FOXBORO, Mass. — Stanford guard David DeCastro's surprising fall might have been the biggest reason why the Patriots' opening night of the draft was such a complete success.
The Patriots started Thursday by trading up to the 21st pick to select Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, which was a strong move for a team that needed a boost on the edge. Because of that pick alone, the Patriots could have felt good about their first-round performance.
Then, DeCastro continued to slide. Widely considered a top-15 pick — and a top-20 selection at worst — he tumbled to the Steelers at No. 24. Yet, Pittsburgh released inside linebacker James Farrior earlier this offseason, and Dont'a Hightower looked like a perfect fit for the Pittsburgh defense.
The only thing that got in the way was DeCastro. The Steelers' offensive line has been a weak spot for years, giving up an average of 46.7 sacks per season since 2006. So, while Hightower was enticing, the Steelers had to suck it up and take advantage of DeCastro's fall.
"As usual, the draft always takes some interesting twists and turns," Bill Belichick said. "You just never know how it's going to go, but as the players came off the board, we were able to execute a couple trades there."
Almost immediately after the Steelers turned in their draft card, the Patriots pulled off a trade with the Broncos, moving up from No. 31 to No. 25 to take Hightower.
Belichick was happy with the first-round showing, credited director of player personnel Nick Caserio with "handling" the trades and even noted he was surprised they could move up twice while hanging onto both of their picks in the second round.
"[Jones and Hightower] probably could have been [drafted] in either order, but we felt like we would have a better chance to end up with both players if it went that way," Belichick said. "Not that we were sure we would get the second one, but we thought we might have a shot at it."
By reading deeper into Belichick's thought process, it looks like the Patriots moved up to No. 21 for two reasons. They either thought another team would try to trade up for Jones with the Bengals (No. 21) or Browns (No. 22), or they believed the Lions (No. 23) were a true candidate for Jones due to a need at defensive end. Or again, if the Patriots took Hightower at No. 21, they thought Jones would have been gone within the next two selections.
Hightower was the greater gamble because of the Steelers, but the Patriots rolled the dice as they watched DeCastro fall. As it turned out, the Patriots took advantage of that good fortune and were proactive by moving up the board twice to add a pair of playmakers to the defense.