Through two days and three rounds of the NFL Draft the Patriots have made four picks, all on the defensive side of the ball. They also have made three trades, two to move up in the first round (a rare move by Bill Belichick) and one to move down yesterday out of the second round which netted the Pats picks in the third and fifth rounds. If no additional trades are made today, the Patriots will make their last pick of the 2012 Draft with the 163rd overall selection.
Here are the players the Patriots have picked so far through three rounds (with information provided by ESPN.com):
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse (21st Pick, acquired from Cincinnati)
Measurables: 6-5, 266, 4.87 40-yard dash
What he brings: When you look at Jones' combine workout, nothing really stands out in terms of numbers. But when you throw in the film, you see a player who has above-average upside as a pass-rusher. He anticipates the snap well, does a good job of bending inside, and he closes better than his timed speed would suggest. Plus, he still has room to grow into his frame and get even bigger.
How he fits: Obviously, defense was a huge need for the Patriots in this draft. In one way, to improve a porous pass defense is to get better in the pass rush up front. Bill Belichick can juggle his 3-4 and 4-3 schemes depending on his personnel. Jones fits perfectly as a right defensive end in a 4-3 look, but he could also play OLB as an edge rusher opposite Rob Ninkovich in their 3-4 look. The Pats appreciate versatility more than any other team in the NFL, and Jones gives them flexibility in interchanging their fronts.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama (25th Pick, acquired from Denver)
Measurables: 6-2, 265, 4.68 40-yard dash
What he brings: Hightower's got great size at 265 pounds, combined with above-average range and versatility as a pass-rusher. One of his better assets is defending the run on the interior, where he's a hammer taking on blocks and does a great job of tackling with leverage and strength. Great pick.
How he fits: He looks like the perfect Patriots player, again, because of his versatility. He can line up at ILB and their 3-4 defense with Brandon Spikes or he could play outside opposite Rob Ninkovich and give them flexibility with Jerod Mayo. He can certainly rush the QB, and this gives the Pats four outstanding linebackers and increases their flexibility in terms of which packages they want to play. Not surprisingly, this is another Alabama pick, which is clear evidence of how much Bill Belichick trusts Nick Saban and his players.
Tavon Wilson, S, Illinois (48th Pick, acquired from Oakland)
Measurables: 6-0, 205, 4.5 40-yard dash (did not participate at NFL Combine)
What he brings: Wilson has versatility at both safety and corner. He's a fluid athlete with good top-end speed. However, he must get stronger and improve his overall instincts in coverage.
How he fits: He is another great example of a player with tremendous versatility, which Bill Belichick loves. He can play corner or safety, man-to-man or zone, and those positions are big needs for the Pats. If he plays inside, their best cover corner, Devin McCourty, can stay at corner full time. If he plays outside, McCourty can move inside full time. Remember, they got free safety Steve Gregory from San Diego, which upgrades their range. Belichick will mix and match and figure out their best skills, and Wilson should give them depth in their sub packages.
Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas (90th Pick, acquired from Green Bay)
Measurables: 6-5, 275, 5.82 40-yard dash
What he brings: A defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid prospect who's a little to straight-line, but he has good quickness and upper-body strength. There's also a lot to like about his smarts and motor.
How he fits: Here we go again. This is another example of Bill Belichick's preference for versatility. Bequette can play DE in their 4-3 front and some OLB when they go to a 3-4. He is another guy who gives them flexibility as they change their fronts. That pass-rush pressure can help the struggling backend of their pass defense.
In a defense that has been in transition since the Patriots last won a Super Bowl, this draft has added more youth and versatility to a defense that, on paper, should keep them in Super Bowl contention this season and when Tom Brady finally hangs up his cleats (yes, it's coming someday) should be ready to carry the team.
Since the 2008 Draft, Belichick has drafted Jerod Mayo (2008 1st Round), Patrick Chung (2009 2nd Round), Devin McCourty (2010 1st Round), Jermaine Cunningham (2010 2nd Round), Brandon Spikes (2010 2nd Round), Brandon Deaderick (2010 7th Round), and Ras-I Dowling (2011 2nd Round) to his defense. The additions of Jones, Hightower, Wilson, and Bequette give him more pieces to the defensive puzzle.
Vince Wilfork will lead the defensive line from his nose tackle position and will be surrounded by Deaderick, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, and any signings (Gerard Warren would be a welcome return as would Shaun Ellis and and Andre Carter) Belichick might add. Jones and Bequette should also see time on the line as pass rushing defensive ends.
At linebacker, the Patriots are loaded. Mayo and Spikes are studs in the middle and Jones, Hightower, and Bequette should all see time as rookies. Veterans Rob Ninkovich, Dane Fletcher, Cunningham (who I expect to have an excellent season this year after injuries robbed him of his sophomore campaign in 2011), and Trevor Scott (who can also play defensive end) will also factor into the rotation while Tracy White, Bobby Carpenter, and Niko Koutouvides will all compete to fill out the depth chart. It is as deep a linebacking group that Belichick has had since the Super Bowl years of 2001, 2003, and 2004.
The secondary still has questions but there is depth with Chung, McCourty, free agent signings Will Allen and Steve Gregory, Kyle Arrington, Dowling, Wilson, Sterling Moore, Josh Barrett, and Sergio Brown which will allow Belichick to build a deep unit. The secondary would also benefit from the (supposedly) improved pass rush that Belichick should be able to unleash in 2012.
The strength of the Patriots draft, as well as their free agent signings so far, are the versatility that will be afforded to the defense. Cunnngham, Scott, Jones, and Bequette all have the physical tools to play either defensive end in a 4-3 defense or outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Hightower can play inside or outside linebacker and Belichick will be able to move him, Mayo, and Spikes around like chess pieces and they are expected to form a devastating trio of hard hitting linebackers. The secondary also has a bunch of players that can play cornerback or safety. All of this versatility plays to the strength of Belcihick who made his reputation as a Hall of Fame guru by creating defensive schemes that confuse opposing offenses because they're never quite sure what the defense is doing.
If things work out as planned - and we know around here that changes will be made due to injuries or Belichick's decision to go another way with his personnel - the defense should become a strength in 2012 and, working in cohesion with Brady and the offense, should put the Patriots right back in the mix to add another Lombardi Trophy to their case.