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If not for Senior Bowl, Patriots might have shied away from top draft picks

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes on the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. As part of the pre-draft scouting process when both were at Alabama’s pro day in March, Bill Belichick bumped into Phil Savage and the two shared what was probably their longest conversation since the days when Savage worked as a scout for Belichick with the Cleveland Browns from 1993 to 1995.

Belichick shared his appreciation for Savage’s work as executive director of the Senior Bowl. Playing catch-up on his annual scouting work, Belichick told Savage the game in Mobile, Alabama, provided him important information on prospects the team was evaluating.

Savage couldn’t have been more flattered, and then by the end of Day 2 of the draft seven weeks later, Belichick put action behind his words when the Patriots selected Youngstown State defensive end Derek Rivers (No. 83 overall) and Troy offensive tackle Antonio Garcia (No. 85), two smaller-school players who arguably benefit the most during Senior Bowl week from practicing and playing against better competition than they usually see on a weekly basis in college.

If not for the Senior Bowl, do the Patriots make those picks?

It’s possible, but it’s also notable that the Senior Bowl was one of the first things Belichick mentioned late Friday night when discussing the selection of Rivers.

Those types of comments -- in addition to complimentary remarks from Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio on Saturday night -- are music to Savage’s ears.

“Coaches that are heavily involved in the draft, like Bill, they don’t have the time during the fall to work on these guys,” Savage said. “They might notice the names or may take a peek here or there, maybe over the bye week or something like that, but coming out of the season especially when you’re playing into the playoffs and into the Super Bowl -- like he said the day after the Super Bowl, they were five weeks behind.

“Think about it this way: Alabama had nine players taken in the first three rounds. That’s a big deal. Other teams had four, five guys taken. We had 42 players taken in the first three rounds, so in one setting, you can get a good feel of what’s out there and start making some comparisons. I think that really helps teams who have a coach that is really involved in personnel.”

2. Savage on Rivers: “I went to Youngstown during the season and he was being scouted heavily during the fall; [NFL] teams were going in there. He had a lot of production in terms of sacks and looked like a combination potential outside 'backer in the 3-4 or a defensive end in a 4-3. He has a good frame and he’s definitely very athletic. He’s a player who probably needs to get stronger, as most guys do that come out of a small school. But what he did when he showed up in Mobile, if you would have put a Michigan or Ohio State helmet on his head, you wouldn’t have known if he was a small-school guy or not. He competed well. It’s always interesting because you watch during the practices and sometimes it’s a little bit up and down for these guys, but then in the game they go against somebody different and he got a sack in the game and seemed to play pretty well.”

3. Savage on Garcia: “In what is a subdued offensive line class, he has traits. He has athleticism, long arms. He’s a little bit narrow-hipped, which for some teams, they want a thicker-framed player. But he can move his feet. During the fall, with people searching for linemen -- and we were particularly looking for linemen because this wasn’t a strong class -- people said, ‘That tackle at Troy, you ought to have him there.’ Our staff saw Antonio a couple times during the season, and his length and his foot agility are two traits that really put him in the position to be drafted where he was. Some said he might go in the second round, but I didn’t really believe that. I think he went where I would have forecast him coming into the season. I don’t know what their timeline will be, but I would suspect that he needs at least a half-year to get in the weight room and perfect some of the pro techniques. This is a player who has primarily been in a spread system, playing from a two-point stance.”

4. Did you know: Making just four selections in the 2017 draft, the Patriots tied the 1995 San Francisco 49ers for fewest draft picks by a defending Super Bowl champion, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

5. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been in his post since 2006, and it’s easy to forget now, but he wasn’t booed as aggressively in the early years of his tenure as he has been recently. That was a topic of discussion among some Patriots reporters during the draft as we waited for the team to pick, and we came to the conclusion that the noticeable boos truly began with his mishandling of the Ray Rice incident in 2014. Those boos have only seemed to grow in intensity ever since.

6. The Patriots acquired defensive end Kony Ealy and a third-round pick (No. 72) from the Panthers in March in exchange for a late-second-round pick (No. 64), which meant they gave up eight draft slots in the trade. Let's take a closer look at what they truly gave up in terms of opportunity:

  • 64. OT Taylor Moton (Western Michigan/Panthers): Projected as more of a fit at right tackle, he doesn’t fit the Patriots' scheme as well as third-rounder Garcia.

