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There’s been a level of certainty

By Albert R. Breer
April 24, 2010

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It was clear coming into the NFL draft that, with four picks in the top 53, the Patriots’ efforts had to be judged not on one selection, but as a mosaic of their handling of the first two days.

When they finally got through four picks, after shuffling down the board four times and up once, something else was obvious.

The club wanted certainty this time around.

The Patriots have struggled mightily in the draft of late, and suffered from a toxic locker room in 2009. And the class, to this point, is an implicit acknowledgement of that.

They did gamble once, taking Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski, a big, athletic, physical target coming off a back injury and bringing personality questions.

But the other three went to form — Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty and Florida defenders Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes were passed from under the wing of a Bill Belichick confidant into the Patriots family.

The team has struck gold mining such connections in the past.

Nick Saban delivered Jarvis Green, Eric Alexander, and Randall Gay to New England from LSU, and all far exceeded expectations from a fourth-round pick and two undrafted free agents. Fresno State coach Pat Hill, another onetime Cleveland staffer under Belichick, has former charges Logan Mankins, James Sanders, and Ryan Wendell on the Patriots roster.

This time, though, it seemed to be more about what the team has been lacking, and how important it is to make up for it.

“In talking to those [kinds of] players, it may not be as much of a transition for them because the program they’ve been in has similar demands to the ones we make,’’ Belichick told the Globe before the draft. “Pro football’s different than college football, but on some of the football things, it’s similar. I think in the end, it helps them.

“And it also helps us in that we know how a player would react to some of those things he has to do. In other programs — and I’m not taking anything away from anyone else — sometimes they haven’t been put in those situations and that’s something then that you have to project and becomes part of the learning curve in the relationship.’’

McCourty’s college coach, Greg Schiano, never worked for Belichick. Neither did Urban Meyer, who coached Cunningham and Spikes at Florida.

It won’t be quite the same for those guys as it was for Green or Gay, going from Saban’s defense to a similar one in New England.

But the first time Belichick screams “do your job’’ at Spikes, the linebacker won’t need clarification. When Cunningham reports to minicamp next week, he probably won’t be set back by the practice itinerary. And the structure under which McCourty will learn in New England doesn’t figure to be new.

These guys aren’t sure things, since those don’t exist in the NFL’s annual crapshoot. What picking these guys does, though, is eliminate some of the pitfalls rookies might be prone to stumbling over.

“We did things like that at Florida, and you see the success we had with the guys we had,’’ said Spikes, who was known as much for his leadership as for his play. “I know what to expect, at least for right now. We’ll see when I get there.’’

Spikes continued: “I think I’m in the right place. At Florida, I was at home, with a bunch of winners, people that cared. And I know it’s the same way up there. Our program was based on the same things.’’

The “winners’’ part is particularly interesting, because those players have been fleeting of late in Foxborough. When Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Richard Seymour vacated their stalls in the locker room last fall, they took more than their on-field contributions with them.

They took with them much of the swagger the team carried in the past. A bunch of rookies won’t replace that. But these ones could, eventually, help restore it.

Meyer said when Belichick asks about one of his players, the questions are along these lines: “Is he a winner? We’re in the national championship game, why did you give him the ball? Is he a tough kid, is he a good kid, does he come from a good family?’’

And, Meyer added, “When he asks me a question, it’s absolute truth.’’

That’s what the Patriots, it seems, want to come out of this draft with . . . certainty.

The Patriots have two draft picks remaining from their 2006 class, one from 2007, and have only received much out of one of their 2008 picks. From those three years, only three players — Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo, and Stephen Gostkowski — seem to be building blocks.

On top of that, in 2009, for the first time in a decade, the locker room was a problem for the team and its coaches.

The easiest way to solve those problems? Adding players you feel certain about from on- and off-field standpoints.

The truth is, in the NFL draft, you can never be sure.

But the Patriots’ actions the last two days show just how important it is for the team to right the wrongs that have had this team sliding from its once lofty perch.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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