The Patriots didn't make the major splash some of their loyal followers hoped they might when the draft began, but they were still the most active of the NFL's 32 teams on the opening day of the 2003 draft. Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli brokered five deals (including Friday's swap with Miami) and came away with three players they hope will have an impact on the 2003 club.
Defensive tackle Ty Warren, cornerback Eugene Wilson and wide receiver Bethel Johnson are the three newest members of the Patriots. Warren and Johnson played together at Texas A&M while Wilson refined his skills at Illinois. All three were attractive enough for New England to move to retain their services.
Warren is obviously the key piece in the puzzle. After deciding the price was too high to move into the top 10, Belichick worked a deal with Chicago to creep up a spot from 14 to 13 to grab the former Aggies middle man. Warren was attractive because of his versatility (a favorite Belichick trait) to play over the nose and outside as an end. He could fit in as the nose tackle and allow Richard Seymour to slide outside to his more natural spot at end.
"[Warren] played in a defensive system at Texas A&M very similar to ours," Belichick said after his wheeling and dealing for the day was complete. "He played both spots there and how he'll do in our system we'll have to wait and see. We'd like to keep Seymour at end. He played the nose out of necessity in '01."
Belichick cited Warren's extensive playing experience – he was a three-year starter and four-year contributor at Texas A & M – as another attractive factor. He added that Warren's strength, toughness and physical nature made him "easy to evaluate."
The 6-4, 307-pound Warren played inside as a sub pass rusher for the Aggies and could be a factor in that role for the Patriots as well.
"I am a very coachable guy," Warren said. "I listen to what the coach has to say to me. I take pride in not letting the guy run my way in running situations."
The latter part of that quote is exactly why the Patriots drafted Warren. Run defense was a major problem last season and figures to improve. After four defensive tackles fell off the board in the first 12 picks, Belichick wasn't willing to wait even one more selection to see if his guy would still be there.
"I'm sure the Bears were getting some action," he said. "We [made the trade] to secure the pick [we wanted to make]."
Warren's versatility, coupled with Seymour's switch to the outside, should give New England a chance for better production up front. Veterans Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant, Rick Lyle and second-year man Jarvis Green also will figure into the mix. Warren and Seymour give Belichick two young, highly-regarded defensive linemen with the flexibility to play inside and out and experience in the Patriots two-gap system.
"It doesn't really matter where the coaches decide to put me on the line," Warren said. "I played all three [in a 3-4 set] before. Each position for a year at a time. I played left end in a 3-4, nose tackle and right end. I also played some rush end in some situations last year. In that 3-4 scheme it doesn't matter if you're playing right, left or nose tackle, those techniques seem to be pretty much the same because they are all interior."
Wilson and Johnson could be considered surprise picks, but the Patriots thought enough of both to maneuver slightly to get them. After trading out of the No. 19 position in the first round, the Patriots held Baltimore's pick (No. 41) early in the second. But with four cornerbacks taken in the previous eight picks, Belichick didn't want to wait any longer and grabbed Wilson.
The 5-10, 192-pounder brings tons of athleticism to the Patriots secondary. His strongest attribute is his ball skills, which Belichick claims are as good as any corner's in the draft. The numbers back up that claim, as Wilson shattered the Illini record with 60 pass deflections (besting the previous mark of 26).
Wilson also brings his share of flexibility with the talent to play successfully in both man and zone schemes, which he's done plenty of in the Big Ten.
"I feel most comfortable in the man where I can make plays," Wilson said. "I like to make plays on the ball and that's something I had a lot of success doing this year in the scheme that we played."
Belichick's defense requires several defensive backs and Wilson should be thrust right into the mix for a role, realistically as the nickel or dime back. The Patriots already have Ty Law, Otis Smith, Tyrone Poole, Leonard Myers and Ben Kelly as cornerbacks, and the competition, particularly among the latter group, figures to be fierce. Wilson's production at a high collegiate level puts him right in the mix.
Johnson brings blazing speed to the receiving corps but not the size many were hoping for. At 5-11, 201 pounds, the former Aggie blends right in to the Patriots "runts" Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch and David Givens.
Belichick stressed that Johnson did not perform in a very sophisticated offense at Texas A&M and his production isn't as high as some other receivers' as a result. Johnson caught just 117 passes in his four years but that figure was hurt greatly by a spleen injury in 2001 that limited him to just eight catches in two games played.
He'll enter the mix for an extra receiver spot and could factor into the return game as well. He returned 22 kicks for 440 yards and 15 punts for 195 more during his career. His speed (4.37 40-yard dash) should make him dangerous in that department and his ability to make an impact there could make this a very interesting pick.
If he's able to factor into the rotation as a receiver, he could provide a home run threat the Patriots lack. Johnson averaged 18 yards per catch as a senior and 14.9 over his career. Numbers like those can stretch a defense and open up space underneath for Brown, Patten and Branch.
"I tend to make big plays," Johnson said, while adding that one of his weaknesses is an occasional lack of focus on the easier catches. "I'm not afraid to go over the middle but I like to get down the field too."
The bevy of trades left the Patriots with just three picks in the first day (after starting with five). All three have the versatility the team likes and the top two should contribute immediately.