging around from 2016’s nine-man class, guard Joe Thuney. Some success with undrafted free agents have offset these misses, but the Patriots are in desperate need of reinforcements across the roster. And while they enter the draft with 12 selections, only two of those are currently slated for the top 90.

New England has more uncertainties now than it has had at any point since Belichick arrived in 2000. So what does that mean for the 2020 draft? Here are the biggest questions the head coach and de facto GM faces this week.

When will the Patriots address the quarterback position?

The answer to this question likely depends on how high New England is on the quarterback the team drafted last year. With Brady gone, the only QBs on the roster are journeyman Brian Hoyer and 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham. Hoyer is 34 and on a one-year deal, so he’s a stopgap at best. Stidham—who threw only four passes last season, one of which went for a pick-six—could be the preferred option, but conflicting messages have emerged since Brady signed with Tampa Bay about his viability as the starter.

With only two quarterbacks under contract and little cap space with which to sign available free agents like Cam Newton or Jameis Winston, Belichick will likely spend one of his picks to bring someone else in. Whether that’s a first-rounder or a second- or third-day player depends on who’s available. Several mock drafts have the Patriots trading up from no. 23 to grab Tua Tagovailoa, who was once seen as a can’t-miss prospect but may be falling down draft boards because of injury concerns. However, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly has the Alabama product going fifth to the Dolphins; it’s likely that those quotes from anonymous execs are just predraft smoke screens. If he’s available in the late teens, New England might look to swap with a team like Dallas to grab him. But it’s hard to imagine Belichick giving up the assets it would require to trade for the Lions’ third pick, which could be what it takes to get him.

Tagovailoa will likely be gone by the time the Patriots pick, but another highly touted prospect could still be available. Would the Patriots be interested in Jordan Love if he’s sitting there at no. 23? The Utah State QB has been linked to New England in scores of mock drafts, and scouts certainly seem enamored of his arm strength and athleticism. But those traits don’t seem to be at the top of Belichick’s list. Brady’s draft profile described him as “frail,” but noted his poise. Jimmy Garoppolo—who, at no. 62 in 2014, became the highest-drafted quarterback the Patriots ever took under Belichick—struggled with deep passes, but had a quick release and knew where to put the ball. While Stidham had “adequate size and arm strength,” scouts questioned his ability to push the ball downfield. Love, meanwhile, struggled with decision-making and saw his turnover numbers jump from 2018 to 2019. If Belichick still believes what he did as Browns coach in 1991, it seems unlikely that he’d make Love a first-round choice.

However, several second-day QBs could be of interest to the Patriots. ESPN’s Matt Bowen, who correctly identified Stidham as a fit for the Patriots last year, thinks Washington’s Jacob Eason (no relation to 1980s Pats QB Tony Eason) is a possibility this year. Georgia’s Jake Fromm—who beat out Eason for the Bulldogs job, causing Eason to transfer—has also been discussed. The Patriots could also opt for a third-day guy like Florida International’s James Morgan, whom they’ve reportedly expressed interest in. So while Tagovailoa and Love seem unlikely, New England could still walk away from the draft with a quarterback, albeit a developmental one.

How will the Patriots prioritize their other needs?

This may shock anyone who watched the Patriots offense in 2019, but wide receiver likely isn’t at the top of their needs list. Despite losing Phillip Dorsett in free agency last month, New England is decently stocked at the position, with 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry (who started the year on injured reserve and never found his groove), Mohamed Sanu (who struggled with an ankle injury the second half of last season after the Patriots traded for him), and Julian Edelman (who is on the roster, but could always ask to get in on the Tampa Bay soiree). New England also returns Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers, two rookie fan favorites from last preseason who could compete for playing time in 2020. Factor in the depth of this year’s receiver class, and there’s no reason to think the Pats will take a wideout in the first few rounds.

Rather, the offensive position that really needs attention is tight end. Last year, the Patriots brought back 39-year-old Benjamin Watson—reportedly after failing to land Jared Cook—to lead an anemic group. Watson was Pro Football Focus’s 90th-ranked tight end last year, while Ryan Izzo finished 111th and Matt LaCosse finished 87th. This year, the Patriots don’t even have Watson, who retired after the team’s first-round playoff exit in January. The Patriots have drafted only three tight ends since taking Gronk and Aaron Hernandez in 2010: Izzo in 2018, A.J. Derby in 2015, and Lee Smith in 2011. Expect that to change in 2020. The Patriots met with Dayton’s Adam Trautman and Washington’s Hunter Bryant at the NFL combine in February, and former Patriots GM Scott Pioli identified Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet as a great fit for the team to NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran this month. Any of the three would likely be an immediate upgrade over LaCosse and Izzo.

