The Patriots have a lot of proverbial balls in the air with slightly more than a week remaining until the 2017 NFL Draft.
Beyond the obvious questions about potential draft needs, New England also has the unknown that is the trade speculation surrounding budding backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as well as the uncertain future of restricted free agent Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Those topics and many more were addressed late Tuesday morning by Bill Belichick's right-hand personnel man as Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio held his annual pre-draft press conference at Gillette Stadium.
In fact the first question of the day wondered about the potential for Butler and/or Garoppolo trades to move up higher in the draft, most specifically whether the backup quarterback is "strictly not for sale" as has been reported by some media outlets.
"Anything that we do we're always going to do what we think is in the best interest of our football team and that's how we approach it," Caserio said, somewhat non-committal. "That's not going to change. So whatever we think is best for our team for 2017, for that season, then that's what we'll do. However that manifests itself [I'm] not exactly sure, but that's where the focus is – trying to put together the best team possible for the 2017 season. However that comes about then we'll take it as it comes."
Caserio made it clear that the focus and reason for excitement for next week's three-day player selection process is about adding players who can help New England moving forward. That means keeping all options open and being sure the team has as much information as possible on all the prospects, even though the Patriots currently aren't scheduled to pick until the third round, No. 72 overall.
"What you want to do is you want to know the players top to bottom," Caserio declared. "So wherever the players are projected to pick or wherever you think they're going to pick, you don't not evaluate a player or not go through your process of the player just because 'Well we don't think he's going to be there when we pick.'
"Really none of us know when we're going to pick at this point so we have to be prepared. So that's why our job is to kind of know top to bottom each position as thoroughly as we possibly can which is what we do. We spend as much time as we normally do because really we're trying to gather as much information as we can on the player and build a composite, because really you never know when that information is going to become useful for you. It could be further on down the road when you have a player acquisition or if a player ends up on your team. Our philosophy really hasn't changed. We evaluate the players, we assign the grades to the players and then however the draft ends up unfolding then we deal with it as it comes."
Sounding very Belichickian in many of his answers as he and the rest of the Patriots scouting department head down the home stretch of their work, Caserio touched on a variety of topics pertaining to the entirety of a New England offseason in which Belichick has not met with the media since the Super Bowl. He noted the team was holding pre-draft visits with eight prospects as he spoke. He called big-money free agent cornerback addition Stephon Gilmore a good player that New England "liked" coming out of South Carolina. He also declined to say whether New England would pick up the fifth-year contract option on high profile wide receiver trade addition Brandon Cooks.
Beyond those issues, here are some of the other key comments and thoughts from Caserio's 20-plus-minute meeting with the media in Foxborough:
1. Full Monti: Caserio used his opening comments to praise New England Director of College Scouting Monti Ossenfort for his determined efforts, both on and off the field. The Patriots top college scout spent Monday's Massachusetts Patriots Day holiday running the Boston Marathon in the midst of overseeing the final preparations for draft day.
"Congrats to the [New England Patriots] Charitable Foundation marathon runners – one of whom was our Monti Ossenfort who participated yesterday. He finished in less than four hours so [that's] quite an accomplishment," Caserio said. "I mean Monti deserves a lot of credit at this time of the year. [He's] arguably, in my opinion, as good as anybody in the league in his position [for] what he does for our organization, for our team as a part of this process. He invests a significant amount of time. His staff – Brian Smith, James Liipfert, DuJuan Daniels – our guys do a great job. They invest a lot of time. We ask a lot of them and a lot of their job kind of is not recognized, but they're an integral part of what we do in terms of putting this process here together. So I'd certainly be remiss if I didn't mention that group."
2. "I would say our draft board is smaller than most": Caserio made it clear that he believes it's a good overall draft class. He wouldn't get into specific positional strengths or weaknesses, rather declaring that there is talent to be found at every position. But while there are hundreds and hundreds of players worthy of scouting, very few of those will end up getting pinpointed as potential fits for the specific needs of the Patriots.
"So our job is to find the ones that fit for us and the reality is, look, there are some players that fit; there's some players that don't. In the end, we end up with 50-75 players that we would draft from top to bottom," Caserio said, a number that he acknowledged varies from year to year. "That's a small number but that's where we end up. So that's the decision that you have to make. I mean, it's a small pool but that's our process. We have to make the decisions that are best for our team, not necessarily what the player is going to do for somebody else. That's all we can really do and control.
With so many variables for each prospect, the Patriots are clearly rather particular in their needs both on and off the field.
"I would say our draft board is smaller than most," Caserio said in response to a follow-up question regarding the 50-75 number.
When asked about one of the more controversial prospects in this year's draft, Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, Caserio was less than definitive. Reports have indicated that the Patriots have taken Mixon off their draft board due to his violent act against a woman that was captured on video early in his career with the Sooners.
"I think each player we kind of look at on an individual basis and I think Coach Belichick has talked about this multiple times. You're looking at the full composition of the player. Our job is to gather as much information as we can on a player on a variety of different levels, take all of that information and ultimately you make a decision about whether or not you draft a player, don't draft a player," Caserio said. "OK, you would draft him at a certain point. Each player is different. You take all of the information and then you try to make the best decision that you feel is best for the organization. So a case like that or other cases, there are other players that may be in a different bucket, you try to go through your same process and ultimately get to the same positon which is take the information, make the best decision that makes the most sense for the team and the organization."
3. White House visit a "great opportunity": The Patriots are scheduled to visit the White House on Wednesday, the customary trip afforded to champions throughout sports. A number of New England Super Bowl champion players, including safety Devin McCourty and former defensive end Chris Long, have said they will not take part in the visit to meet with President Donald Trump.
Caserio seemed prepared for a question on Trump and the White House visit and appeared quite comfortable articulating his thoughts on the somewhat controversial topic.
"I'd say we're honored and humbled to be extended the invitation to the White House," Caserio began. "It's a great opportunity for the team to be recognized for the accomplishments of last season. I think we're respectful of players and their individual positons. Everybody has their own personal beliefs and feelings on it, but I think it's important – I mean it's a great opportunity. People have gone in the past. People haven't gone in the past. I think everybody's situation – I mean I would say for my staff some guys haven't been before so this is a great opportunity to be honored, and rewarded and recognized for the accomplishments of what the team did last year, which nobody can take away from us."