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Draft Analysis: Pats cash in

Posted Apr 26, 2012

The Patriots swung a pair of first-round trades to move up the board and snag two athletic playmakers to add to their defense.

When Bill Belichick recognizes a deficiency in his team he certainly isn't shy about addressing it. That was once again evident Thursday night when the Patriots coach boldly moved up the board not once but twice in the first round and came away with a pair of athletic playmakers to add to a defense that was sorely missing that element a year ago.

Belichick entered the day with a pair of first-round picks at 27 and 31. But as the night progressed and some of the higher regarded edge players began to creep toward the 20s, Belichick made his first move. Identifying Syracuse defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones as the object of his affection, Belichick swung a deal with Cincinnati to slide to 21, giving the Bengals their third-round pick (93 overall) to do so in order to grab him.

But the Patriots weren't done. Shortly thereafter Belichick called Denver and went from 31 to 25, this time coughing up their fourth-rounder (No. 126) to pick up Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

Both players address an enormous need - specifically speed and size up front. In Jones (6-5, 270) the Patriots get a versatile athlete with the ability to play on the edge in a variety of ways. While not necessarily a dynamic pass rusher (he had just 10 career sacks for the Orange) he is capable to setting the edge against the run and possesses the potential to develop into more of a threat getting after the quarterback.

Belichick was thrilled with the idea of adding such a player to the mix - and the fact that the coach liked Jones enough to move up in the first round for the first time since 2003 certainly proves that.

The same could be said of Hightower, who was the signal caller and leader of an Alabama defense that was the best college football had to offer last year. He played mostly inside in Nick Saban's pro-style unit but also served as an edge player off the line in the Crimson Tide's nickel package.

At 6-2, 264, Hightower is reminiscent of former Steelers standout inside linebacker Levon Kirkland, who was similarly freakish in terms of athleticism for a man that size. Both players should factor into the mix on a defense that struggled virtually every week in 2011.

That's the part of the two moves that should be most appealing to Patriots fans. Similar to 2007 when Belichick spent the offseason addressing the team's paucity of receivers coming off a 2006 season that saw Reche Caldwell lead the club in receptions and the coach responded by adding Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth (the first time) and Kelley Washington, showing his intention of upgrading at a spot that was clearly lacking the prior year.

The same could be said of the decision to target defense in this draft. Belichick needed help up front and he not only drafted players, he targeted two specific ones and did what it took to get them. Better yet, he pulled off the two trades without disrupting his two highest remaining chips: the second-rounders he'll have Friday. Even the coach was somewhat surprised he was able to accomplish that feat, crediting personnel director Nick Caserio for keeping the pair of twos.

Strangely the Patriots have just those two picks remaining at this point. Belichick wouldn't say whether he planned on adding some later round selections during the course of his dealings on Friday, saying he could move up or down. For a team that routinely picks as many as 12 times in a draft, having just four at his disposal creates a unique situation.

But considering the potential new look defense, which could easily include 3-4 or 4-3 looks with the rookies as well as the likes of free agent additions Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott and safety Steve Gregory - each of whom could factor immediately into the mix in 2012 - the coach has to be pleased.

An admittedly early defensive depth chart shows Belichick will have more options to utilize personnel in different ways in 2012. He could continue to use more 4-3 looks by employing Jones and Scott up front with linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich working along with Hightower. He could fall back to more 3-4 looks and drop Jones and Scott off the line if he feels they're capable of such roles and work Hightower into a three-man rotation inside.

Better yet, he could morph the group into a diverse unit that features any of the above, creating interesting pass rush scenarios where opponents would be constantly guessing where the pressure is coming from. It's a style Belichick worked to perfection in the team's heyday in the early 2000s with blitzers coming from different angles.

Adding talented athletes like Jones and Hightower may one day allow such activities to once again become prevalent in Foxborough - and as a result of a pair of daring trades - Belichick is primed for just such a situation.

"I thought we had a pretty good day today," Belichick stated to open his press conference.

Truer words may have never been spoken.

 

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