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No clues to this mystery

Belichick mum on plans for first round

Although the Patriots lost key players, coach Bill Belichick said it was a ‘‘normal offseason.’’
Although the Patriots lost key players, coach Bill Belichick said it was a ‘‘normal offseason.’’ (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)

FOXBOROUGH -- If Bill Belichick knew whom his team will take in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft, he surely wouldn't share that information with the public.

So when the coach of the Patriots spoke to local media yesterday for the first time since his squad was bounced from the playoffs by the Denver Broncos, there was little expectation he would divulge inside information, and Belichick delivered. Or didn't.

But he did touch on several subjects in the half-hour news conference, the first of what he described as a ''normal offseason."

While many fans would argue that the free agent losses of veteran linebacker Willie McGinest, kicker Adam Vinatieri, and receiver David Givens -- particularly with no comparable replacements added to the roster -- does not constitute anything resembling normal, Belichick holds firm to his thinking.

''There is going to be transition on every team," he said. ''Every team in the league has that. We've had players come; we've had players go. That's the way it is."

The loss of Vinatieri may have been the most unexpected, as the Patriots could have guaranteed his return by naming him their franchise player, as they had twice before. The team had talks with the kicker the past two seasons about a long-term deal but never reached an agreement, and he jumped at the chance to sign with Indianapolis when it offered to make him the highest-paid kicker in NFL history.

The Patriots certainly didn't offer Vinatieri as much as the Colts, but whether they were willing to match the offer -- an opportunity Vinatieri apparently didn't give them -- is unclear. Belichick didn't offer details.

''It's a lot longer story than it's worth telling, and it doesn't make any difference. He's not here," Belichick said.

Belichick did say what has happened to the team in free agency will have little bearing on how he approaches next weekend's draft. The ''best player available/player that can most help the team" philosophy will stand.

''You can't create players," Belichick said. ''You've got to draft the board based on what your options are. As soon as you start taking players truly based on need, if they can't fill that need, then you have to come back the next year or the next pick and you're drafting again for the same spot.

''You really don't have anything if the player can't fulfill that expectation or that role that you think you drafted him for."

Translation: Just because the Patriots lost starters in McGinest and Givens, it doesn't mean they will draft a linebacker or receiver with the 21st pick of the first round.

Should they do so -- most draft projections have them doing just that, and Belichick says there are more quality linebackers this year than in recent drafts -- the Patriots are likely to be in good stead on April 29.

There is a possibility that only one linebacker who fits the Patriots' 3-4 system (Ohio State's A.J. Hawk) will be off the board by the time New England picks.

But the Patriots may not remain at No. 21. They have six picks in the first 118 selections, including two picks in both the third and fourth rounds, opening the door for myriad trade possibilities.

''Having those extra midround picks in a full draft does certainly give you flexibility to move up in rounds," Belichick said. ''Again, there's only so far you can move in that first round. From 21 you're not going to be able to get into the top 10, but you could move up a couple of spots, but then from that point on you would have pretty good flexibility if you wanted to move forward, if you wanted to package picks together.

''We know from our draft history, we're not afraid to trade them, moving up, moving down, or like we did last year, just sit there and take them when our turn comes up. There's no way to predict that. It's good to have the flexibility to do it, but there's really no way to predict it."

That could start talk that the Patriots are interested in making multiple trades to get into the top 10 to draft a particular player (Hawk and Texas defensive back Michael Huff should be picked in the second half of the top 10). More likely, though, if the Patriots like Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway or Florida State defensive end Kamerion Wimbley, moving up a few spots could do the trick. Or they could wait for Ohio State linebacker Bobby Carpenter, who should be on the board at 21.

Wimbley is 6 feet 4 inches, 248 pounds, and in the range of college defensive ends that fit as outside linebackers in the Patriots' system. And with just 12 starts for the Seminoles, he is one of a group of players Belichick described yesterday as intriguing prospects who have had little experience.

''There are just more players who I would say are more in the developmental stage for one reason or another -- either they didn't play a lot last year, or they're fairly young in their career, and there just isn't as much exposure on them as maybe what we've had in the past," Belichick said.

The Patriots' draft position is better than it was the past two years when they were coming off of Super Bowl victories and picked last in the first round. One benefit is that positions such as receiver and running back will be barely tapped by the time New England is on the clock.

Just one receiver (Florida's Chad Jackson) should be taken earlier, and perhaps all three of the running backs, other than possible No. 1 overall pick Reggie Bush, deemed to be first-round talents -- Memphis's DeAngelo Williams, Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, and Southern Cal's LenDale White -- will be available.

''Approaching the college draft, it's always an exciting time of year for all organizations -- coaches, scouts, personnel people," Belichick said. ''You start putting it together and trying to familiarize yourself and learn about all the new players who are coming into the draft, and just try to be prepared for whatever draft scenarios that can take place next weekend.

''Really, there is no set formula on it. I think the best thing is just do your homework, be prepared, and be ready to deal with whatever the situations are."

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