Throughout Drew Bledsoe's career in New England, the Patriots have always seemed to rely on a passing attack that earned them the reputation of a finesse offense. They couldn't punch a team in the mouth when they needed to. Since Bill Belichick arrived 15 months ago, he has focused much of his efforts on improving the toughness of the team, and nowhere is that more obvious than on the offensive line.
After spending a pair of choices on tackles Adrian Klemm and Greg Robinson-Randall in his first draft, he picked tackles Matt Light and Kenyatta Jones this time around, and like last year, used second- and fourth-round picks to do it.
In fact, after the draft board was torn apart through three rounds Saturday, the Patriots brass saw a player remaining that it couldn't resist. So Belichick worked the phone to swing a deal with the Chargers for the fourth round's first pick, which he used to make Jones the first player ever drafted from his four-year old South Florida Bulls football program. He also was the first of three straight South Florida players to be drafted in what could be called a run on the Bulls.
"We thought the one player [on Day Two] that stood out for us was Kenyatta Jones and we called San Diego and made the trade to move up to take him," Belichick said. "He played left tackle at South Florida and moved inside to guard in some of the all-star games. He actually performed better against some of the better competition."
But perhaps the most impressive thing said about Jones came from his college offensive line coach, Greg Frey. "If my [butt] was on the line in a fight, I'd want him there. He can be mean and tough and he's loyal," Frey said. That's a ringing endorsement for a team fighting for that type of identity.
But that loyalty may have led to an arrest last April 21 when he was, according to a published report, charged with carrying a concealed firearm. He was cleared when the police discovered that he removed the gun from a drunk friend while the two were out at a club, but he was suspended by the team during the the investigation.
Frey also told a story about a day in practice when Jones, who he calls "KJ" and "Yatta", jumped offside during a drill. "One of the linebackers said something to him and [Kenyatta] reached out and slapped him in the helmet and gave him a concussion. The linebacker stumbled off the field. His hands are killer."
While his quick, strong hands are a strength, some of the scouting reports available questioned Jones' work ethic. Frey shed some light on that issue. "That had to do with his weight. He is not a lazy kid. He worked his butt off, but the big difference was the gap in the competition behind him. But this is a kid who took 80 snaps in practice every day and dominated. He did everything we asked him to do."
Jones, 22, addressed that very question on draft day. "I always knew I was going to start every day and I never had anyone to challenge me," he said. "I got by and still performed well on the field and then scouts told me to lose some weight. I went from 325 at Christmastime to 308 by the combine, which I belived showed I was willing to work."
Being challenged and pushed won't be an issue in New England where 17 offensive linemen occupy preseason roster spots, and the competition will be far greater than what he experienced playing 1-AA college football, where he dominated.
"He's got an interesting mix of athletic ability, natural strength and meanness for a 300-pound guy," Frey said. "And none of the three are better than the others and that will give him a great opportunity to make it at that level."
That athleticism helped him jump over to the USF basketball team when it was depleted by injuries, and his strength is not a question at all. He bench presses 500 pounds and lifted 225 pounds 31 times at the combine.
That combination of strength and athleticism gives Jones what seems to be one of Belichick's favorite attributes — position flexibility.
"I can play any position on the line," Jones said. "I have shown it in the Blue-Gray game and I played center all my life until college. I think I'm a pretty good pass protector. We passed a lot and I think that prepares you for the next level a bit more."
The kid nicknamed "Bear" will need to bring some ferocity to the playing field if the Patriots are to change their reputation from finesse team to power team. Jones is a player who can get that ball rolling.
Strengths — Good, strong hands, great feet and can cover ground to get in good blocking position; strong knowledge of the position and four-year college starter
Weaknesses — Very young at 22, but started as a freshman when only 17; body still maturing; will undergo major speed adjustment from 1-AA to the NFL and may be a year away from contributing
Personal — He likes snakes and once bred pythons and sold them for extra money; nicknamed "Bear" for his size and aggressiveness on the field and his charisma and good-naturedness off it (like a Teddy Bear); he also is the oldest of 12 children in his family
Comparable NFL player — Keith Sims, last with Washington Redskins — 300-pounder with mobility and a strong base; potential for a long career
What They're Saying...
"Developmental player who shows signs of coming on. Could develop nicely if he can learn to bend his knees and drop his hips so he is in a good football blocking position."
-Joel Buchsbaum, author of Pro Football Weekly's 2001 Draft Preview