By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Let the 2018 NFL Draft be a lesson to all Patriots observers. Take all your 2019 predictions and burn them. Or if you haven't started looking at next year's class yet, don't bother with any sort of prognostication. Because this year more than ever proved that the Pats simply never cease to surprise.
It's not much of a shock that Bill Belichick made some trades - he made eight during the 2018 draft, one less than the number of players the Patriots actually drafted. But like every year, the Patriots did nothing to make it any easier to keep up with what they were doing. And also like every year, they approached the draft with the mindset of getting the best possible collection of players with the picks they do take.
So this should be the last year that anyone in New England cries for the Patriots to fill pressing needs at the draft. It should be the last year anyone "expects" them to take a certain player or address a certain position. And it should definitely be the last time anyone says they "need" to get certain guys. Because you'll just be setting yourself up for disappointment.
But as far as the Patriots' 2018 draft class goes, it'll be years before anyone knows how it turned out - even the Patriots. Mock drafts and predictions will continue to get eyeballs on TVs and websites, so the pre-draft speculation won't actually end. But everyone covering the Patriots just needs to understand that beyond pageviews and some lively Twitter arguments, predicting Patriots drafts will be a largely fruitless endeavor.
With that said, let's have a look at some things we learned from the results of the Patriots' 2018 draft...
They Didn't Place Much Value On The Quarterback Class
Despite a deep pool of quarterback prospects, the Pats mostly punted on the 2018 group. So their pre-draft "interest" in any signal-caller fell somewhere between "due diligence" and the vaunted #smokescreen. Unless lightning has struck twice with 219th pick Danny Etling, the Pats will be looking for their QB of the future in a year's time at the earliest.
That's not to say that Etling has no shot. After Brady, you can't give someone zero chance. Nobody wants to be the next Kevin Mannix. But it's clear that Etling has some mechanical issues to work out, which he's been doing with Tom Brady's own mechanics coach, former major league pitcher Tom House.
For the Patriots' sake, the hope is we don't spend the next decade-plus wondering why they didn't move up in the draft to take Josh Rosen. Or why they passed on Lamar Jackson in the first round, or Mason Rudolph in the third, Kyle Lauletta in the fourth, or Mike White in the fifth, or Luke Falk or Tanner Lee in the sixth. And for that matter, why they chose Etling in the seventh over FIU's Alex McGough or Toledo's Logan Woodside.
The one position that you could argue in the coming years that the Patriots "need" to address is quarterback. They'll have to start shooting their shots at that spot on the field at some point. But it's obvious after what transpired over the weekend that the Pats didn't see a surefire Brady successor in the 2018 class, and didn't want to take a kid they don't necessarily love in the name of needs. Which brings us to the next point...
Bill Belichick Was Serious About Not Drafting For Need
As you may recall, Belichick was asked about the idea of drafting according to team needs and scoffed at the whole idea. It's understandable that the Patriots would rather have the best players possible, rather than take the 10th best player available for the sake of "filling a need." In some cases, they checked both boxes over the weekend.
But the questions about need came up in the first place because this draft was generally perceived as an important one for a roster that could use an infusion of young talent in multiple areas. They just needed to add high-end names to the defense, draft a legitimate quarterback prospect, and find a left tackle. So perhaps the calls for the Pats to address all their needs in a single draft was a smidge unreasonable.
And in the case of first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, perhaps the Pats did address their needs. He played left tackle in his final year at Georgia and presumably will be in the mix for that starting spot. But long-term, Wynn still projects as an interior offensive lineman, which is far down the team's list of needs. Ditto running back, where fellow first-rounder Sony Michel joins a depth chart that already included James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, and Jeremy Hill.
Caserio echoed Belichick's prior assertions about drafting based on talent and value rather than need. The team's first two picks were evidence enough of that, but Caserio was nonetheless asked about the team's thought process in drafting two offensive players with the team's defensive struggles more fresh in people's minds.
"I think to Bill's point, drafting for need, look, you draft good football players," said Caserio. "Our responsibilities in the draft is like we need good players. However we get them, wherever they come from, whatever positions that they play, that’s our goal and that’s our mentality and our process. If that’s on offense, it’s on offense. If it’s on defense, it’s on defense. However they get here, they get here.
