It's been quite some time since someone not named Bill Belichick or Nick Caserio fronted the Patriots' official pre-draft press conference. On this Good Friday, with Passover, Easter, and Patriots Day making for a long holiday weekend in Massachusetts, a fresh-faced Matt Groh, the long-time New England scout and recently promoted director of player personnel, took on that role during a 25-minute question-and-answer session with reporters.
Crediting a litany of more-seasoned colleagues both past and present, Groh declared it an honor to be called upon for the job. "It's been a busy time around here," he began his remarks, "not just with the holidays, but also free agency and the pre-draft process. We're working through all that and trying to get everything as in order as we can to be prepared for the next step with the draft."
Under Belichick, the Patriots have frequently traded their first-round picks, in order to move either up or down. As we get closer to the 2022 NFL Draft (April 28-30 in Las Vegas), there's a growing chorus of outside observers who expect New England to move down and perhaps out of Round 1 altogether.
"I feel like that's a popular narrative every year," Groh continued with a smile. He wasn't asked specifically what the Patriots plan to do with their 21st overall selection, but in offering his assessment of this year's class of prospects, Groh responded, "There's good value across the board. It's easy to get caught up in splash names one through five. There's just more of those [value] guys than those at the top of the board.
"We're always looking for value, no matter where it is. We want our 21st pick to be valuable just like we want our 54th pick [in Round 2] to be valuable."
Groh noted that this year's draft has a considerably higher number of sixth-year seniors – players with a full five years of college playing experience, perhaps because of injury exemptions – as well as the usual amount of younger prospects who leave school after just three seasons. And he expects both types of players to be selected somewhere throughout the first round. "We'll just hone in," added Groh, "on the positions and the players that we think can best help us."
The 41-year-old acknowledged that New England has needs at several positions, including cornerback, linebacker, offensive line, and wide receiver. Referring to the latter as "instant-impact" players, Groh maintained that teams must now be proactive in going after such playmakers and declared, "We've got another great class of wide receivers [in the draft] this year, and I think it's going to keep coming. You've got to be prepared to handle those guys from the defensive side of the ball as well."
However, the Patriots haven't drafted cornerbacks as well as other positions in recent years. New England has had more success developing undrafted rookie corners such as recently re-signed Malcolm Butler, Jonathan Jones, and former Patriot J.C. Jackson.
"We're always evaluating all of our processes and the way we evaluate different positions," Groh admitted. He also agreed with a reporter's suggestion that the Patriots should improve their speed on defense, particularly at linebacker. "We're looking to get faster everywhere, not just defense, not just linebacker. There are multiple ways to do that. The caliber of athlete these days, you can put them all over the place. That's one way to increase the overall speed.
"It's a different game than 20, 30, 40 years ago, and that player has also changed. There aren't as many of those big linebackers. They don't exist. Colleges want them smaller because they've got to be able to adapt to the college game. You can't just create these guys out of thin air. With all the positions, it's what the college game provides us. You're not going to see a lot of those guys in the NFL anymore."
That being the case, how difficult is it nowadays to project how a college player might fit with New England's system? According to Groh, it helps to have strong relationships with college coaches and staffers across the country to get a better understanding of these young men before the Patriots actually get to sit down and meet with the players during the pre-draft evaluation process.
"Any means possible to get to know the players better, and for him to get to know us, we'll take advantage of," said Groh. "Our relationships at any school are paramount in what we do."
This offseason has seen several teams compete for top-end veteran talent at wide receiver and quarterback in particular. To keep up with the Joneses in the AFC, New England must strike a difficult balance, in Groh's estimation, between finding players who complement what the Patriots like to do schematically and those who are simply supremely gifted.
Groh sounded confident, though, that he can work well with his Patriots peers, while continuing to learn from his more-experienced colleagues, to help New England build a competitive product on the field in 2022.
"Obviously, Coach [Belichick] is the general manager. Coach is in charge. He's been doing this a long time. The more I can learn from Coach Belichick and a lot of the other people around here, I'm going to do that. It's definitely a collaborative process. It's great working with Coach. I absolutely love it. I just try to soak that in and put it all together to help the team make the best decisions we can."