By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
INDIANAPOLIS -- Each year in the NFL Draft, every organization makes its picks based on positional needs or spends them on the best players available. Occasionally, as the Patriots showed a year ago, a team can do both.
Six weeks before the 2015 draft, longtime defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left New England for Houston as a free agent. Surprisingly, Wilfork's potential replacement, Malcom Brown, was still available when the Pats picked last in the opening round. Including the playoffs, Brown started 14 of 18 games as a rookie.
Once again this April, a large percentage of the top prospects are big men like Brown, who battle to control the line of scrimmage. If bulking up on either offense or defense is a priority, the upcoming draft offers a golden opportunity to stock up.
"This is a strong draft on both fronts," says Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "I think that's a good thing for teams that are ostensibly looking for [offensive] line, [defensive] line [help]."
But for clubs seeking something else, as we were warned again at this week's Scouting Combine, placing demand, due to a certain deficiency, over supply of top-tier talent elsewhere can prove to be a bad thing.
"We're not going to sacrifice a really good player just to fill a need," cautions Jason Licht, GM of the Buccaneers. "That's where a lot of mistakes are made."
And lingering regret results. Often that's caused by overrating the prospect of one's choosing, hoping he'll fill a roster void while bypassing a player of long-term impact.
"First you have to know what's available, and not only know it but evaluate and be honest about your evaluation," veteran Packers executive Ted Thompson said. "Sometimes you can label a guy as someone who can come in and do this or this, and in fact, they can't do this or this. I think that's where you can kind of get in trouble."
"You run the risk of skewing your process or your grades and maybe passing on another player that ends up being a much better player," adds the Jets' second-year GM Mike Maccagnan.
Among the men who make the final choices, combine consensus is that the draft should be used to lay an organization's foundation. Even if that leads to layering certain spots on the depth chart. Holes are filled with better-known commodities signed off the open market.
After all, paraphrasing something Bill Belichick stated last December, it's easier to evaluate a player already in the NFL than an aspiring pro coming out of college.
"Ideally you want to fill your needs in free agency and you don't really want to let need factor into your draft decisions," Maccagnan said. "So what we'd ideally like to do is go into the draft with every need filed and then just draft the best player available.
"I don't think I would say we would fill some needs in free agency and then try [to] fill the other needs in the draft. The other thing I think teams tend to do is, they forget it's a long time until Sept. 1 or when the season starts, so we have a lot of time to potentially solve those problems going forward."
Of course, exploring free agency comes with its own caveat.
"In free agency, it can be fool's gold," Cardinals GM Steve Keim explains. "You see these guys [and think], 'Why do they hit the market, No. 1?' And No. 2, [you consider] the money that comes attached to those players.
"My philosophy has always been to somewhat sit back, let the market play itself out, see where the numbers go and find the guys who are the right people; passionate players to fill in your locker room."
LINE OF THINKING
The last two Patriots draft classes included offensive linemen Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming, Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason. In addition, David Andrews signed as a college free agent last spring.
All of them ended up starting at some point, if not for the most part, as rookies. Perhaps not coincidentally, four of the five played collegiately in pro-style offenses. The lone exception is Mason, who blocked in Georgia Tech's run-dominant triple-option attack.
Meanwhile, most of their college peers were part of the spread formations in what Mason's coach with the Yellow Jackets, Paul Johnson, jokingly calls the "NCAA Offense."
It's no laughing matter, however, for NFL evaluators. Assigning a value to prospects whose college football experience was in the increasingly-prolific spread offense is anything but easy.
Arizona's Keim points out that he's observed linemen who've never set in a three-point stance. Therefore, scouts must project abilities more, which Keim says can be "difficult and challenging."
Yet, given the unchanging reality of the college game, it's a challenge NFL teams must overcome.
"I'm not real well versed on the intricacies of a spread offense," Steelers GM Kevin Colbert admitted. "But, it is obviously a hurry-up, there's usually not a huddle, there's not a lot of adjustments that are made.
"So I think there's a huge learning curve and it just takes a little longer. That's the majority of offenses in college football, so we have to adapt. The colleges won't change, because they're doing what they need to do to win football games. It's our job to take the talent and work with it, but it's a little longer than if they're coming from a traditional offense for sure."
Colbert's counterpart in Seattle, John Schneider, sees offenses spreading out well before high school, much less college ball.
"Heck my sixth-grade son's team runs a spread offense," Schneider joked. "[Kids] are not learning how to play football the way we did. We are going through a generational shift."
It's not just the nature of most offenses but another reality of college football that makes it tougher to transition to the pros, at any position: there's less work devoted to fundamentals.
"They are not allowed as much time as they used to have with guys on an individual basis," Schneider says of college coaches. "So you are seeing a lot of teams just going to a little bit of individual periods, and then getting out there and going to team [drills]."
The likelihood of the Patriots selecting a lineman this year seems strong, though they're more apt to opt for a tackle than someone on the interior. Fleming was the only draftee in 2014-15 who wasn't a guard or center in college.
Whomever they take in 2016 will, reportedly, be coached by Dante Scarnecchia, a longtime New England assistant expected to re-emerge out of retirement.
Regarding the criteria that the Pats apply in determining what lineman to draft, consider the thoughts of Scarnecchia's former Foxborough colleague Bill O'Brien, now the Texans head coach. Chances are O'Brien's view of the position reflects that of Scarnecchia and Belichick.
"The thing about the offensive line that is important for us is that we need guys that are tough, smart, good communicators, athletic guys, guys that can pull, guys that can run block and pass protect, they aren't just one-dimensional players," O'Brien said. "Versatile players, guys that can play guard and tackle, guard and center, tackle and tight end."
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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