Gaining an understanding of what Bill Belichick is thinking leading into the NFL draft is often an exercise in futility. In the coach's own words, it is what it is.
But following the 58-year-old Belichick on the scouting trail isn't all for naught. In fact, listening to players he's personally scouted reveals a level of detail that seems uncommon when compared with other NFL head coaches.
Once the offseason arrives, Belichick basically adds his name to the team's scouting masthead, hitting the road to work players out and interview them. Then he can compare his notes with those of his scouts and higher-ups in personnel, who have been at it longer over the course of the year and thus have more of a long-range view in evaluating the prospects.
There are some classic scouting stories with Belichick, such as last year when he was working out Florida Atlantic quarterback Rusty Smith one day before Smith's wedding. Smith had his best man and others in the wedding party catching passes during the workout while Belichick fired his sandals at him to test his ability to move in the pocket.
You can't make that stuff up. Belichick didn't stick around for the wedding, and Smith was later drafted in the sixth round by the Tennessee Titans.
Belichick is back at it again this year, making his annual trip to Florida, which included a huddle with University of Miami defenders last week. Belichick sat in the defensive meeting room with lineman Allen Bailey, cornerback Brandon Harris, linebacker Colin McCarthy and defensive backs DeMarcus Van Dyke and Ryan Hill for a few hours and no sandals were thrown. More than anything, a lot of questions were asked.
When Belichick rolled tape of Bailey, for example, the play was a stunt. That led Belichick to ask Bailey what Miami called the stunt and what his specific technique and responsibility was on the play.
So in that sense, Belichick is much like a reporter attempting to gain a better understanding of a play that unfolds in a game. The more information he gathers, the more accurate his evaluation of the player.
Belichick's approach was somewhat of a surprise to the players.
"He seemed like a cool, laid-back type guy. On TV, you see him all serious all the time," explained Bailey, who is projected as an early-round pick. "It wasn't tense. It was a relaxed atmosphere. Just all football."
At a time when owners and players are fighting over billions of dollars and the future of the league is headed to the courtroom, that Belichick is taking an "all football" approach is no surprise. If he's investing time watching film with prospects, it makes sense to study those players a bit closer because they might have a better chance to soon be fitted for Patriots jerseys.
In Bailey, Belichick has plenty of tape to evaluate. The Sapelo Island, Ga., product is third on Miami's all-time charts for games played (50), just two behind leader Brandon Meriweather. He measured 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds at the NFL combine in February -- where he met with Jets head coach Rex Ryan, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris, among others -- and showed his athleticism in running a 4.71 in the 40-yard dash. That is an impressive time for someone with that physical makeup; almost linebacker-like.
Bailey has played in both a 4-3 and 3-4 alignment at Miami, so he offers some scheme versatility as a defensive end who could also stay on the field on third down and rush from an interior position. He totaled seven sacks in each of the past two seasons. He described his style of play as "high motor, versatile, attacking upfield."
As for the other Hurricanes in the room with Belichick, Harris is considered one of the top cornerbacks in the draft, a cut below first-round picks Patrick Peterson (LSU) and Prince Amukamara (Nebraska). He enters the draft following his junior season. McCarthy, a mid-round possibility, projects to inside linebacker/special teams in the Patriots' scheme. The team is well stocked in that area. Meanwhile, Van Dyke and Hill look like later-round options in the defensive backfield.
By the time the draft arrives, the Patriots will have met or worked out hundreds of prospects, which adds important context to the entire process. If nothing else, Belichick's film session with Miami defenders simply speaks to the level of detail with which he approaches the scouting process.
"It was no pressure, just meeting and watching film," Bailey said. "It was relaxed and we got to know each other."