These local selections hit close to home
FOXBOROUGH - After wheeling and dealing their way out of the first round, and selecting Oregon strong safety Patrick Chung with their first pick (second round, 34th overall) of yesterday's NFL draft, the Patriots did more of the same in the second round.
New England continued the fortification of its defense, ranked 10th overall last season, by selecting a pair of area products, Boston College defensive tackle Ron Brace and Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler, with the 40th and 41st picks.
"A couple of local connections, just coincidental," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "It's always good to fill your roster with guys from BC and UConn, the New England area. That's a little cherry on top."
The only other time the Patriots had back-to-back picks among the top 100 was in 1982, when they selected running back Robert Weathers with the 40th pick and future Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett with the 41st.
"It's really a great honor," said Brace, a 6-foot-3-inch, 330-pounder from Springfield whose football career began at Burncoat High in Worcester before moving on to BC, where he started his final 37 games and recorded 85 career tackles (50 solos). "I'm so happy because going from BC to playing in the NFL as a Patriot is a big dream of mine, so I can't wait to go to work and start learning the system."
After trading their first-round pick to Baltimore in exchange for the 26th and 162d picks overall, the Patriots dropped out of the first round altogether by packaging those selections and sending them to Green Bay in exchange for the 41st, 73d, and 83d picks.
Then, after selecting Chung, the Patriots acquired the 40th pick from the Raiders in exchange for three picks (New England's 47th, 124th, and 199th) and used it to select Brace, who last season paired with B.J. Raji, a first-round selection (ninth overall) of the Packers. The disruptive widebodies helped the Eagles rank ninth in the nation in rushing defense (91.2 yards per game).
"Brace is an inside player, big man, powerful, and explosive," Belichick said. "He gives us a good element of size and power."
After serving as Raji's sidekick at BC, Brace now will serve as an apprentice to nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who will be in the last year of his contract, in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme.
"I just can't wait to get in there and learn the system from the coaches and also from [Wilfork], just because of the fact he's been in the league however many years he has," said Brace, who was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team selection as a senior. "I remember watching him being drafted by the Patriots and I just can't wait to actually learn from him and the coaches."
While Brace said he was "speechless" when Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft called him at his home to inform him the Patriots were drafting him, Butler, a 5-11, 183-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who patterned his play after former Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, had a strong sense about the team's interest in him when Belichick attended his Pro Day workout at UConn.
"I talked to Mike Mayock [of the NFL Network] before I worked out and he said that Bill Belichick doesn't usually go to Pro Days," said Butler, who was one of four UConn players drafted in the first two rounds yesterday, along with running back Donald Brown (27th, Indianapolis), offensive lineman William Beatty (60th, Giants), and defensive end Cody Brown (63d, Arizona).
"I don't know if it was the geographical convenience or that he was interested in some players there [at UConn]," said Butler, an All-Big East first-team selection who recorded 180 tackles (125 solos), 25 pass deflections, and 10 interceptions to rank tied for eighth in school history. "It worked out and I guess he was interested enough to take me."
With the pick acquired from the Packers, the Patriots selected Butler.
"He's a real good athlete," Belichick said. "He had a real good Senior Bowl, an excellent workout at UConn; a high-quality kid. He had a very good understanding of the defense."
After playing his collegiate ball in New England, Butler, like Brace, will begin his professional career in the region.
"It's good," Butler said. "They have the same standards pretty much as I had in college. It's about discipline, doing hard work, and knowing your role for the good of the team. That's what the Patriots are about. They're about winning championships and that's what I'm about. I look forward to having the opportunity to go up there and help the team."
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.