By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If there’s one thing you learn after years of watching Bill Belichick go through the draft process for the New England Patriots, it’s this: There are no patterns. There is no proper method of predicting his madness.
And if you ever — ever — think you absolutely know what the Patriots are going to do in the draft, then you will very quickly be proven wrong. It’s an annual tradition.
True to form, with two picks in the first round on Thursday night, Belichick opted to not draft a defensive player to help the unit that surrendered 500-plus yards and 41 points to Nick Foles and the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. He opted not to draft quarterback Lamar Jackson, as many people speculated he would. He opted to not trade picks to move up, and he also opted to not trade picks to move out of the first round in either spot. And he opted to not even draft any of the players who visited Foxboro this offseason.
It wasn’t entirely out of character, though, when the Patriots selected Isaiah Wynn out of Georgia. The team has spent five picks from the first two rounds on offensive linemen since Belichick took over in 2000, and the loss of Nate Solder makes the tackle position one of need for New England heading into 2018.
But when the Patriots were back on the clock at No. 31, there wasn’t a soul alive — or at least, there shouldn’t have been — who expected the team to select running back Sony Michel.
It’s not that Michel doesn’t have the talent to be a late first-rounder; the young man rushed for 1,200 yards and 19 touchdowns in the SEC last year, capping off a career with 3,600 rushing yards and 39 total offensive touchdowns. It’s just that when it comes to dedicating picks in the first round to running backs, the Patriots have only done it once. As a matter of fact, Belichick hasn’t even liked using second-round picks on running backs.
In total, over the last two decades prior to Thursday night, Belichick has used one single first-round pick on a running back. That was on Laurence Maroney. While Maroney was closer to being an average running back than the complete disaster many remember him as being, hearing his name mentioned during this draft likely doesn’t inspire positive vibes around the New England region.
That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the Patriots are bad at drafting running backs in the top rounds of the draft. The team just hasn’t prioritized it.
PATRIOTS RUNNING BACK PICKS UNDER BELICHICK (2000-18)
2000: J.R. Redmond, 3rd round, 76th
2002: Antwoine Womack, 7th round, 237th overall
2004: Cedric Cobbs, 4th round, 128th overall
2006: Laurence Maroney, 1st round, 21st overall
2007: Justise Hairston, 6th round, 208th overall
2011: Shane Vereen, 2nd round, 56th overall
2011: Stevan Ridley, 3rd round, 73rd overall
2014: James White, 4th round, 130th overall
So it was a bit odd for that trend to be bucked now, in 2018, when James White, Jeremy Hill, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee are all under contract for the upcoming season. Losing Dion Lewis was not insignificant, but it was a loss the Patriots’ current roster seemed capable of handling. They still can, but there will now be a rookie with a guaranteed spot on the roster (barring injury) who will be added to the mix.
If he can succeed, he won’t be the first Patriots draft pick to do well at running back. Shane Vereen was a late second-rounder and Stevan Ridley was a third-rounders in 2011, and both experienced varied levels of success in New England. And the aforementioned White went in the fourth round in 2014; like Vereen before him, he’s been a capable regular-season contributor while also putting forth a dynamite Super Bowl performance to help win a championship.
But really, it’s that break from tradition to draft a running back early that really stands out from Thursday night. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio addressed that apparent shift in philosophy after the first round concluded.
“Look, our responsibility is just to pick good football players. That’s the most important thing,” Caserio said. “We think he’s a good football player so we picked the player. He’s got pretty good skills. He’s athletic. He’s good in space. He’s a strong runner for his size, 210-215 pounds, whatever he is. Our thing is to pick good football players who have good traits. However they get here, they get here. He gets the same opportunity when he gets here, so regardless of where they’re picked. We liked the player so we went ahead and picked him.”
For his part, Michel seemed to already be a seasoned veteran when it came to speaking with reporters in the typical way the Patriots prefer. Michel was asked to compare his style to any pro running backs who are well known, but he opted to pass on the opportunity.
“I wouldn’t say I’d compare my game to any running back because in the NFL level those guys that I’ve watched already accomplished so much, so I wouldn’t say I compare myself to [anyone],” Michel said. “I watch guys like Reggie Bush, those style of players. James White, those kinds of guys. Those guys make big plays and those are guys who I look after and I try to just emulate my game after.”
Michel was also asked if he’s thought about what it will be like to be playing alongside Tom Brady. Again in perfectly Patriots-like fashion, Michel said such a thought is a long way from what he needs to be thinking about.
“I haven’t thought about that because there’s so much more than me thinking about coming in and just getting a handoff from Tom Brady,” Michel said. “There’s levels. I have to work my way to first learn the playbook and buying into their program for me to even get the chance to be able to step on that field and play.”
Clearly, Michel’s mind-set and approach fits in well with the Patriots, and as Caserio explained, that factors in to some of these draft decisions.
“Everything goes in – the traits, I would say, the football traits a player possesses are very important, especially for our program. I mean we want smart, tough football players – mentally tough, physically tough – that are going to have to go through the rigors of our program and our going to work,” Caserio explained. “They’re going to get up, they’re going to come back the next day. Are they going to be able to do it again and be able to sustain it over the course of a long period of time? So a player’s ability to do that, it’s hard to measure but you try to put that all together as one but those football traits are pretty important, especially around here because we ask a lot of our players and our players work their tails off.”
Caserio continued: “The expectation is when a rookie comes in, yeah he’s far behind but is he going to work? Is he going to take the coaching? Is he going to improve? Is he going to go back? Is he going to study? OK, the next day is he going to come back? Is he going to do the same thing? Is he going to develop a routine for himself? So a player’s ability to do that is going to give him at least a chance to be competitive, whether or not that means he’s going to be successful, I mean that’s a whole separate conversation because your performance on the field in the end is the most important thing. But those football traits and those football characteristics from that perspective are pretty important.”
That’s likely where a solid relationship with Georgia’s coaching staff came into play. Similar to the Rutgers connection from years ago, the Patriots liked what they got out of David Andrews, who signed as an undrafted rookie in 2015, quickly became a starter, and was named a team captain in 2017, his third season. They also liked Malcolm Mitchell when they spent a fourth-round pick on him in 2016 despite injury concerns. Those injuries cost him his 2017 season, but in 2016 he experienced some of the best success a rookie has ever had with Brady, and he came up huge in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ historic comeback against the Falcons in the Super Bowl.
The Bulldogs did go through a head coaching change in 2016, when Kirby Smart replaced Mark Richt. But there’s clearly a level of trust the Patriots have in the Georgia program and members of the Georgia coaching staff.
Clearly, the Patriots like Michel. But their willingness to break tradition and use a pick from the first round on a running back for just the second time since 2000 indicates they really like him.