At first blush, you might not think a special teams coach would have much input in the draft.
However, consider that many - if not most - rookies make NFL rosters based on their ability to contribute on special teams, whether as a returner or coverage player. That makes Scott O'Brien'srole, as special teams coach for the Patriots, quite valuable indeed.
Unless his team is deep in the playoffs O'Brien generally begins his draft evaluations each year during the week leading up to the Senior Bowl in late January. And that work takes him right up to the draft itself in late April.
In addition to specialists - the kickers, punters, long snappers, and return men - O'Brien often looks at numerous players on both offense and defense to contribute in the Patriots kicking game.
"We usually do the skill positions," he explained, "which even requires some of the defensive linemen. Here [in New England], we [
]()kind of identify guys who've done it [in college] and look at them that way. And it's a long process to do the returners. Then it's a progression to the special teams players, you know, the guys who line up to cover kickoffs, play in the return game, and so on and so forth."
Sometimes, there's a leap of faith to be made in deciding if a player could play special teams because there just isn't the tape available of their having done it in college. One area where that's become a particular concern is at holder. A generation ago, backup quarterbacks were generally relied upon to serve in that role. However, nowadays, teams typically ask punters to perform those duties.
Not only does that free up the quarterback to spend more time with the offense during practice, it also makes sense that the kicking trio - kicker, punter, long snapper - already spends the majority of its time together, so, the group can dedicate itself more to developing their chemistry.
That's the advantage. But there is a disadvantage as well, which O'Brien noted.
"Not all punters hold, and it's usually because their hands aren't very good," he said. "Or you'll find teams that the punter can hold and they don't use him, and they do use the quarterback. Some teams, like Virginia Tech, the head coach wants a quarterback to hold so they can run fakes."
Last season, rookie punter Zoltan Mesko(drafted in the fifth round) was the holder for extra points and field goals. During training camp, backup QB Brian Hoyertook snaps as the backup.
In this year's draft, though, O'Brien hasn't found many players other than punters who've held for placekicks, but there are a couple - wide receivers Randall Cobbfrom Kentucky and Boise State's Austin Pettis- who have considerable experience in that area. Needless to say, that pair is on O'Brien's radar.
"You'd be surprised how hard it is to find those guys," O'Brien said of college holders in general.
"Your punter is great, but if he gets hurt, well, who's your next one? Being able to do that is important for us in our evaluation of a player and how we could use him."
New England hasn't been shy about drafting specialists in recent years. In addition to Mesko last year, the team selected long [
]()snapper Jake Ingramin 2009, coverage and return specialist Matthew Slaterin '08, and eventual All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowskiin '06 to replace Adam Vinatieri.
So, when the Patriots are on the clock later this month, expect O'Brien to be directly involved in the decision-making process with head coach Bill Belichick, the coaching staff, and the personnel department.
"Just like any other position coach that [Belichick] talks to when they're talking about any player, there's an evaluation process we have with any specialist - the critical factors we look for, the position specifics they all have, and their overall production.
"The majority of players we look at have done something in the kicking game," O'Brien continued, "and most of them have done it as seniors or juniors. You get another evaluation of them doing something else in a different part of the game, so, when you're putting everything together, it's another report you rely on. It used to be such a projection, now it's not because you're actually seeing them do it and you're evaluating them doing it. There's a lot more of an emphasis on [special teams] now in college."
O'Brien pointed to last year's first-round pick, cornerback Devin McCourty, as a prime example of a player who started on defense for his college team (Rutgers), but was also a crucial component to their special teams. McCourty wound up contributing in both areas for the Patriots last season.
"And a lot of the highly rated players this year you'll also find in the kicking game," added O'Brien.
Which makes his feedback all the more vital when the Patriots make their picks.