  • 65. DT Larry Ogunjobi (Charlotte/Browns): More of a one-gap nose tackle, he wouldn’t be a scheme fit. Plus, the Patriots are stocked at the position.

  • 66. CB Ahkello Witherspoon (Colorado/49ers): He has some unique physical traits, but given the premium the club places on tackling at the position, he might have been rated lower by New England.

  • 67. RB Alvin Kamara (Tennessee/Saints): Given the possibility he could help on all four downs, this could have been a fit, although the position itself wasn’t as great of a need after the Patriots signed Mike Gillislee.

  • 68. DE Dawaune Smoot (Illinois/Jaguars): He was a pre-draft visitor to Gillette Stadium, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he was on the team’s radar at No. 72.

  • 69. WR Cooper Kupp (Eastern Washington/Rams): No chance the Patriots would go receiver here.

  • 70. C Pat Elflein (Ohio State/Vikings): A Patriots-type player if the team was looking to upgrade and/or provide competition to David Andrews.

  • 71. C/G Dan Feeney (Indiana/Chargers): Another Patriots-type player with intelligence, versatility and desirable physical traits who could have fit well in New England.

The Patriots ended up trading down from No. 72, which could be a tip-off that their 50-to-75-player draft board took a direct hit or two in this area, and they wanted to regroup. That’s how former assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi explained part of the team’s trade-down process last week on the “GM Street” podcast, which makes me think the Patriots might have had strong considerations for someone like Smoot, Elflein or Feeney.

7. A bit of intel on tight end James O'Shaughnessy, whom the Patriots acquired from the Chiefs on Saturday along with a sixth-round pick (216) in exchange for a fifth-rounder (183): When Kansas City drafted the tight end in the 2015 fifth round out of Illinois State, the hope was that he could become a matchup problem for defenses, but that never materialized and he was unlikely to make the roster this season as he was fourth or fifth on the depth chart. He’s undersized for the position (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), giving the Patriots an AJ Derby/Clay Harbor-type “move” option in the competition for the No. 3 spot alongside players with a significantly different physical makeup in Matt Lengel (6-7, 267), Michael Williams (6-6, 280) and Rob Housler (6-5, 250). Caserio said Saturday night the club had done a lot of work on O’Shaughnessy coming out of the draft, and that provided a foundation for the Patriots to want to make the trade.

8. Lombardi shared a few draft-related nuggets from his time with the team (2014-2015) on the aforementioned “GM Street” podcast. He highlighted how the club felt confident that Missouri center Mitch Morse would be there to pick late in the second round of the 2015 draft, only to be surprised that the Chiefs took him in the middle of that round (New England ended up picking safety Jordan Richards in the second round that year). He also relayed that the club hosted quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Johnny Manziel on pre-draft visits the same day in 2014, and that Belichick & Co. figured Garoppolo would be picked by the Texans early in the second round. Instead, Garoppolo lasted to the end of the second (New England picked him at No. 62), getting the nod from the Patriots, in part, because of the collective feeling that he wouldn’t be in awe while working alongside Tom Brady.

9. A reminder of the longevity of Belichick’s coaching tenure in New England: His first draft pick as Patriots coach, 2000 second-round offensive tackle Adrian Klemm, was 2017 sixth-round draft choice Conor McDermott's offensive line coach the past four seasons at UCLA.

10. When the Patriots' 2017 draft class is evaluated, some will focus solely on the team’s four selections: Rivers, Garcia, Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise (fourth round, No. 131 overall) and McDermott (sixth round, 211). But that’s not a complete analysis because it doesn’t factor in players the team acquired with draft-pick capital. So here’s how I’d break it down (in order), with the final analysis, as always, to be made a few years down the road:

  • Brandin Cooks (acquired for first-round pick)

  • Ealy (acquired for an eight-spot drop from late second round to early third round)

  • Rivers

  • Garcia

  • Wise

  • TE Dwayne Allen (acquired with sixth-round pick in exchange for fourth-rounder)

  • O'Shaughnessy (acquired with sixth-round pick in exchange for fifth-rounder)

  • Gillislee (signed as restricted free agent for fifth-round pick)

  • McDermott