For most of the offseason much of the pre-draft talk around Patriots Nation has revolved around the running back position and whether or not that need would be the focus of New England's maneuverings on April 24-25. Following that trend, a significant portion of Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick's annual press conference in preparation for draft weekend revolved around many of the names that have been tossed around as potential Patriots draft picks.
Belichick mentioned running back just after wide receiver in terms of depth when asked about his overall view of the 2004 draft class and went on to praise the diversity and production of the group when asked for a specific positional evaluation.
"Overall it's been a pretty productive group," Belichick said in front of a packed room of print and electronic journalists. "I mean you have some guys that have really been consistent producers. For the most part it's a pretty good-sized group. Mewelde Moore is probably…(Bruce) Perry from Maryland, a couple of those kids are maybe a little bit on the smaller side, but they have been productive and they are very good players too. But I think overall it's a pretty good-sized group.
"They all have a little bit different styles. They have all been productive. I think there are a lot of guys that you could like. I am sure there are a lot of guys that are going to play in the league and be productive for whichever team they are with. You've got some guys that can catch the ball. You've got some guys that are more runners and less catchers. So there are a lot of different combinations. I think a little bit depends on what you are looking for."
Many so-called draft experts and mock drafts have labeled Oregon State's Steven Jackson as the cream of the running back crop, but numerous others like Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones, Michigan's Chris Perry and Florida State's Greg Jones have been floated as potential Patriots.
"Jackson is a big back, a big guy that runs well," Belichick said of guy draftniks have tabbed as the best available ball carrier. "He was a track guy in high school. He has been very productive. He hasn't always had the biggest holes to run through, but he's managed pretty well. He has good hands. I think he's a good solid player. He's had a good career. He is pretty mature. I think he's got a good upbringing and he's worked hard to achieve what he's gotten. I just spent a couple of minutes with him at the combine, but yeah I think he's a solid guy."
Perry has not drawn as much first-round buzz as Jackson, but is a relatively proven commodity after a standout career as a Wolverine and can do some of the things that the Patriots expect in a back.
"I think Chris has been a real productive back for Michigan," Belichick said. "He's got excellent hands. He probably catches the ball as well as any back in the draft. So I think there isn't any reason to think he couldn't play on all three downs. He's got good power. He's got real good vision. He finds a lot of holes. He's a nifty guy. He can make some nice cuts there at the line of scrimmage and get through some small places but is still a physical guy that runs hard. I think he's got a lot of things going for him."
And Belichick doesn't necessarily buy into the negative questions surrounding Michigan or Big Ten running backs based on the NFL track records of some of their predecessors.
"You can always generalize and say these guys have done well at this school or these guys haven't' done well at this position or whatever," Belichick said. "But I think you just have to evaluate the players for what they are and not get too hung up on what somebody three or four years ago did at a school. I think it's probably more coincidental than a product of a deficiency in a player."
Interestingly Belichick mentioned Moore, a Tulane product that many figure to go in the middle rounds of the draft, twice during his press conference and said that the back's college system made it easy to envision his skills in a New England-type offense. The many different skills and styles of the various running backs is just another aspect in the evaluation process that make it the inexact science that everyone willingly admits it to be.
"Some backs have different strengths in their running game and their style," Belichick said. "Some guys are more slashers. Some guys are more jump cut guys. Some guys are power guys. Some guys are speed guys and can bounce out and run away from traffic. There are a lot of different styles of runner. If you care about that then that would limit some guys. If you don't and you are just looking about production then you take a look at some of the plays that you are going to run in your offense and how you are going to run them and evaluate guys that have a similar style like that. I mean you look at a guy like Mewelde Moore who is a good example of a player in an offense similar to ours. He's pretty easy to evaluate. They do a lot of spread stuff, spread offense. A lot of the time he is out of the backfield. A lot of times in his in the backfield as a one-back runner. They run quite a bit of I-formation, so you can see some two-back runs. So their offense, he's the kind of guy that when you watch him it's pretty easy to evaluate him relative to other players whose offense is maybe less similar either to our offense or a pro-style offense."
In the end though little of what Belichick said Wednesday afternoon will matter come draft weekend. While fans of Perry probably now believe he will be a Patriot on April 24, Jackson's fans probably think the same thing. Truly though no one knows, not even Belichick. Once teams start making selections the draft is an endless maze that could lead a team in one of any of a million different directions. Trades, players rising and falling and endless maneuverings make the NFL draft the unpredictable event that it is. But at least Belichick's open responses to all questions running back on Wednesday will add some new fuel to the running back chatter that is likely to interest Patriots fans over the next week and a half.
NFL.com came up with a few pre-draft "tidbits" courtesy of senior analyst Gil Brandt that could come into play over the April 24-25 selection process. Did you know that the greatest number of players selected in the first round with the same last name is three (Smith 1990/1993 and Johnson 2003)? That mark could be challenged by the cast of four players named Williams (Roy, Mike, D.J. and Reggie) this year. … The most picks in the opening round from one school is five, USC in 1968 and Miami in 2002. There is a chance Miami could see six players go in the first round this year. … 54 percent of the players drafted in 1999 are still playing in the NFL. That percentage increases for the more recent drafts to 61 percent for 2000, 77 percent for 2001, 84 percent for 2002 and 95 percent for 2003. … The most common first-round selection over the last 10 years has been defensive end with 44 players taken. Other popular positional selections include wide receiver (39), cornerback (38) and offensive tackle (37). Tight end and safety are the least drafted spots over the last decade with just 12 for each. …. For those Patriots fans that like to plan ahead the team is expected to make its first-round picks on draft weekend on Saturday at approximately 3:30 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. The first three rounds of the draft begin at 12:00 p.m. on April 24. The fourth through seventh rounds take place on Sunday, April 25 starting at 11:00 a.m and are expected to conclude at approximately 5:30 p.m.