With exactly one week left before the start of the draft, one might think times are a bit hectic around the scouting department at Gillette Stadium. To the contrary, the Patriots director of college scouting reports the work is "maybe 90 percent" done.
Jon Robinson took some time on Thursday to discuss the upcoming draft and explained how the arduous process of identifying players and following them through various channels for at least a year has pretty much come to an end. Now it's time to settle on a plan of attack with Bill Belichick and player personnel director Nick Caserio.
"I wouldn't say done but it's winding down and falling into place," Robinson said. "There are a few things here or there that always crop up relative to players.
"It's a collaborative effort. It's not quite done, maybe 90 percent. There aren't a lot of moving parts. It's kind of like a game plan. We've got a year to get a game plan in place and we're getting toward the end of it, like a Friday or Saturday of a game week. If you're changing stuff on Friday or Saturday in your game plan then on Sunday it's going to be a mess."
Robinson hopes that won't be the case next Thursday when the Patriots will enter the evening with a pair of first-round picks at 17 and 28 overall. He explained how he and his staff of scouts began collecting information on what he described as a pretty strong draft class at least a year ago – sometimes more than that – and followed them through their seasons, into the all-star games in January, at the Combine in February and through spring workouts in March and April.
For as many as 30 of those prospects, visits to Foxborough also are part of the equation, "just to kind of get to know them a little bit better, maybe do a medical check."
Robinson believes the quarterback class, which has drawn mixed reviews from a variety of draft followers, is particularly intriguing.
"Strengths of the class are obviously the quarterbacks are getting a lot of play right now with[Blaine] Gabbert, [Cam] Newton, [Ryan] Mallett, [Colin] Kaepernick, [Andy] Dalton, [Christian] Ponder… you can run down the list," Robinson said. "It's a quarterback-driven league and if you don't have one you're looking for one. So, all of those players are good football players and have drawn quite a bit of attention."
The area that has drawn the most attention around New England is the pass rush. The draft is full of interesting front seven players who showed the ability to pressure the quarterback at the collegiate level, but there are questions with many of them regarding where they might fit best in the NFL.
Belichick appeared on Sirius Radio's "Movin' the Chains" program withPat Kirwanand former Patriots backup quarterback Jim Millerearlier this week and said this class will be defined by how those players are evaluated.
"I think that's really going to be a key part of this whole draft, I think, when we look back on it in a couple years and evaluate it. It will probably come down to which teams are able to evaluate those front seven positions," Belichick said. "I'm sure there's going to be a lot of those players taken high, whether they be defensive linemen or defensive ends/outside linebackers or outside linebackers/defensive ends, however you want to look at it. The teams that are able to come out with the impact players in that group relative to the teams that take players and they aren't able to contribute for them has a lot to do with who's able to gain the most out of this draft so that will be an interesting part of it.
"I think that's just kind of the trend in college football these days. You don't see a lot of true linebackers at the end of the line on their feet. Most of them play with their hand down and you have to make that decision with the Robert Quinns and the Justin Houstons of the world and all those guys … how well you think they can play on their feet or how much you want to play them down? We dealt with that last year when we drafted Jermaine Cunninghambut when you look through the league just about everybody's got those players and last year it was like Koa Misidown in Miami … you just have to project how well those guys are going to be able to play on their feet or how much you want to just leave them down and treat them pretty much as defensive ends even though you have a 3-4 base defense. Those are tough evaluations but they're there every year."
Robinson agreed with his boss in that regard. Belichick has often cited the parameters he targets for outside linebackers as players who are 6-4 and run in the neighborhood of 4.6 40s. With that in mind, Robinson was asked if there were any tell-tale physical attributes we might look for to tell us if and how such a player may be better-suited to make the switch in the Patriots system.
"I absolutely agree with Bill on that. If he's a defensive end in college does he have the capability of standing up and playing outside linebacker? Or maybe an interior defensive tackle, is he big enough and strong enough to move over and play nose tackle in a 3-4 front? Those are some of the questions you have to ask yourself when you evaluate the player. Because if you think he can do it but in the end he really can't, then you're just trying to put a square peg in a round hole," Robinson said.
"With the amount of zone blitzes colleges do you'll see enough examples of those defensive ends dropping into coverage and you try to ear mark those plays and pay particular attention to that because that's something he's going to be asked to do. Then when you ask the guy to rush the passer, well, rushing the passer is rushing the passer so if he can do it pretty good in college then you'd think it would translate to the NFL. Likewise, if he can hold up against tackles and not get knocked off the ball on the edge you would think that would be able to translate. Against good competition – not dominating against some lower level teams. Does he do it against the good teams on a consistent basis? That's where you can kind of get a correlation."
With the process just about complete and only some minor tinkering of the board left to do, Robinson and his scouts, like kids on Christmas Day, anxiously await the draft to see which of their suggestions wind up becoming Patriots. The problem is, with Belichick's penchant for trading, gifting opening time often gets changed.
"It is a bit like Christmas for us," Robinson said with a laugh, "but as long as the trades are in the best interests of the team it doesn't matter to us."