Patriots owner Robert Kraft said last week that he believes he’s seeing a “different approach” to the team’s free agency moves and preparation for the NFL Draft. But what does that mean for the draft, specifically? A new report in Albert Breer’s Monday column for The MMQB tends to lend credence to the most likely scenario: Belichick is simply getting front office execs and scouts more involved in the pre-draft process.
One small indication that Belichick, per Breer, has been “more collaborative” this year is that high-rankings execs in the personnel department have been sent on major assignments. Eliot Wolf, whom the Patriots hired in 2020, attended the Pro Days for top quarterback prospects Zach Wilson and Justin Fields. Dave Ziegler, essentially the heir apparent to departed director of player personnel Nick Caserio, has been active in roster-building. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was in attendance at the Pro Days for Alabama and Florida.
The key difference, apparently, is that Belichick is getting more input from execs and scouts in the lead-up to the draft. In recent years, anyway, he’s mostly handled building the draft board and didn’t hold many meetings with scouts after they gathered information for him in February. Mike Reiss alluded to more of a team approach in his Sunday notes at ESPN.com. And based on Breer’s report, there will be more collaboration in the weeks ahead than usual.
“In essence, the Patriots’ scouts would do their jobs through the season and then hand off the process to Belichick and the coaches in February, with only a couple guys on the personnel side really consistently involved from that point forward. Where most teams had draft meetings with their scouts in February and April, the Patriots would have theirs with scouts in December and February. And at that early point, it’s tough to set the board, with two and a half months of information still to come. So from there on, the scouts would just be gatherers, which frustrated plenty of them, and played into the exodus in the scouting department the last few years. … My sense right now is that has translated inside the building in a more collaborative Belichick, who’s listening not just to his top guys, Dave Ziegler and Eliot Wolf, but also those rising through the organization, like national scout Matt Groh. Now, I don’t know if it’ll change the Patriots’ luck on draft day. Or if Belichick will pull back on it when we get there. But for now, it feels like a good positive step for them.”
The report also indicates that Belichick’s past approach led to the drafting of N’Keal Harry, who is dangerously approaching “bust” territory if he doesn’t turn things around in a major way in 2021. Scouts reportedly preferred A.J. Brown or Deebo Samuel, but Belichick went on the recommendation of his friend, Todd Graham, who was Harry’s head coach at Arizona State.
That’s only one example of a pick that didn’t work out, and Belichick’s “closed-off” approach has certainly led to great value picks in the mid-to-late rounds and good signings among undrafted free agents. But the drafting in the first two rounds was not as strong as it needed to be from about 2014-17, albeit in some cases they didn’t have picks in those rounds at all. Either way, the Pats’ spending spree this off-season was their swift and aggressive response to a talent drain at positions of need in recent years.
We’ll see if the increased collaboration leads to actually picking the right players. But Belichick could possibly benefit from taking a little bit off his plate in the personnel department, and getting more value out of guys like Wolf, who helped build a pair of deep and talented rosters in Green Bay and Cleveland before coming to the Patriots. Belichick remains the best in the business at coaching, but it would be ideal if he were handed the best players possible out of the draft class. The 2021 season will be a fascinating litmus test for their entire approach.
Keep scrolling for a big-picture list of things left for Belichick to do at the draft and beyond.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at email@example.com.