EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 25, 2010

Not old, but old school

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

On Football

Hector Longo

FOXBORO — Instead of just going "old," relying on relics like Junior Seau, Shawn Springs or Joey Galloway, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots went "old school," in the draft.

They selected blue-collar, workers/fighters and maybe most telling — proven winners.

Meet the new Pats, same as the old Pats.

But in this case, they're a young old. And Belichick is banking on the dividends.

Perhaps the coach really was beaten up by the way his group turtled last January against Baltimore, melting at the first sign of adversity. This weekend's draft smacked of 2001.

The attitude adjustment commenced in Round 1 Thursday night.

Folks hadn't endured a writhing Belichick-induced cringe since way back in '01 when the Pats eschewed the sexy receivers in the draft — namely Koren Robinson and David Terrell — for a nondescript defensive tackle out of Georgia by the name of Richard Seymour with 1.5 sacks as a senior.

Belichick was crucified in the media but Seymour was the defensive cornerstone on three Super Bowl champs and Robinson and Terrell were busts.

Devin McCourty is a 5-10, 193-pound modern-day Big Sey: Football smart, respectful of the team and the game and, of course, driven.

And pedestrian numbers (80 tackles, 1 interception in 13 games last fall).

"Devin has a real good understanding of his defense, the techniques, the calls, not just what he's doing, but what the entire defense is doing," said Belichick. "He's a very aware player. It's obvious that he's well coached, he studied hard, he's prepared and thoroughly understands the defense, the opponents and the offenses that he's faced. We look for that in terms of players that are well prepared and work hard in their preparation and the importance of football and I think he clearly has a high level of that."

He (twin Jason, Titans cornerback) and initial second-round pick Rob Gronkowski (Lions tight end Dan) each have overachieving brothers already in the NFL and have clearly soaked up the wisdom.

Belichick's message: Do it right, or we don't want you.

New England followed those up with a trio of Florida Gators in linebackers Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes plus tight end Aaron Hernandez, who went in yesterday's fourth round.

Forget the overblown, well-reported fact that they played for Belichick confidante Urban Meyer at Gainesville. That's a nice coincidence. Just look at the wins and losses.

"I know a lot of the times we did things the way they do in New England; we did things like that in Florida. Seeing the success that we had with the guys that we had with us, I pretty much know what to expect," said Spikes. "It's just mind-boggling to go to an organization like the Patriots, it's about business. The guys love it and guys love the game there, so I just can't wait to be a part of that."

Spikes, Cunningham and Hernandez represent 104 starts in the SEC football fishbowl with high stakes league, bowl or national championship hopes hanging in the balance every week.

"Those kids are very focused on football. Football's important to them. They're in a good program. It's important for them to win. They know what they are doing," said Belichick. "They've worked hard both on and off the field. They're extremely well-coached by Coach Meyer and his staff. They play against other top players in the draft."

Don't let Hernandez's selection go without note. The graduate of Bristol (Conn.) Central High is Florida's all-time leading pass-catching tight end.

And you don't have to go far for a resounding endorsement of the 113th overall pick, who won the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end.

"In 23 years of coaching, Aaron is probably the smartest football player I've been around," said Groveland native Brian White, Florida's tight ends coach. "He's like one of those crazed super computers. He's not even near his genetic ceiling."

And the 6-2, 250-pounder won't turn 21 until Nov. 6.

Next April's draft, with a two choices in both the first and second rounds, might be the first step to assuring football excellence here in New England for the post-Tom Brady Era.

But this weekend's selections and those made in 2008 were clear attempts by Belichick to help Brady end his tenure here the way it began, cloaked in greatness.

To do that, the coach has gone back to his roots, building his team around lunch-pail types.

Locking in free agent Vince Wilfork was a major step. Thrusting linebacker Jerod Mayo into a more prominent, vocal off-field leadership role was another.

But locating, character-laden young talent willing to make the sacrifices to win should help improve last year's fractured locker room.

The draft echoed to every man on the roster: troublemakers and underachievers are not welcome here, no matter how dazzling the 40-yard dash time.