Of course, the Patriots have spent their past three first-rounders on offense: They took left tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel in 2018 and Harry in 2019. This year, they may be forced to look for a defensive player. The linebacker position—the strength of the defense for much of 2019—seems like the most obvious need on that side of the ball. Jamie Collins, who had a small resurgence in his return to New England, signed with the Lions this offseason, while Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts both reunited with former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores in Miami. New England’s group is still led by Dont’a Hightower, but he turned 30 last month, has dealt with a variety of injuries in his eight-year career, and has been good, not great, in recent years. And while the team has high hopes for 2018 fifth-rounder Ja’Whaun Bentley, he has yet to break out. This position group went from one of the team’s strengths to one of its weaknesses in one offseason.

How will Trader Bill adapt to unprecedented circumstances?

Since 2010, the Patriots have made the most draft-day trades in the NFL (42). The next-closest team is the Minnesota Vikings, who have made 35. Since Belichick took over, the Patriots have failed to make a draft trade in only one season (2004). The Patriots have 12 draft picks, but after Tuesday’s Gronk trade, five are in the sixth and seventh rounds and none are in the second round, thanks to last year’s Sanu trade. It seems certain the Patriots will make some moves this weekend, but will they jump up or down?

Belichick has a reputation for trading down or giving up an asset now for a better one later. But that’s a bit of a misnomer—turns out he’s moved up and down a roughly equal amount. For example, the 2010 Gronkowski pick doesn’t happen if the Patriots aren’t willing to be aggressive. But Belichick is selective about how he trades up: He’s packaged assets for a better first-round pick only four times in his Patriots tenure. The last time he did so was in 2012, when he traded up twice: once for defensive end Chandler Jones and again for Hightower. Given the team’s myriad needs, it appears unlikely the Pats would do so this year, for Tua or anyone else. Rather—and fans may not want to hear this—if Bill believes he can get value in the high 30s equal to what he can get at no. 23, he may try to trade backward to pick up a few assets.

Another option for picking up a second-rounder may be moving Joe Thuney. The team used the franchise tag on the guard last month, but the two sides reportedly aren’t close on an extension. Thuney’s cap hold is north of $14 million; the Patriots currently have just over a million dollars in available space, which isn’t enough to sign the incoming class. If New England and the 2020 second-team All-Pro can’t reach an agreement before the weekend, they could solicit offers. This, of course, would ship off one of the team’s few remaining blue-chip talents, creating another need. However, it could be necessary.

But even if they find a partner to take Thuney or another player, this year’s draft presents unusual circumstances. Due to social-distancing measures enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus, team executives will make their picks from their homes. Monday’s mock draft of team GMs was reportedly a “disaster,” but even if things run smoothly, there will be hurdles to clear. Typically, teams have upward of 10 people in their war rooms or at the draft throughout the weekend. This year, those people will be dispersed throughout the country. Getting 10 people on each side to sign off on a trade may be difficult, especially in the latter rounds, when teams have less time between selections. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll expressed concerns earlier this week:

I think it’s hard for people on the outside to realize how intricate and how timely the urgency is during those moments leading up into your pick, because you have minutes, and then you have a minute, and then you’re down to 30 [seconds]. And what happens is, we have a lot of guys that are talking to other clubs and they’re gaining information and there could be a pick coming up where you have four or five teams—this is not uncommon—that you’re talking to about wanting the position you’re choosing at. They want a player they have in mind at that pick and so they’re calling you.

For the Patriots, maximizing those late-round picks may be more important than ever. New England has fleshed out mediocre draft classes in recent years by signing high-ceiling undrafted free agents: J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, and Adam Butler have settled into important roles on the team. But as The Ringer’s Kevin Clark reported Tuesday, teams may be less willing to take risks on undrafted guys this spring because they can’t bring them in for visits. That could make those five sixth- and seventh-rounders the key to the Patriots’ draft—and in turn, their short-term future.

But if any executive can thrive in chaotic situations, it’s Belichick, and he’s likely prepared for whatever the weekend could bring. Plus, he’s also had his share of luck maximizing picks in those late rounds. Let’s return to the 2010 Gronk trade. In 2009, the Jaguars traded with the Patriots to get back into the third round to take cornerback Derek Cox. In exchange, Jacksonville sent New England a seventh-rounder and a 2010 second-rounder. That seventh-rounder became Julian Edelman. The second-rounder ended up being no. 44, which the team packaged to move up for Gronkowski. With the trade, the seeds for the Patriots’ past three Super Bowl wins were planted. It seems that understanding other teams’ needs can bear a lot of fruit if you know what you’re doing.