Patriots quick on their feet

When speed met fit, team grabbed players

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / April 28, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - The words have been spoken so many times in recent years they have become the slogan for Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli on the annual NFL draft campaign trail.

Younger and faster.

The Belichick/Pioli ticket is in its ninth year running the Patriots' football operation, and when it comes to defense, younger and faster has been one of the top items on the agenda. Yet for a variety of factors, the call seemed to go unanswered, or mostly unfulfilled, in recent years.

So as Belichick strolled into the press box at Gillette Stadium yesterday at the end of the two-day NFL draft, he was quick to draw attention to what had unfolded, asking reporters if they ever could have imagined a Patriots draft with no defensive linemen, offensive linemen, or tight ends.

The point was well taken, because if there was one defining element of the Patriots' work over the last two days, it was that they didn't lay it on the line - home of bigger but often heavier-footed players - as had been their way in recent years.

Instead, they addressed positions off the line of scrimmage, specifically on defense and special teams, and that meant a chance to target speed. Six of the team's seven selections came in those areas.

"We certainly wanted to get younger and faster on defense, but I've been saying that for years, really since the '01 season," Belichick said. "I do feel like we improved our overall team speed, as well as getting some quality guys and some guys who have been productive."

So what was different this year that finally allowed the Patriots to add a larger amount of that youth and speed to the defense?

Belichick insisted there was no magic formula, but instead, that the draft board simply fell the right way. In essence, what he seemed to be saying is that there are always fast players available, but finding the fast players who also fit the team's system is the major challenge.

The team's first-round selection, Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo, is the signature pick in this regard.

Mayo had the third-fastest 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine in February, a 4.54, which helped start his ascent up the team's draft board. But that speed alone wasn't enough to qualify him for a spot on the Patriots' wish list, because if it were that easy, the team simply would take the fastest player at each position.

It was Mayo's combination of speed, size, power, smarts, and intangibles that immediately made him one of the best inside linebacker prospects Belichick has seen in recent years. Being near the top of the draft this year afforded the Patriots the luxury to position themselves to snare him at No. 10, which was the right spot because the Lions were ready to pounce at pick 15.

If there is a prototypical fit for what the Patriots are seeking in an inside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment, it's pretty close to the 6-foot-1-inch, 242-pound Mayo. He's fast enough to run sideline-to-sideline, brings a physical edge to play downhill and take on offensive linemen, is a football junkie passionate about the game, and has the smarts to absorb a complex scheme.

There aren't too many combinations that fit like Mayo each year, which partially explains why the Patriots under Belichick and Pioli never had drafted an inside linebacker before the fifth round prior to this year.

"It's hard to force guys that really can't do what you want them to do, I don't think there is much point in forcing them in there, then you're disappointed with them and a year or two later you still don't have anything," Belichick said.

"I know it looks good on the grading chart. Need a guard, draft a guard; need a corner, draft a corner; need a tight end, then draft a tight end, and everyone gets an 'A'. But two years later, those players aren't performing in those positions and what do you have?"

There was better synergy between speed and need this year.

Cornerback Terrence Wheatley, the team's second-round choice out of Colorado, was one of the fastest prospects at his position. Ditto for outside linebacker Shawn Crable, one of the team's third-round choices. Fifth-round draft choice Matt Slater of UCLA was a high school track champion who, if things fall in the team's favor, could be the Patriots' version of dynamic Bears kick returner Devin Hester.

While it's a long way from April draft pick to November on-field contributor, such speed should help the Patriots when they find themselves on the road against teams like the blazing Colts.

Two years ago, in the AFC title game, the Patriots took the rather extreme step of inserting Eric Alexander at inside linebacker - in his first career start - in an effort to get more wheels on the field. In last year's regular-season game at Indianapolis, the team played with five defensive backs throughout, utilizing Rodney Harrison as a hybrid safety/linebacker in a faster lineup.

The infusion of younger and faster could offer the Patriots some different options this year, perhaps even the possibility of remaining in a base defense.

"We went into it open-minded, but we just had some opportunities the way things fell that fell into that category - whether it be linebackers or defensive backs," Belichick said.

Mike Reiss can be reached at

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