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Mind over matter

Belichick and Pioli appear to have draft all figured out

Think NFL Draft Saturday. The mental picture is of Bill Belichick, as intense as if it were game day, decked out in his mad scientist get-up -- a gray hooded sweat shirt -- grinding over a stack of files, and shuffling through documents as he decides the fate of a franchise.

Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli across the table squinting behind his glasses, frowning.

A certain wrong move, and millions of dollars are thrown away. Tens of thousands of fans are upset. Dozens of jobs, first and foremost his, are lost.

A certain right move, and millions of dollars are added to the owners' pockets. Tens of thousands of fans are ecstatic. Dozens of jobs, first and foremost his, are preserved.

Overly dramatic?

Well, what if the Patriots had taken quarterback Todd Husak of Stanford with the 199th pick of the 2000 Draft? Instead, Husak went three picks later to the Redskins. JaJuan Seider of Florida A&M, selected by San Diego just three picks after Husak, could have been the Patriots' choice as well.

The Patriots went with Tom Brady.

That is why Draft Weekend is perhaps the most important two days in the NFL season.

But despite the tense, exciting maneuvering, Belichick is more relaxed in the Patriots' "war room" than you might imagine.

No arguments with Pioli over whether to take a linebacker or a cornerback.

No last-minute debates with scouts over whether the tackle from the SEC is better than the guard from the Pacific-10.

No anxious moments with owner Robert Kraft and vice chairman Jonathan Kraft over whether the team can afford to pay a quarterback who won't be ready to play for a couple of years.

By the time Belichick, Pioli, and the Krafts sit down for the long afternoon, their draft board will be complete and their game plan mapped out.

Whether they wait until players fall into their lap, or trade up or trade down, the goal is simply to pounce on as many of the players they have circled as "desirable" as they can.

"We want to leave it having improved our team," Belichick said.

Sounds simple, doesn't it?

"Clearly, Bill and Scott go into the draft and there's not a lot left to uncertainty and chance," Jonathan Kraft said. "They go over it in great detail. They're very businesslike, not haphazard. It's not something where it's, `let's spin the wheel with chance.'

"Bill and Scott, this is what they do. They're the experts."

Draft experts?

Belichick majored in economics at Wesleyan University. Pioli earned a degree in communications at Central Connecticut State.

There probably isn't credit for the course "NFL Draft 101" on either's transcript, but they're building a reputation as the best in the business.

Do they know something no one else knows? Or have they just been lucky?

While it's premature to determine long-term grades, New England's last three drafts have produced as high a percentage of productive players as the drafts of any NFL team. According to, 20 of the Patriots' 24 picks since 2002 are still with the team, including seven starters, and only one is out of the league.

Belichick said he doesn't have a "draft philosophy," but he does have recurring themes when discussing how he approaches the draft.

These unwritten commandments have helped the Patriots' head coach and their personnel director look like draft gurus.

* Treat Round 7 like Round 1
New England surprised many and upset others by taking Richard Seymour with the sixth pick of the 2001 Draft. In the second round, the Patriots grabbed Matt Light.

They became starters as rookies and have been key members of three Super Bowl championship squads.

The Patriots drafted eight other players that year. None is with the team.

"Not that we didn't [study] the bottom of the draft in 2001, but obviously we didn't do it well enough," Belichick said. "We just didn't appropriate the right amount of time to it. We won't do that again."

Belichick and Pioli tweaked the scouting system so players available in the late rounds would be more familiar to the staff. And, maybe more importantly, they changed the way the team studied NFL free agents. "We allocated a few more resources to college scouting and less on pro free agents," Belichick said. "We wanted to get the free agent evaluations out of the way, and not let it cross so much with the draft evaluations."

Every team in the league says all of its draft picks are important, but realistically, how much time do you think San Francisco has put into its late-round picks compared with its No. 1 overall selection.

The Patriots haven't had a pick as high as the No. 6 it used on Seymour since 2001, but Belichick said he wouldn't again fall into the trap of letting the top of the draft take away from the bottom.

The next year, the Patriots picked up David Givens in the seventh round.

* Tomorrow is as important as today
"It is not always what a guy can do on opening day of his rookie year," Belichick said. "We have seen a lot of players that have changed their value to the team as they have improved, whether it be after the first year or after the second year, or within one of those years.

"I think really what you are looking for is a player that once he gets accustomed to and familiar with the system, and has enough experience, that he can go out there and perform to his talent level. That is really what we are trying to do."

The Patriots are willing to take chances on players not valued as high on other draft boards.

Some observers thought Deion Branch was a reach in the second round in 2002, but he finished his rookie season with 43 receptions, and two years later was the MVP in Super Bowl XXXIX.

"We can't be too concerned about where everybody else sees them," Belichick said. "We just have to try to identify where we see the player being at and -- again, that is not just a projection to where he will be in minicamp -- where he will be down the road in a year or two years from now, when he is able to establish himself in our system and in this league."

* It's the system, stupid
"People will say, `This guy should go in the second round or third round,' but I don't put much into that," Belichick said. "What we try to do is determine what value he has to us. What can he do for the Patriots? How does he fit with what we're trying to do? Then we put a value on that, and no outside factors really matter."

And Belichick likes players who have played in systems similar to his.

Ty Warren was a natural, he said, having played up front in Texas A&M's 3-4 defense.

It's also no coincidence the vast majority of the players Belichick drafts played for schools in major conferences.

Though he has drafted more defensive linemen (nine) and defensive backs (eight) than any other position in his five years with the Patriots, Belichick said not much should be taken from those numbers.

"Those were the players we thought were the best fit at the time," he said.

Still, the Patriots have yet to draft an offensive lineman with a first-round pick under Belichick, and his only linebacker picks have been in the seventh round. Of course, linebacker has been the team's steadiest position in his tenure.

* Need? What need?
Tight end Ben Watson in the first round, just two years after drafting Daniel Graham?

"We'll take the best player, not a player that plays a position just so we can say we drafted a player at that position," Belichick said.

Belichick said he and Pioli most often agree on draft picks and player value well before sitting down on draft day.

When they differ on a college player, they compromise. They don't take him.

Jonathan Kraft sees that teamwork as a key to their draft successes.

"They have a lot of trust and confidence in each other's opinion," Kraft said. "I've never seen them have a knockdown, drag-out over anything. In the draft room, it's all very businesslike and very professional.

"In an era in which the salary cap is such a big part of the business, the draft is just critical because it's your purchasing department. It allows you to bring in talent at a cost level that is reasonable and, if handled properly, gives you flexibility with the overall roster.

"Nobody does it better than Bill and Scott."

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