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Coaching tree branches out

'Patriot type' players will be in demand around the NFL

Jets' head coach and former Patriots Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini will be using a familiar formula when judging player personnel.
Jets' head coach and former Patriots Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini will be using a familiar formula when judging player personnel. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

INDIANAPOLIS -- The questions came in a rapid-fire manner; the answers were slow, deliberate, canned. Pure Belichick.

''What we're going to try to do is whatever gives us the best chance to win."

''We don't really talk about those type things."

''I'd rather not go into [fill in the blank]."

Eric Mangini went on and on at a news conference at the NFL Scouting Combine, speaking continually yet not saying anything. It was quite entertaining.

If Patriots coach Bill Belichick were in the room, some might have accused him of being a ventriloquist.

But Mangini, a longtime Belichick assistant and the Patriots' defensive coordinator last season, was indeed on his own. And in some ways, that is a problem for Belichick. Mangini no longer works for Belichick, he just sounds like him. And certainly in many ways, he will coach like him.

''There's really not much that I can't attribute to Bill," said Mangini, the new head coach of the New York Jets. ''He's an incredible football coach, an incredible manager, and he's a great mentor to have. I couldn't have asked for a better mentor than Bill Belichick."

While that may be flattering, Belichick knows that as his coaching tree expands, the competition for his type of player increases.

''What I'm looking for are players that are flexible, smart guys," said Mangini. ''I want guys that have some position flexibility."

Sound familiar? It should. It's a common refrain for Belichick when he describes what he is looking for in the draft and free agency. It is not just the mental makeup. Not all players can function in Belichick's defense. The more teams that run the 3-4, the more likely the Patriots are to bump heads with them in the pursuit of players that fit that scheme.

Since the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2005, two of Belichick's defensive coordinators -- Mangini and Romeo Crennel -- left to become NFL head coaches. Nick Saban, another former defensive assistant, just finished his first season with the Dolphins.

All three took over teams that ran 4-3 defenses. Saban and Crennel immediately switched to the 3-4, as did the Cowboys last season. Mangini is doing likewise with the Jets, though as Belichick taught him, he hasn't specifically acknowledged as much.

''Some weeks it may be a 3-4, other weeks it may be the 4-3, and it could be the 4-3 in an under, it could be the 4-3 in an over, it could be a turkey front," Mangini said. Mangini's coachspeak turkey talk aside, the Jets' base defense will be a 3-4, and the system will be very much like the one he learned at Belichick's side. He needs to find players to run it.

For the Patriots, that means four teams ahead of them in the April draft have very similar defensive philosophies and are looking for the same type of players. If the Patriots remain at No. 21, they may have to watch the Jets (fourth), Cleveland (12th), Miami (16th), and Dallas (18th) snatch players that would look good in Patriots blue.

''Surely we'll be after some of the same players," Belichick said. ''There are certain teams, when they're on the clock getting ready to pick, you get the feeling that they are looking at the same board you are. A lot of times you take a direct hit."

Crennel, defensive coordinator on three Patriots Super Bowl winners and now the Browns' head coach, said the number of teams switching to the 3-4 will have an effect.

''They're all looking for similar type guys, so that impacts us more in the draft," Crennel said. ''We all know what we like."

With the evaluation being so specific, judging skill sets that fit a particular scheme is key to the scouting process. When the Patriots beat the Rams in 2001, there was one team -- the Patriots -- that used Belichick's grading system and defensive schemes. Now there basically are five.

Coaches who employ the 3-4 salivate over huge outside linebackers that can pound on tight ends and rush the passer (e.g. Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter). It is almost a specialty position because there aren't many Willie McGinest types available in every draft. Obviously, the more teams that use the system, the more difficult it will be for the Patriots to reload.

Crennel thinks this year's draft has more and better defensive players than offensive players, and he speculates that there could be a run on 3-4 style defenders.

Colts coach Tony Dungy is in a similar situation with the Tampa 2 defense, which spread to Indianapolis when Dungy moved in 2002, and added a team when Herman Edwards (now with Kansas City) took over the Jets. Lovie Smith took the Cover 2 to Chicago two seasons ago, and Mike Tomlin (Minnesota defensive coordinator) and Rod Marinelli (Detroit coach) will institute the system this year. Undersized linebackers with the ability to cover the deep middle get little notice on the Patriots' draft board but are held in high regard by Cover 2 coaches.

''It used to give us that edge," Dungy said. ''Now it just seems like more and more people are going to similar styles to what we do. People that we work with are going different places and implementing the system. That's a compliment, but we kind of hate to see that because for a long time we had that benefit of looking for guys that not many other people were looking for. It did help us."

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