EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 28, 2008

Belichick earns A+ for changing his ways


On Pro Football

Hector Longo

FOXBORO — Grades will be cast from coast to coast on the 2008 Patriots draft.

Ultimately, the only grades that matter will be cast three or more years from now, when Jerod Mayo and the six other New England Patriots selections have exhausted their opportunities to shine.

From this corner, Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli and Patriots management deserve an A+ — their best grade since 2000 when this group unearthed one Tom Brady in Round 6.

Three linebackers and two corners sprinkled in with a late-round quarterback and receiver.

Belichick absolutely changed his draft tactics, going against every conservative notion the man has ever entertained.

Offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tight ends and the occasional offensive skill players. It's a formula Belichick and the Pats have molded into a perennial championship contender, one that was made possible by Brady's presence.

This year was different, though. In 2008, Belichick needed to adapt, something that has turned a fine coaching career up until 1999 into a road to Canton and the Hall of Fame when he decides to hang up the whistle once and for all.

His defense ages by the day, and week to week, it slowed to a crawl during the 2007 season.

The coach took giant steps to remedy that, both Saturday and yesterday, with the additions of Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable in Round 3 and Auburn burner Jonathan Wilhite, a cornerback by trade, in the fourth round.

Even the final pick, sixth-round linebacker Bo Ruud out of Nebraska, is an injection of athleticism on defense.

It's not that panic had stricken here at Gillette Stadium, forcing Belichick into a state of absent-mindedness. The man understands he's got a juggernaut on his hands, albeit in need of slight retooling.

Even he took a shot at himself yesterday, noting the different nature of this draft.

"Who would have ever thought you would be covering a Bill Belichick draft with no offensive linemen, defensive linemen or tight ends taken?" he said.

Sedrick Ellis, who most experts were sure was heading to New England, would not have helped this team. He would have sat most of next season behind Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Richard Seymour.

But the likes of Mayo and even Crable? You're talking defensive rookie of the year potential. At least they'll be given the chance. The franchise needs it.

Remember, first-rounder Brandon Meriweather was the lone 2007 pick to crack the active roster for the year. This time around, don't be surprised if three or four picks stick.

If Belichick can cull two defensive starters — one stud — out of this crop of draftees, the dynasty rumbles on.

Secondary stockpile

With the two-day draft selections of corners Terrence Wheatley and Wilhite, the total number of secondary men on the Pats roster grew to 15, a number that most expect to be 16 when the team ultimately makes official the world's worst-kept secret the re-signing of Ty Law.

Law was a popular subject through the media gathering this weekend, with most agreeing that the move was imminent.

Clearly, Belichick believes that competition breeds performance.

Competing on the corner when mini-camps opens in six weeks will be Fernando Bryant, Ellis Hobbs, Mike Richardson, Lewis Sanders, Jason Webster, Wheatley, Wilhite, Tim Mixon, Antwan Spann and possibly even Meriweather, who worked at corner in 2007 camp but played either nickel back or safety when it counted.

And then, there is Law, looking for one final championship fling.

This will be the hottest spot to watch when training camp opens for real in mid-summer.

Thinking offense

Yes, USC's John David Booty was still on the board when the Patriots selected San Diego State quarterback Kevin O'Connell in Round 3 yesterday.

"(Kevin) O'Connell is a big, strong athletic quarterback. Runs well, very athletic, played on a passing team in a passing league, in all honestly not behind a real good line, so he was kind of on the run a little bit," said Belichick. "I thought he held in there and did a pretty good job of being productive and making good decisions. A lot of times he was under a lot of pressure, as well, so we're looking forward to working with him, obviously."

The battle to play behind Brady is now on with Matt Cassel, the incumbent, Matt Gutierrez, the well-liked up-and-comer, and now O'Connell, the new kid on the block.

Clearly, the pressure will be on Cassel.

Wrong line of questioning

Sometimes, the NFL media is tough to stomach, especially with the repetition of the same questions to each prospect over and over again.

This year didn't differ.

"Did you visit here?"

"Did the Pats show the most pre-draft interest?"

"Was the draft a nerve-wracking process?"

This year, there was a new edition to the rotation: "Do you like to watch films?" Like watching film isn't required with the 31 other franchises in the NFL, just the Patriots.

Thank goodness, we don't have to go through this again until next year.

Stopping in Giants country

Round 5 brought the selection of former St. John's Prep and Vanderbilt University linebacker Jonathan Goff by the world champion New York Giants.

Goff steps into a nice spot as the world champs have lost a pair of starters in Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torbor to free agency.

Goff and fourth-rounder Bryan Kehl now join the mix at linebacker with North Andover's Zak DeOssie, who is heading into his second season as a pro.

Much of the opportunity for playing time will revolve around the health of former BC linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, whose season ended after 10 games with a knee injury last year.

Inside the Patriots' selections

ROUND%OVERALL PICK%PLAYER%POS.%SCHOOL%COMMENT

1%10%Jerod Mayo%LB%Tennessee%Potential Pro Bowler where they need it.

2%62%Terrence Wheatley%CB%Colorado%He can run, but can he cover?

3%78%Shawn Crable%LB%Michigan%Will push for starting spot in '08.

3%94%Kevin O'Connell%QB%San Diego State%Top athlete in the QB crop

4%129%Jonathan Wilhite%CB%Auburn%A classic Belichick reach. Will he pay off?

5%153%Matthew Slater%WR%UCLA%Will press Chad Jackson for roster spot.

6%197%Bo Ruud%LB%Nebraska%Family's NFL tradition lives on.