By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You never know what you’re going to get from a Bill Belichick Friday press conference. Sometimes you get a history lesson on the shotgun formation or the Pittsburgh Steelers organization or any other of the millions of bits of knowledge trapped inside of that historically great football mind.
Other times you get a somewhat cordial but slightly contentious exchange with a reporter asking about some recent misses in the NFL draft.
The latter was the case this week, as NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran opted to ask Belichick directly about the lack of production the Patriots have gotten out of the past four draft classes. Considering such a topic is relevant fodder for talking heads in the region who are trying to explain exactly why and how the Patriots are in their current hole, it’s only fair to go directly to the source to ask the question, rather than just pontificating on one’s own.
Belichick, though, was not quite in the mood to offer up any sort of mea culpa for the team’s drafting issues since 2017.
The exchange began like this.
Curran: Bill, when you were just referencing team building, it brings me to a question that I’ve wanted to ask about player development. We saw Dalton Keene this week go on IR, and it was Devin Asiasi the prior week, and obviously those are injuries. But just really over the last four years, drafted players, do you have any idea why you’ve had a harder time getting consistent production and development from the guys that you’ve selected in the draft?
Belichick, after swaying in his chair and remaining silent for more than 13 seconds: Well, I’d say each — look, any time you bring a player onto your team, you … put ’em into a role or a situation that you think fits him. Sometimes you have to modify that a little bit as you get to know the player. And then you work with him to try to develop that. And he competes with other players at whatever position it is or whatever role it is. And ultimately you choose — or we choose, I choose — the best player out of that competition. So that’s really the process. I don’t really know how else to answer the question. Obviously, each player’s different. Each player competes with different players. Positions are different. So I don’t know if there’s a general answer to that.
It was a thorough answer to an uncomfortable question.
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) November 13, 2020
But Curran pressed for a bit more.
Curran: I guess, then, the upshot of it is that a lot of the players who have brought in via the draft since 2017 haven’t won those competitions or gained your faith and confidence to allow them to play a lot. There’s guys, certainly — Michael Onwenu has been terrific, and this year’s kind of a screwy year. But Joejuan Williams, [Yodny] Cajuste, [Hjalte] Froholdt have had injuries. Obviously [Jarrett] Stidham’s got a ways to go. Duke Dawson, drafted in the second round, hasn’t played for your team at all. And there’s plenty of guys that we can go with undrafted guys you’ve collected. But I know how much you put in to the draft, and I know how much every team puts into the draft. And I guess there’s a disconnect between whether it’s injuries, development, competition. So not asking a question on it and continuing to write or spitball about it doesn’t do us any good if we don’t ask the guy who is in charge of it.
Belichick (this time pausing just 4 seconds): Yeah. Well, Tom, I would say the most important thing to me is winning games. And, um, I’m not going to apologize for our record over the last 20 years. I mean, I’ve seen a lot worse.
Oh my. Belichick went 20-year record on him.
Did not see that coming.
Belichick continued: “So ultimately, try to put the best team on the field that we can to be competitive. And I don’t really see that changing. So whoever those players are or aren’t, that’s … that’s the responsibility I feel to the team, is the competition plays itself out and the better players play, whoever they are.”
Again, a thorough response with a bit of a tone that seemed to question “are you serious right now?” could have been the end of it.
Alas, it continued a bit longer.
Curran: I know you referenced the last 20 years, but over the last four — or really since about 2014 — do you think the drafting and the production you’re getting from drafted players has been where you’d hoped?
After a full 10-second pause, Curran chimed in: “And that’s my last one. I promise.”
Belichick: Yeah. Well, you know, honestly, Tom, my focus has been on the Ravens. Right now, drafting scorecard, which I understand you want to write about that, which is great. But really trying to focus on getting ready for the Ravens. So, I think I’ll leave my attention on that.
Curran: Thanks, Bill.
While reaction to one of those Belichick quotes sure made an impression on social media every which way, it was a pretty fair line of questioning.
In 2017, the Patriots drafted DE Derek Rivers (83rd overall), T Antonio Garcia (85th), DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (131st), and T Conor McDermott (211th).
The Patriots did get tackle Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel in the first round of 2018, but after that, they drafted CB Duke Dawson (56th), LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (143rd), LB Christian Sam (178th), WR Braxton Berrios (210th), QB Danny Etling (219th), CB Keion Crossen (243rd), and TE Ryan Izzo (250th).
In 2019, the Patriots missed out on some highly productive wide receivers while going for N’Keal Harry at No. 32 overall. After that, it was CB Joejuan Williams (45th), DE Chase Winovich (77th), RB Damien Harris (87th), T Yodny Cajuste (101st), G Hjalte Froholdt (118th), QB Jarrett Stidham (133rd), DT Byron Cowart (159th), P Jake Bailey (163rd), and CB Ken Webster (2020).
While it’s too soon to place judgment on the 2020 draft class, thus far the Patriots have gotten minimal contributions from three third-round picks — LB Anfernee Jennings (87th), TE Devin Asiasi (91st) and TE Dalton Keene (101st) — while also drafting kicker Justin Rohrwasser in the fifth round, only to stash him on the practice squad.
Out of all those players, only Wise, Wynn, Michel, Bentley, Winovich, Izzo, Harris and Bailey would be considered regular contributors over the course of their careers. Many either never made the team or didn’t last more than a year or two.
Combine that low production out of recent draft classes with the free-agent exodus that followed the 2019 season, and it’s not entirely difficult to point to the draft as a major reason why the Patriots are currently 3-5 and are at serious risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and just the third time since 2001.
Rather than spouting off on TV, radio and in the written word, Curran went to the source and asked the uncomfortable questions. Belichick gave some uncomfortable answers while defending his overall record.
It wasn’t bad. Maybe those two ought to start a podcast.