FOXBORO, Mass. — Patriots head coach Bill Belichick rolled up his sleeves and got after it Thursday during the first round of the NFL draft. As a result of his uncharacteristic aggressiveness, the Patriots made some serious improvements to their defense.
Belichick traded up twice in the first round — the first time he's done that since 2003 — to land a pair of high-quality players. The Patriots sent their 27th and 93rd picks to the Bengals for the 21st selection, which they used on Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones.
Then, about 15 minutes later, they packaged their 31st and 126th picks to the Broncos for the 25th selection, which they used on Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who is versatile enough to play any position in any front.
Jones looks like he could be an immediate starter, particularly if the Patriots stay with the 4-3, though his role could be different if they use more of a 3-4. He's a strong edge player who can be a three-down defensive end because he's equally strong against the run and the pass. While Jones isn't a natural pass rusher, that trait could come in time if he adds weight to his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame.
Hightower, a two-time national champion, "rarely came off the field" at Alabama due to his versatility, according to Belichick. Hightower is a natural inside linebacker, and he might be more of a fit in that spot next to Jerod Mayo in the nickel package because he would be an upgrade over Brandon Spikes in coverage. More than that, Hightower could shift outside in the 3-4, or he could be a rush linebacker in the nickel. If Hightower's versatility translates smoothly to the NFL, the Patriots will be able to disguise their packages with more regularity.
"I hope we've improved," Belichick said. "We'll see. We haven't put them in a Patriots uniform yet, so we'll see how they do once they get into our system and learn what to do. We'll see how they develop. I think both guys have been good players in their systems. They're both smart. They're high-quality guys. They've been productive in their systems. Hopefully, they'll be able to do that for us, too. We have a lot of good players they'll have to compete with. We'll see how it turns out."
At the end of the night, the Patriots addressed a definite need at defensive end, and they took advantage of a valuable player like Hightower who could serve multiple roles. And it was clear — evidenced by the fact that Belichick traded up in the first round for the third and fourth times of his 13-draft tenure in New England — that they identified two players they liked, and went on the attack to get them.
The Patriots' defense in 2011 was ranked 15th in scoring and 31st in yards. With Jones and Hightower in the fold, along with their optimism that cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Patrick Chung will have better seasons in 2012, the Patriots have to feel very optimistic as they continue to build for next year.
That point was legitimized with an ideal performance in the first round of the draft.