For once, the New England Patriots eschewed the idea of drafting based on value and instead went with their instincts in making bold moves to get the players they wanted - and, perhaps, needed - in this year's NFL draft.
Head coach Bill Belichick is no stranger to making draft-day deals, except he's often moving down in the pecking order to build late-round value or stockpile picks for a future draft.
This year, the Patriots traded up twice in the opening round, tossing in two mid-round picks as sweeteners, to ensure they'd get Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. They moved up from No. 27 to 21 to get Jones and up again from No. 31 to 25 to grab Hightower, an unprecedented turn of events for anyone who's followed Belichick's drafts for the past few years.
The bold moves should be applauded in New England; if anything, time has proven that swapping one pick for multiple, late-round selections hasn't done the Patriots any good in recent years. Their last few drafts have been failures littered with too many mediocre third- and fourth-round selections.
Only time will tell whether or not they made the right selections. The only curious move was trading their 62nd pick for a third- and fifth-rounder.
They say less is more, and while this year's draft might be lighter in quantity, the Patriots might leave this weekend with more quality than they've had in recent years.
Inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- Chandler Jones is the more celebrated of the Patriots' two first-round picks, but Hightower is arguably more versatile based on his ability to stop the run and rush the passer. These are the kind of players that seem to fit the mold best in New England, and Hightower could build a solid career as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end.
Safety Tavon Wilson -- The real surprise here is that the Patriots drafted him in the second round, so this particular pick could be a game-changer in more ways than one, but some question whether or not they needed to use a second-round pick to get him.
A closer look at the Patriots' picks:
Round 1/21 -- Chandler Jones, DE, 6-5, 265, Syracuse
This is clearly the player the Patriots coveted from Day 1, as evident by the fact they traded up to get him, dealing the 27th overall pick and a third-round selection to move to No. 21. Jones has already drawn some comparisons to Giants' defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul based on his pure athleticism, and it's obvious the Patriots needed help with the pass rush.
Round 1/25 - Dont'a Hightower, ILB, 6-2, 265, Alabama
Once again, the Patriots moved up in the pecking order to get the player they wanted in fear that somebody else (namely the Ravens) might take him off the board. Hightower seems more of a natural fit in New England due to his versatility; he can play with a hand on the ground as a pass-rushing defensive end, or drop into coverage as a run-stuffing linebacker.
Round 2/48 - Tavon Wilson, DB, 6-0, 203, Illinois
The Patriots were more than likely attracted to Wilson based on his size; at six feet and 203 pounds, he'll easily be one of the biggest defensive backs on the team when camp arrives.
Round 3/90 - Jake Bequette, DE, 6-5, 274, Arkansas
Similar to Hightower, Bequette can play both linebacker and defensive end, and he has tremendous size and wingspan at 6-5. This could be a tremendous value pick; Bequette was a two-time team captain at Arkansas and competed at a high level in the SEC, making him an attractive prospect in the third round.
Round 6/197 -- Nate Ebner, CB, 6-1, 205, Ohio State
Ebner has the height to be a solid NFL cornerback, but won't make much of an immediate impact defensively as a rookie. Much like Matthew Slater did his rookie year, Ebner's chance to contribute will be on special teams.
Round 7/224 -- Alfonzo Dennard, CB, 5-10, 204, Nebraska
An arrest in April more than likely dropped Dennard's value in the draft. The Patriots are rolling the dice hoping his off-field trouble was just an isolated incident.
Round 7/235 -- Jeremy Ebert, WR, 6-0, 195, Northwestern
A former high school quarterback, Ebert became a dangerous weapon as a receiver and rusher in college. He could wind up as a valuable contributor on special team as a rookie.
--Bill Belichick has frustrated New England fans in recent years by trading down and out of the first round with regularity. But that all changed Thursday night as Belichick made deals with both of his first-round selections -- scheduled to be at 27 and 31 overall -- moved up twice and selected Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
"I thought we had a good day today," Belichick told reporters immediately following the conclusion of the first round. "As usual, the draft always takes some interesting twists and turns. You just never know how it's going to go."
The first move saw the Patriots send the 27th and 93rd picks in this year's draft to the Bengals for the No. 21 selection that it would use to take Jones. Jones is an athletic end with the ability to play in both the 4-3, as he did as an end for the Orange, as well as the 3-4. He has the length that Belichick covets on the edge of his defensive front -- Jones is 6-5, 266 pounds and has 35.5-inch arms.
Though Jones only had 10 sacks in his Syracuse career before leaving after his junior season -- having missed five games last fall with a knee injury -- many believe he has the potential to develop into one of the best defensive players from the 2012 draft class.
He comes from an extremely athletic family. His brothers are current UFC champion Jon "Bones" Jones and Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones.
"Chandler's a little younger, has a little less experience, but a very talented player," Belichick said of the first of his two picks. "Smart guy, works hard, did a good job against some quality players."
After taking Jones, New England sent the 31st selection and the 126th pick to the Broncos to move up to 25 to take Hightower.
Hightower is a versatile linebacker who can play all the spots at linebacker in both a 4-3 and 3-4, and also served as a rush end in nickel situations at Alabama. His versatility is clearly his most impressive trait.
"Hightower's been in a great program for a great coach (Nick Saban), won a couple of national championships, been the signal-caller for that defense," Belichick said. "He played middle linebacker, inside linebacker off the line for Alabama in their base defense and nickel, but he also played defensive end in their nickel, opposite (Courtney) Upshaw. He rarely came off the field, defensively.
"Both players have some versatility we can work with."
Jones will be the one with the biggest job to do. As a rare pass rusher that Belichick not only took in the first round, but traded up to acquire, Jones will be expected to contribute to the edge of the defense for a unit that ranked 31st in the NFL a year ago.
Jones likely added to those expectations when he was asked which NFL players he modeled his game after. His response?
"Julius Peppers and Aldon Smith," Jones told reporters.
If the Patriots get production from Jones similar to anything either of those two players have done in their time in the NFL, Thursday's first round of the draft will go down as much more than a "good day" for New England.
Despite coming off a Super Bowl trip the Patriots needed serious help on defense.
Belichick acknowledged that Thursday night at Gillette by being uncharacteristically aggressive in the first round. Only time will tell if the deviation from his usual strategy will pay off, but right now the moves look very good on paper and left New England fans with plenty to cheer about on the first day of the draft.
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