Bret Bielema's presence with Patriots adds SEC perspective for draft

Bill Belichick, left, and Bret Bielema, center, were on hand for last month's pro day at Alabama. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

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

1. The Patriots have had success in recent years drafting players from Bret Bielema’s teams, and entering one of the most important drafts in Bill Belichick’s tenure, the former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach continues to work closely with the team this spring.

After having been spotted at the combine with the Patriots’ contingent, and also wearing New England gear at USC’s pro day, Bielema reported to work over the past week at Gillette Stadium. His exact role hasn’t been announced by Belichick, but it seems obvious it starts with consulting on scouting and the draft this spring, and here are a few reasons why it's notable:

  • The Patriots have nailed three picks from Bielema’s programs: running back James White (Wisconsin, 2014), defensive end Trey Flowers (Arkansas, 2015) and defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. (Arkansas, 2017).

  • The SEC saw 53 players selected in last year’s draft, and it set a conference record with 21 selected within the first two rounds in 2017. Bielema, whose agent Neil Cornrich is a close friend of Belichick, spent the past five seasons in the SEC at Arkansas.

  • SEC players drafted in each of the past five years: 63 in 2013; 49 in 2014; 54 in 2015; 51 in 2016; and 53 last year.

  • The SEC has had the most players selected in the draft during each of the past 10 years.

So Bielema, who got an $11.9 million buyout after being let go by the Razorbacks in November, might be able to add a different SEC-specific perspective (and possibly more) to the extensive work already done by Patriots college-scouting director Monti Ossenfort and the team’s hardworking scouts over the past year.

2. The spring weather in New England hasn’t been favorable, so on Wednesday, quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Julian Edelman used the Empower Field House to keep themselves sharp in advance of the April 16 start of the offseason program. In one sense, that’s no big news flash, because Brady and Edelman have been doing this together for years. But it also seems to be a good indication that the conviction Brady spoke of in the final episode of “Tom vs. Time” has been found and that Edelman’s recovery from a torn right ACL continues to progress.

3. If the NFL sticks to a similar timetable to that of last year, this will be the week in which the 2018 preseason schedule is released (it was April 10 in 2017). A few things to file away:

  • Belichick is always looking to capitalize on opportunities to increase the competition level, and joint practices have been one avenue he has pursued in recent years (last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans).

  • First-year Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia said he hopes to have joint practices, and that would be a natural fit for Belichick if it could be worked out.

  • The Patriots and New York Giants have met in the preseason finale in each of the past 13 years -- rotating home and away -- and this year’s game would be at MetLife Stadium if that continues.

4. In the end, it was relayed to me by someone close to wide receiver Jordan Matthews that Matthews’ decision to sign a one-year deal with the Patriots came down to this: He wanted to play with Brady. Matthews, who also took free-agent visits to Arizona, Green Bay and Tennessee, had other offers to consider in addition to New England’s.

5. The 2018 season is crucial for third-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who flashed potential as a rookie in 2016 but missed 2017 with a knee injury. Mitchell has said he is fully committed to being ready for the offseason program, and as part of that approach, he has been working closely in recent weeks with Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, at TB12 Sports Therapy Center. Mitchell entered the NFL with some medical questions regarding his knees. When healthy, as he showed in the second half of Super Bowl LI, he can be a difference-maker.

6. Fifth-year offensive lineman Luke Bowanko might have an uphill climb to make the Patriots’ roster after signing a one-year, $830,000 deal on Wednesday. But here’s something that could help his cause: When Bowanko was with the Jaguars, they practiced him at all five spots on the line, which is the type of versatility that could potentially win over Belichick. Every year, it seems, Belichick notes the value of versatility with backup linemen on game day when dressing just seven blockers (the two backups need to cover multiple spots). The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Bowanko, who entered the NFL as a sixth-round pick out of Virginia, was described to me as a Patriots-type lineman because of his smarts, athleticism and ability to pull and reach defenders on the second level.

7. In a good reminder of how much Belichick likes to trade on draft day, and as noted recently by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Patriots entered last year’s draft with seven selections and only made one pick in its original slot (Wise, fourth round, No. 131 overall). Here’s another nugget to add to that: In his Patriots tenure, Belichick has made 20 draft-day trades in which he moved up, 22 draft-day trades in which he moved down and 21 draft-day trades involving players.

8. Outside of injuries, the biggest knock I heard from those in Arizona about tight end Troy Niklas, who signed a one-year deal with the Patriots last week, was that his physicality didn't always match his physical makeup (6-foot-6, 270 pounds). Niklas obviously gets a fresh slate in New England, where coaches ask a lot of their tight ends at the line of scrimmage as blockers and naturally place a high value on physicality.

9. This week’s reminder to always be nice to your college quarterback: Once receiver Brandin Cooks scanned the Los Angeles Rams' roster to see what number he might wear with his new team, he noticed the 14 he donned in New England was taken by Sean Mannion, his former teammate at Oregon State. It didn’t take Cooks long to call on those old Beavers ties to see how attached Mannion was to No. 14, and a deal could be in the works.

10a. Two draft thoughts:

  • While the top four quarterbacks could go as high as the top five picks, it will be interesting to watch whether Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson also are drafted before the Patriots’ scheduled pick at No. 23. Because of the importance of the position, perhaps the thought isn't too far-fetched. If they do get drafted that high, that would be six quarterbacks taken before No. 23, pushing players at other positions down the board who otherwise wouldn’t be available. The Patriots are usually picking late in the first round, and thus their challenge to select blue-chip players is greater than most, but this dynamic and the position of the 23rd pick could present a unique opportunity for them.

  • Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans is an intriguing prospect to consider, as he could be available around the Patriots’ first scheduled pick and would give them something that’s hard to find and much needed: more speed at the position. The idea that the Patriots would consider a 234-pound linebacker would have been hard to believe 10 years ago, but it’s a different game now. As Patricia recently said, about 90 percent of the defense is played in substitute packages.

10b. Roster update: The Patriots currently have 72 players on their 90-man roster (it was 66 at this time last year). If they ultimately make all eight of their draft picks, that would leave 10 spots for undrafted players.

10c. Mark the date: The Patriots’ pre-draft news conference, with Belichick, is scheduled for Friday (8:30 a.m. ET). In recent years, director of player personnel Nick Caserio has answered questions at that event, but he might be scheduled for a scouting trip. Reviewing Caserio’s scouting/draft primer from 2011 is still applicable today, as he downplayed the value of pro days and talked about making college-NFL comps.