FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts and notes on the New England Patriots and the NFL:
1. Draft intel: Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh delivered a nugget to local reporters late after the first round of the NFL draft, saying “moving up was in play” for the team that day.
Of course, the Patriots ultimately traded down three spots before picking Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez at No. 17. They followed up by selecting Georgia Tech pass-rusher Keion White in the second round (No. 46) and Sacramento State safety/linebacker Marte Mapu in the third round (No. 76) as their headline picks.
Between Groh’s remarks about possibly moving up and having a defensive-minded top of the draft, here is some intelligence on the team’s approach from team and league sources:
They were high on White and considered making a move to get another first-round pick to select the defensive end before ultimately deciding the price would be too rich. White was also among a small group of players under consideration after the trade back from No. 14.
While coach Bill Belichick said the focus wasn’t geared solely toward defense, there is an obvious acknowledgment that the Patriots play in a division against high-end quarterbacks Josh Allen (Bills) and Aaron Rodgers (Jets), and explosive skill-position players in Miami. So building a unit that has the ability to disrupt those QBs/skill players is critical. That’s part of the reason the Patriots valued White as highly as they did, with the idea of pairing him alongside Matthew Judon, Deatrich Wise Jr., Christian Barmore, Josh Uche & Co.
The 6-foot-2, 201-pound Gonzalez makes the Patriots longer on the perimeter, which was a need based on the smaller physical profile of their other cornerbacks. And White has a violent playing style, which ties in to the desired team identity of being tough.
Selecting three offensive linemen on Day 3 was by design, with Groh saying late Saturday it reflected the grit and hard-nosed attitude the Patriots seek. “If you look at those two teams playing on the final weekend [last season], you can’t have enough good offensive linemen,” he said.
Multiple teams relayed that they fielded calls from the Patriots, describing them as motivated to try to move out of the third round. The Patriots ended up sticking there and selecting Mapu, whose demeanor and aggressive playing style appealed to them, reflective of the type of defense and special teams units they aspire to build.
2. White’s reaction: White’s stone-faced reaction to being selected in the second round by the Patriots probably wasn’t a surprise to NFL teams that interviewed him leading into the draft. The 24-year-old described himself as an all-business, ultra-serious guy, and scouts from multiple teams said that came through in attempts to better connect with him in the interview process. That’s one reason those scouts believe White, who was invited by the NFL to attend the draft in Kansas City, Missouri, because he was projected as a first-round pick, slipped into the second round.
3. Gonzalez viewpoints: Gonzalez serves up a reminder of how scouts and teams rate players differently. One high-ranking front-office official said his team had Gonzalez as its top-rated cornerback, describing him as the safest pick. And Patriots assistant coach Jerod Mayo, who had visited Gonzalez at Oregon leading up to the draft, figured he would be off the board by the time New England picked.
But ESPN's Commanders reporter, John Keim, and former Patriots assistant to the head coach Michael Lombardi highlighted two areas where teams weren’t as sold:
Keim (via the "John Keim report," explaining why Washington went with CB Emmanuel Forbes at No. 16 over Gonzalez): “The one thing I heard from [Washington sources] about Gonzalez during this process was that they didn’t like what they saw on tape versus Georgia and that stuck with them. Did not have a good game. Now, he had a really good year the rest of the year, but I think that was a big deterrent for them and gave them pause.”
Lombardi (via the "GM Shuffle" podcast): “The concern on him is will he be physical enough? But what he can do ... runs fast. Plays the ball. But he’s going to have to set the edge of the defense and they’ll get him to do that.”
4. What if? The Patriots didn’t seem enamored with this year’s receiving class, waiting until late to dip in, but here’s a potential missed opportunity: With four fourth-round picks, and Houston's slippery-quick receiver Nathaniel Dell sliding within striking distance as their third-round pick approached (76), could the Patriots have been more aggressive and packaged a fourth-rounder to move up to land Dell? Instead, the Texans, who under GM Nick Caserio value similar traits as New England, traded a fifth-rounder to move up to No. 69 to land Dell. It felt like Caserio swooped in, knowing his former team was looming.
5. Top-30 visits matter: Of the 30 visits that the Patriots were allowed with prospects before the draft, they had Gonzalez (first round), Mapu (third round), center Jake Andrews (fourth round), guards Sidy Sow (fourth round) and Atonio Mafi (fifth round), and cornerback/kick returner Isaiah Bolden (seventh round) among them. It’s a reminder of how valuable those visits can be, and also why opposing teams are interested in the information because it can reveal draft intentions.
6. Patriots-Jets relations: Saturday's draft-day trade between the Patriots and Jets -- with New England moving up in the fourth round to select Maryland kicker Chad Ryland -- was surprisingly the third deal the AFC East rivals have struck in the past five years. Who said Belichick hates the Jets? In 2019, he traded receiver Demaryius Thomas for a late-round pick. And in 2020, New England traded three picks (turned into QB James Morgan, OL Cameron Clark and S Hamsah Nasirildeen) to move up in the third round and select tight end Dalton Keene, who never panned out.
7. They said it: “I had a chance to spend about an hour and a half in the draft room earlier [Thursday] with our head coach, and I can tell you having been through 24 drafts with Bill [Belichick] running the draft room here, he is as involved and engaged -- probably more so -- than I’ve ever seen him.” -- Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, to season-ticket members prior to Thursday’s first round.
8. Strange’s diet: Starting left guard Cole Strange, the Patriots’ 2022 first-round pick, is listed at 305 pounds on the team’s roster. He said managing his diet and overall physical makeup has been part of his offseason approach after a recent body-fat scan, which has led to this offseason tradeoff -- fewer trips to his favorite hamburger restaurant and more grilled chicken.
9. Phase 2/Judge to assist: After two weeks devoted solely to strength and conditioning work, the second phase of the Patriots’ voluntary offseason program begins Monday, which means coaches can now be on the field with players and run individual drills. Special teams coordinator Cam Achord confirmed that Joe Judge is expected to help his units in addition to other off-field responsibilities. “Anytime you can add a guy with his experience in the kicking game, it’s just going to make us better,” Achord said.
10. Did you know?: The Patriots are the second team in the past 30 years to take a kicker and punter in the same draft. The other to do so was the 2000 Raiders, who drafted K Sebastian Janikowski (first round) and P Shane Lechler (fifth round).