Wednesday, May 22, 2024

To fix roster woes, Patriots counting on new approach in first post-Bill Belichick NFL draft

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One thing to know about Eliot Wolf as he assumes the role as final decision-maker during the NFL draft for the New England Patriots: He’s nobody’s dictator.

Yes, it’s a different day in Foxborough.

“If I’m the only person that wants a player, and everybody else in the building doesn’t want that player, then I’m not crazy,” Wolf said during a pre-draft news conference on Thursday. “We’re going to try to do what’s right.”

Consensus. That’s a fundamental desire for Wolf, 42, as he prepares to run the first Patriots draft since 1999 without Bill Belichick in charge.

“Obviously, at the end of the day, somebody has to make the decision,” said Wolf, the team’s scouting director. “But there’s a group of people that we’re relying on to help make those decisions.”

That’s the spirit. Of course, rookie head coach Jerod Mayo has a significant voice. And the inner circle includes personnel executives Matt Groh and Alonzo Highsmith, plus coordinators Alex Van Pelt and DeMarcus Covington.

Then again, as good as it looks on paper, striking consensus in an NFL war room is not always automatic. Depending on how the board shakes out, Wolf might find getting full agreement as one of the stickiest challenges in his new role.

“The biggest issue you have as a first-year general manager is you are really looking to please everyone,” said Mark Dominik, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM and current NFL analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio. “You want everybody to be on the same page. And that can be a mistake and you can really mess it up, because you got the job because you’re an evaluator.”

What happens if an area scout pushes one prospect, while the coaches prefer another?

Said Dominik: “You want Eliot Wolf to trust his scouting instincts and the years he put in, to just go with what he thinks is best instead of trying to have community happiness.”

Wolf knows. The buck must stop somewhere.

And given how critical this draft is for a franchise seeking new life after Belichick – and holding the third pick overall after a 4-13 finish in 2023 – Wolf needs to win at this ASAP.

Of course, that means they can’t miss on picking the franchise quarterback from a top-heavy crop of passers. Barring something major, Caleb Williams won’t be an option with the Chicago Bears locked in to select the USC star with the top pick overall. And the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, LSU’s Jayden Daniels, might be gone, too, to the Washington Commanders. That could leave the Patriots picking between North Carolina’s Drake Maye and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy.

Wolf played it coy as he met with the media on Thursday, demonstrating that he has the pre-draft smokescreen messaging down pat. Asked if he could envision Daniels, Maye or McCarthy running the Patriots offense, he agreed and added, “I think you could open it up to some other names as well.”

Is he thinking Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. or Oregon’s Bo Nix? You could at least suspect that as he suggested he’d be willing to trade down from the third slot.

“We’re open to anything,” he said. “Moving up, moving down. We’re open for business in the first round and in every round. We have some holes we feel like we need to fill in the draft. We’re drafting to develop the team. The more picks we have the better.”

Until further notice, Wolf is the de facto GM. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has indicated that he will formalize the role later, which could involve an expansive search. Yet Wolf, entrusted to fill out Mayo’s first roster with the draft and free agency, can undoubtedly secure himself as the front-runner for the permanent GM post by acing the big test that looms.

It’s fair to wonder whether Belichick – just 15 victories from surpassing Don Shula as the NFL’s all-time winningest coach – would still be coaching the Patriots had he relinquished control over personnel decisions. Sure, that seems unfathomable when considering the power Belichick wielded and the six Super Bowl trophies he won. Yet the mediocre draft record in Belichick’s final years says otherwise.

Over the last 10 drafts, the Patriots selected just one position player (since-traded quarterback Mac Jones) who earned a Pro Bowl appearance with the team – fewest by any NFL team during that span. According to Pro Football Reference, two players drafted by the Patriots during that span won first-team All-Pro and/or Pro Bowl honors with the team as special teamers (punt returner Marcus Jones and punter Jake Bailey). And two other Patriots draftees since 2014, guard Joe Thuney (2016) and receiver-kick returner Braxton Berrios (2018), won such honors while playing for other teams.

But that’s it. As much as New England’s fortunes soured after Tom Brady’s departure, the collective draft performance was also a key ingredient to the decline – a striking contrast to the type of impact generated during the first half of Belichick’s reign.

Now Wolf, who joined the Patriots as a consultant in 2020, is pegged to spearhead a fresh approach. His pedigree doesn’t hurt. His father, Ron, is the Hall of Fame GM who built a Super Bowl-winner with the Green Bay Packers during the 1990s. Eliot was 10 years old when he attended his first scouting combine with his father. Through high school and college, he learned the ropes in the Packers’ scouting department. Hired by his father’s successor, Ted Thompson, he climbed the ladder during 14 years with the Packers.

It’s no wonder that Wolf talks about the Packer Way as a model. This includes the grading system that Wolf and Highsmith have installed, scrapping the Patriots’ previous role-based measures to a value-based system.

“It’s a little bit more similar to what we did in Green Bay,” Wolf said during the combine. “I think it makes it a lot easier for scouts to rate guys and put them in a stack of like, ‘This guy’s the best, this guy’s the worst, and everything in between falls into place,’ rather than sort of more nuanced approaches. I just think it makes it…it accounts value better, and it also makes it easier for the scouts in the fall as well as in the spring to determine where guys would get drafted.”

Then there’s the old-school advice from his father that could impact Wolf’s current mission. 

“I think in terms of scouting itself, it’s just kind of trust what you see and believe in it,” Wolf said. “But also lessons about people. I still believe and this is great to be able to work with Jerod, who also believes that this is a people business and it’s about developing people. And the culture is created from the people in the building.”

He could get a consensus, too, if the culture is built with winning.

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