"It’s never, 'OK, well we have to pick this guy.' Look, you look at the player, you look at the rest of the players that you have graded and you evaluated and you try to pick the players that you think make the most sense, so drafting for need – our need is to draft good players. In the end, that’s what it comes down to. That’s the most important thing."
Ultimately, the Pats went with Wynn and Michel. It's fair to wonder why they passed on a chance to move up in the first round to select one of the 12 defensive players that went in the first 22 picks. They did eventually add two cornerbacks and two linebackers in Ja'Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam, but the statement had been made. The Patriots want the best players, not just the kind they need. And also...
They Must Like The Defense The Way It Is
With the exception of the depth charts at cornerback and linebacker, the Patriots appear to be comfortable heading into the 2018 season having added no top-end draft talent to a defense that got torched in Super Bowl LII. That could be because plenty of reinforcements will be returning.
Dont'a Hightower will be back, despite the durability of the Pats' top linebacker becoming less and less trustworthy with each passing year. The defensive front will be adding 2017 third-round pick Derek Rivers, who missed his entire rookie year after he tore his ACL during training camp. Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, a 2016 third-round pick, will be back from a knee injury. Cornerback Jonathan Jones, a sneaky-important loss at the end of last season, will return from an undisclosed injury of his own. Even 2017 undrafted free agent linebacker Harvey Langi could have a chance to contribute.
Add the aforementioned names on top of nose tackle Danny Shelton, whom they acquired from the Browns in the offseason, a potential starter on the edge in free-agent signing Adrian Clayborn, and Devin McCourty's twin brother Jason in the secondary. That's eight players who weren't on the field for the Patriots in that Super Bowl, and at least a few of them are likely to start or make a marked impact in 2018.
The Patriots' situation on defense isn't exactly comforting, especially after their most valued addition at the draft was Florida slot cornerback Duke Dawson. But it's not really as dire as others may make it out to be. Even a first-round pick on defense wouldn't exactly transform the whole group overnight, unless you think they passed on the next Ray Lewis. The team's approach to the 2018 draft was ostensibly a reflection of the team's feeling toward what they've got on that side of the ball.
They Like The 2019 Draft Class More
Or maybe they'll just continue to push picks back. But no matter what Belichick & Co. end up doing next April, for one reason or another they wanted to have themselves well-stocked for 2019. Clearly, they didn't see enough in rounds 2-4 and felt better about going with late-round flyers after Dawson, whom they picked 56th overall.
Quibble all you want about what the Patriots did and didn't acquire over the course of their eight-trade extravaganza. The fact is they put themselves in a good position with the Bears' 2019 second-round pick. Unless Mitch Trubisky is the next Carson Wentz and Chicago comes out of nowhere this season, that's likely to be a pick in the 40-50 range at worst.
And while Matt Patricia may turn a talented Lions team around in his first year as an NFL head coach, the absolute worst-case scenario for the Patriots is that Detroit's third-round pick ends up at No. 96. The Patriots traded this year's 114th pick to get that third-rounder, and the Lions aren't exactly the odds-on favorite to win Super Bowl LIII. If the Patriots truly do value 2019's prospects more than 2018, then they made the right move.
The Pats sent a lot of messages with their approach to this year's draft. One of the loudest is that they're not going to change. They don't care about anyone wailing for them to take a QB, or add impact players on defense. They don't care about maximizing the next 1-2 years in the event that Tom Brady actually does go over that pesky "cliff" that Max Kellerman keeps pushing back. And they certainly don't care about any particular year more than another, which they'll likely reinforce again when they make eight more trades in 2019.
So after this year, maybe we should think of different ways to approach our pre-draft analysis with the Patriots. Because they just delivered perhaps the most unpredictable draft yet. The only thing you can ever predict with this team, as Caserio said repeatedly, is that they want the best players available, regardless of any other outside factors.
"There’s no template in terms of how you put it together," said Caserio. "Our thing each year is to pick good players and try to get as many good football players on our team as possible. That’s what we try to do."
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].