Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable. AP Photo.
Ever since the Patriots run of success began back in 2001, Bill Belichick has talked about the need to get younger and faster on defense. While that has been the goal virtually every draft since, the Patriots finally pulled it off.
On Saturday they moved around a bit at the top but wound up with a pair of fast, athletic players in Jerod Mayo and Terrence Wheatley. The day changed but the Patriots philosophy remained the same on Sunday when Belichick traded down at the start of Day 2, moving down nine spots in the third round while still keeping an eye on the player they targeted.
The prize was Michigan's Shawn Crable, a 6-5, 241-pound outside linebacker who Belichick said was the player the team would have selected before the trade. Instead they dealt the sixth pick of the third round to San Diego in exchange for the Chargers third rounder (No. 78 overall) and a 2009 second-round pick. When Crable was still available, the deal obviously became a home run.
"Shawn is definitely more of a linebacker than a defensive end," Belichick said in recapping his second-day work. "He has good range and a tall and thin frame similar to Pierre Woods – kind of like a basketball player. He plays with good leverage despite his thin frame."
The trend toward speed and defense continued with Jonathan Wilhite in the fourth round, a cornerback out of Auburn. The 5-9 Wilhite figures to compete for a spot in the secondary as well as contribute in the kicking game, an area he excelled at in college.
The most intriguing pick of the day came in between those two slots, and it was the only true offensive player the Patriots took on the weekend. Their second of two third-round picks, number 94 overall, was used on Kevin O'Connell. The San Diego State quarterback becomes the highest player taken at the position in the Belichick era, and he just might become Tom Brady's top backup in short time.
O'Connell excelled playing for a poor Aztecs team that featured shoddy blocking and little overall support. Despite those hardships O'Connell started for four years and most impressively was a four-year captain. With Matt Cassel entering the final year of his contract and Matt Gutierrez unproven as the third-stringer, O'Connell figures to give both a push for a spot. Both incumbents could be feeling the heat, especially if O'Connell can take his package of athleticism and throwing ability to the NFL level.
"O'Connell is a big, strong, athletic quarterback," Belichick said. "He played on a passing team in a passing league, honestly not behind a real good offensive line. We thought he was a good player."
O'Connell has the kind of ability that could make him Brady's lead backup in the near future and possibly his replacement down the road depending on how quickly he develops and how long Brady decides to stick around. It's another example of Belichick recognizing the value of quarterbacks and attempting to stockpile talent at the position in an effort to create a commodity.
From there Belichick returned to his mission of getting faster, moving up in the fifth round to take jack-of-all-trades special teams ace Matthew Slater out of UCLA. Slater played a variety of positions for the Bruins but made his mark in the kicking game, where he'll have to make his mark in training camp in order to make the club.
The Slater trade gave Tampa Bay the Patriots fifth- and seventh-round picks and left them with just one selection, which was used on Nebraska linebacker Bo Ruud at No. 197. Ruud's brother, Barrett, is a linebacker with the Buccaneers and he'll bring his hard-nosed work ethic to Foxborough and try to fight the odds to win a roster spot.
Of the seven players chosen, five were defensive players – three linebackers and two defensive backs. Slater and O'Connell also are considered premier athletes, which filled Belichick's goal for the weekend.
"We went into the draft with an open mind, as we always do," Belichick said of the approach. "We certainly wanted to get younger and faster on defense but we've been saying that for six years now. We feel we improved our overall team speed."