FOXBOROUGH -- The plastic box was surrounded by bodies three rows deep. Microphones and television cameras were pointed at it. Photographers stood poised, cameras at the ready. Everyone stared at the silent box, just in case the Wizard revealed himself. "I am the great and powerful Oz!" the Wizard said, his voice booming when he finally spoke.
Well, not exactly.
When the Wizard's voice finally was heard, it actually sounded like Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a man apparently too busy drafting the best defensive lineman available yesterday to take a walk up two flights of stairs and con-
front the media anxious to ask him just exactly what he had been thinking. While Belichick's contemporaries were taking turns appearing on the huge Jumbotron screens at Razor Blade Field, speaking to ESPN's cameras, the head of the Patriots' football operation was somewhere in the bowels of the stadium, only his voice hinting that he might actually be in the building.
Certainly there were questions to be asked after the Patriots completed the first two rounds of the NFL Draft and came away with two defensive linemen and a tight end, apparently drafting under the theory that if you don't get it right the first time, just repeat yourself.
Perhaps that wasn't truly the case, but that's what they appeared to do in the first round when New England selected highly rated University of Miami defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Georgia tight end Ben Watson with picks No. 21 and 32, respectively, thereby ignoring the two top-rated running backs, two of the top five cornerbacks, and two of the top half-dozen wide receivers to take players at positions in which they recently invested previous No. 1 picks. The Wiz then followed up by drafting LSU defensive end Marquise Hill in the second round, which certainly should make Ty Warren wonder about his future in Foxborough.
Reached by phone in California, one Patriot veteran asked who his team had selected. When informed, he said, "We did what?"
The reason for this incredulous response was that defensive tackle and tight end are the same positions the Patriots used their No. 1 picks on in each of the last two drafts, taking thus far disappointing tight end Daniel Graham two years ago and defensive tackle Warren last year. It is not often a team uses its No. 1 picks on tight ends twice within three years unless there is an injury, but that's the way the Patriots organization elected to go. Their love affair with the position knows no bounds. They have now drafted six tight ends since the dawning of the Belichick Era, in addition to signing the only one who has been noticeably productive, free agent Christian Fauria.
Before you grow concerned that this was becoming a makeup draft, remember this: The Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls, so do not question anything they do because if you do, it causes some residents of Patriot Nation to break out in prickly heat. As radio talk show host Eddie Andelman might say, "Beeelieeeve."
Then leave the rest to the Wizard. In the last week, the Patriots have acquired troubled but talented running back Corey Dillon from the Cincinnati Bengals for a second-round pick (No. 56) despite long saying this is just the kind of fellow they want to avoid, a defensive tackle to challenge last year's defensive tackle, a tight end to challenge their tight end of two years ago, and a defensive end who has been projected to be a defensive tackle in the NFL, meaning, I guess, that he is here to challenge the defensive tackle they drafted ahead of him, who is coming to challenge the defensive tackle they drafted last year.
At least they didn't draft a quarterback in the first round.
From an optimistic point of view, this is the luxury of having a top team with few holes. A team can strengthen itself where, in theory, it should already be strong by taking the best players available. What the heck, it's got more talent than anyone else.
On the other hand, maybe the hometown team fears it may have blown it on its No. 1 picks of the previous two seasons and opted to try to repair the mess before anyone noticed. The residents of Patriot Nation must make the call themselves since this is an individual choice, but it seems a bit unusual to draft two players in the first round at the same positions you just drafted for in the first rounds of the previous two drafts, no?
Having said that, Wilfork was considered by many teams to be the best interior defensive lineman available, even though Oklahoma defensive tackle (and Lombardi Award winner) Tommie Harris went before him to the Chicago Bears. New Bears coach Lovie Smith is a product of the Tampa Bay defensive scheme that favors smaller, quicker linemen over the more massive types like Wilfork, who weighed more than 350 pounds for much of last season before dropping 23 pounds as the draft approached. To his credit, Wilfork weighed in at 323 at the combine in February and insisted yesterday he could play at that weight if asked. Regardless of his exact tonnage, with veteran Ted Washington gone to Oakland and newly acquired Keith Traylor not being a true nose tackle, drafting Wilfork seemed a solid idea if one assumes Warren isn't the answer at the position.
"Vince is a big, strong, powerful guy we think fits well in our system at nose," Belichick's voice said through the box. "I'd say it was a little bit of a surprise [that Wilfork was available]." If Warren is shifted to defensive end and plays productively, the Patriots will have gotten younger and cheaper across the defensive front, which Belichick said was a priority. If, however, the Patriots feel they had to take Wilfork because they fear Warren is not the answer at the nose, then this is a troubling development for a team that insists there are few things more valuable than its draft picks.
"I think I am a complete defensive tackle where I can rush the passer or control the line of scrimmage," Wilfork said. "Wherever they put me in I can fit, so it doesn't matter. Down in Miami, we play the 3-4 and the four-man front just like New England, so nothing is new to know there."
Wilfork said he compares favorably to Washington, and the Patriots certainly hope that's true -- because if he is more like Warren, it could be, "Oops, here we go again this time next year." But the majority of teams felt Wilfork was actually the superior defensive tackle to Harris, especially if they favor the kind of huge, mauling men the Belichick defense does. If factoring in style of play, which the Patriots do so well, drafting the top-rated defensive tackle had to be a situation the Patriots could not have anticipated when the day began.What not many of their fans and very few of their veteran players anticipated was that by the end of the day, they would have two more defensive tackles, a new tight end, no new linebackers, no new defensive backs, and nary a new wide receiver or offensive lineman. As for the need to draft Watson with that other No. 1 pick, ask Daniel Graham.