Say this for the first day of the Patriots 2004 draft – need wasn't a major factor.
While the selection of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork at No. 21, the team's first of two first rounders, certainly should pay dividends to the important position of nose tackle, the next two picks appeared to be at positions of strength. The Patriots finished the day by taking safety Guss Scott out of Florida with the final pick of the third round (95th overall).
Tight end Ben Watson was the final pick of the first round. The former Georgia standout joins incumbents Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham, both of whom could be considered starters. That tandem receives a lot of time together in two tight end sets while last year's third man, veteran Fred Baxter, spent much of the year on the inactive list.
Watson is a gifted athlete who should provide the Patriots with plenty of formation flexibility, particularly in passing situations. But with Fauria and Graham already in tow, it was a bit surprising to see such a high pick used on a third tight end.
The team's next pick, defensive end Marquise Hill, is a similar situation to a lesser extent. With a promising group of young defensive linemen in Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Rodney Bailey, Jarvis Green, Dan Klecko, Ethan Kelley and Wilfork – plus the newly acquired Keith Traylor – another defensive lineman didn't appear to be a priority.
But Bill Belichick explained that rather targeting specific positions, the Patriots chose to look at value and were happy with what they came away with.
"We took a look at the options," Belichick said. "I think we were able to get younger on defense with (restricted free agent) Bailey, Hill and Wilfork. And I thought Ben was the best value on the board. We're always looking to add skilled position players on offense. I think the picks were good value for us."
Wilfork was the least surprising pick of the first day. At 6-1, 344 pounds, the run stuffer out of Miami is every bit the nose tackle Belichick loves to plop in the middle of his 3-4 defense. Assuming the Patriots stick with that alignment, he projects to be the future at the position.
Last year, veteran Ted Washington was acquired in a training camp trade with Chicago and instantly transformed what was a very porous run defense into one of the stingiest in football. When Washington bolted for big bucks in Oakland via free agency in March, the need for a wide body once again returned.
The Patriots looked to Chicago again and this time found Traylor, the veteran free agent who once teamed with Washington in the Bears 4-3 front. Although Traylor is similar to Washington in size, he isn't quite as big and lacks the experience playing the position. In fact, Traylor has never played nose tackle and the intricacies of the two-gap style inside can be difficult to learn.
The best-case scenario for the Patriots would have Traylor making the adjustment and manning the post in 2004 while Wilfork adjusts to life in the NFL. Eventually he should take over the position and if all goes well he could be a fixture there for years to come.
"Down in Miami we play the 3-4 and the four-man front just like New England so nothing is new to know there," Wilfork said. "I will have no problem adapting to that. Whatever role they want me to play, that is what I will play. It is all about the team, it is all about winning and getting back to a Super Bowl."
Wilfork has battled some weight problems in the past and shed some 30 pounds prior to the February combine. He arrived in Indianapolis tipping the scales at 323 pounds but is currently listed at 344. There was some speculation that was the reason he slipped to New England at 21 when most mock drafts had him going somewhere in the top 15.
"I can play at 323, whatever New England wants me to play at is what I will play at," said Wilfork, who became just the second underclassmen selected by Belichick in his five drafts in New England, joining 2001 fifth rounder Hakim Akbar. "We haven't gone over any specific weights, but whatever they are comfortable with me playing at I will play at."
Like Wilfork, Scott filled a need as the Patriots secondary is a bit thin. The strong safety was slated by some draft experts to be a fourth- or fifth-round pick but at the very least should help on special teams, where he was a mainstay on the Gators coverage units. His physical style could mesh well with Rodney Harrison, and depending on his development could lead to Eugene Wilson's return to corner, although the latter scenario may be asking a bit much of a late third-round pick.
The addition of Hill a couple of hours later could perhaps signal a return to the 4-3. With the aforementioned abundance of young, talented defensive linemen Belichick has the flexibility to use either front. He likely will continue with the 3-4 principles and ideally rotate his youthful troops while trying to figure out how each best fits into the system.
"He was a defensive end in a system similar to the one we use," Belichick said of Hill, who played for his former defensive coordinator Nick Saban at LSU. "He gives us defensive line depth. He's a tall guy with long arms who has been disruptive and productive in the competitive SEC. We'll have to see how the competition develops. We have some new faces and we have to see how they'll fit and find a way to get them on the field and make them productive."
Watson is the most intriguing selection, not only because of his position but also because of his tremendous athleticism. At Georgia he competed in the most speed-oriented conference in the nation and his 4.53 40 time is exceptional for a tight end. He's also a highly intelligent player, as his impressive 41 score on the Wonderlic test indicates.
"He's a smart guy who gives us the flexibility to use a lot of formations," Belichick said. "He comes from a really good program and enjoyed a great Senior Bowl week, where they run a pro-style offense and play against the highest level of competition. He runs well and catches the ball well."
The tight end selection raised eyebrows among the media but the need for a running back was lessened greatly by the acquisition of Corey Dillon earlier in the week. Despite that, the Patriots would have strongly considered Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones at 32 after the gifted runner dropped to the bottom of the round, but Detroit took him two spots ahead of New England.
"[The Dillon trade] was a matter of value," Belichick said. "For what we think he can produce compared to what we gave up for him it made sense. It wasn't a matter of comparing No. 32 to No. 56."