Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones Should Solidify Patriots Defense and 19 Other NFL Thoughts

Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones Should Solidify Patriots Defense and 19 Other NFL ThoughtsFOXBORO, Mass. — The next team to win a Super Bowl in April will be the first. But as I wrote Monday, the Patriots continued to take steps toward Super Bowl XLVII with a killer performance in last week's draft.

So, now seems like as good of a time as any to run through the draft class and make some assumptions that probably won't mean that much in three years. Unless they're all correct. Then you heard it here first.

1. With defensive end Chandler Jones (21st pick) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (25th), the Patriots added a pair of playmakers who have enough talent to turn this into the best first round of Bill Belichick's tenure in New England. I'm not saying it will happen, but the potential is there. They'll have to live up to some serious expectations.

2. Right now, Belichick's best first rounds look like they came in 2001 (Richard Seymour), 2004 (Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson), 2005 (Logan Mankins) and 2008 (Jerod Mayo). When it's all said and done, I'd expect to be able to include 2010 (Devin McCourty) and 2011 (Nate Solder) in that distinction.

3. Gun to my head, I'd probably say Seymour is Belichick's best first-round pick to this point, but he only has a slight edge over Wilfork and Mayo.

4. I've already provided overwhelming praise (on multiple occasions) for the selections of Jones and Hightower, but there's a lesson in every draft class that proves what we think we know is not always the truth. The Seymour pick wasn't universally adored, and Mayo was considered a reach. Mankins was an unknown, at least relative to many first-rounders. And let's not even get into the McCourty reaction again.

5. On the other side, I thought the Brandon Meriweather pick was outstanding in 2007, assuming he could get his head in the game. And remember when Laurence Maroney's highlight video broke the Internet in New England in 2006?

6. Come to think of it, Vince Wilfork probably drew the highest instant approval ratings of Belichick's first-rounders who also lived up to the hype.

7. I thought the Patriots got the best players on the board when they traded up for Jones and Hightower. The only thing I would have done differently is taken Hightower first to keep him away from the Steelers, but that could have given Jones to the Lions. Belichick read the board perfectly in that regard, and I assume he figured either tackle Riley Reiff or guard David DeCastro would be too enticing for the Steelers to take Hightower. Reiff went to the Lions at No. 23, and the Steelers took DeCastro at No. 24.

8. If Jones or Hightower don't work out in a few years, I won't second-guess Belichick because he took the right guys, in my opinion. But I think it's worth monitoring the careers of DeCastro, defensive end Whitney Mercilus (26th to the Texans), linebacker Courtney Upshaw (35th to the Ravens) and cornerback Janoris Jenkins (39th to the Rams) because those are four guys who could have been in play for the Patriots.

9. Along with that group, I'm sure others will also point to defensive end Nick Perry (28th to the Packers) and safety Harrison Smith (29th to the Vikings), but I'm guessing neither player would have been a serious consideration in the first round for New England. As a disclaimer, I doubt Jenkins would have been a serious consideration in the first round, either, but I included him in the first group because he was so heavily debated before the draft.

10. One last note on Jenkins: I would have loved to have seen what the Patriots would have done if he was on the board at No. 48. It would have offered a lot of insight into their draft philosophy since he was both so talented and so troubled that he sparked such a spirited discussion.

11. Heading into the draft, I thought the Patriots' best possible scenario would include trading up for Alabama safety Mark Barron. After seeing him get taken seventh by the Buccaneers, I now know that wasn't a feasible option. Again, from a realistic standpoint, the Patriots did about as well as possible in the first round.

12. I brought up Barron for another reason, though. Because he was drafted seventh, you can point out almost exactly what it would have cost the Patriots to trade up for him. That's because the Falcons pulled off something of an identical trade in 2011, moving from No. 27 to No. 6 for wide receiver Julio Jones. The Falcons traded the 27th pick, a second-rounder and a fourth-rounder in 2011 along with a first-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2012. There's no way Belichick would have paid that price, and it's hard to fault him or anyone really for turning down such a trade, if it ever actually existed (there's no reason to believe it did).

13. But think about it this way. The Patriots could have gotten Barron for the 27th pick, a second-rounder (let's assume it was the 48th selection), a fourth-rounder and then a first- and a fourth- in 2013. If the Patriots did that, they still would have had the ammo to trade No. 31 and a third-rounder to move up to No. 25 to take Hightower (in reality, the Patriots sent No. 31 and a fourth-rounder, so the upgrade to a third-rounder could have yielded another pick in a later round).

14. With that in mind, the Patriots would have gotten Barron and Hightower (or maybe Jones, if he were there), and they would have had the 62nd pick, which they used as the currency to trade down to draft defensive end Jake Bequette, special teamer Nate Ebner, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and slot receiver Jeremy Ebert. However, the Patriots would go into the 2013 draft armed with just a second-, third- and seventh-rounder. With all that in mind, I think the Patriots did just fine executing the trades they did.

15. Since I'm dealing in hypotheticals, let's pretend the Patriots didn't make either of those first-round trades and instead used the 27th and 31st picks. Using only the players who were still on the board, I would have taken Upshaw at No. 27 and Clemson defensive end Andrew Branch at No. 31 (I'd lean slightly toward Branch over Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David and Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy). I would have then used No. 93 on Wisconsin wide receiver Nick Toon (just slightly over Arkansas wide receiver Joe Adams) and No. 126 on Boise State safety George Iloka. Still, Jones and Hightower were the better picks.

16. Then again, I didn't think there was even a debate about the Patriots' decision to trade up (and out of Greg Jennings' spot) for wide receiver Chad Jackson in 2006. As it turned out, there wasn't.

17. If Ebner doesn't turn into Bobby Boucher from The Waterboy, I will be sorely disappointed.

18. Patriots defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene is going to display the work ethic that will make him popular among the fan base, and you can read about the reason for that here. Fanene shared an interesting detail about free agency Tuesday, though, noting he "had a chance" to go on some visits to some other teams, but he declined once Belichick called him.

"When I first got the call from Bill, I was so excited, I wanted to make a move and come out here," Fanene said.

19. Belichick's best line during the draft came Friday when he was asked about the team's rookie minicamp, which runs the second weekend of May. Belichick was asked if he had a certain number in mind in regard to the number of players he'd like to have in that camp. Belichick essentially said no.

"It's a two-day minicamp," he replied. "We're not going to build Rome in those two days."

20. On Tuesday, I was asked on Twitter about a rumor that Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes could be traded or cut because of the Hightower pick. Don't consider that a rumor. It was misguided speculation from someone on a podcast. Spikes isn't going anywhere. He'll be starting for the Patriots in 2012 and beyond.

Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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