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Monday, April 23, 2018

Patriots change draft approach, finally address pass rush needs

In his 12 years as head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick has traded up in the first round of the draft only twice. On Thursday night, he matched that number. Belichick and the Patriots traded up from No. 27 to No. 21 to acquire Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones. They then traded up again — this time from No. 31 to No. 25 — to acquire Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Typically, draft day is met with a great deal of frustration across Patriot Nation. Whether the picks work out or not, Belichick tends to go for guys no one has heard of. Oftentimes it even seems that the names Todd McShay and Mel Kiper mention as potential Patriots are automatically eliminated on principle. That was not the case on Thursday night, and the response has been almost entirely positive.

In Jones, the Patriots get a tremendous athlete who should be able to provide speed off the edge. With the exception of guys who have come and gone like Andre Carter, New England has lacked a pure pass rusher over the past several seasons. Their secondary is oftentimes blamed for their defensive struggles, but the Patriots’ lack of pass rush has crippled the unit. Jones is a versatile athlete who should contribute right away.

Belichick loves drafting versatile players, and that’s exactly what he got with Alabama’s Hightower. The Patriots were afraid the Ravens were going to pick Hightower beofre they were up at No. 31, and having that type of talent still on the board was too much for Belichick and company to pass up. It also helps that Belichick has such a close relationship with Nick Saban. Hightower is said to be a rare talent who can stuff the run, rush off the edge, and even provide coverage down the field. He’s also a proven leader. In terms of the Patriots’ needs, he — like Jones — is a perfect fit on paper.

In recent years, the Patriots have made a living out of trading down and stockpiling picks. They scored with guys like Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, but the approach has done nothing to improve their struggling defense. Rather than continuing to collect later-round picks, Belichick decided to be agressive and draft players who can help right away. With Tom Brady turning 36 this offseason and a window closing quickly, that’s probably an intelligent change in philosophy.

Photo credits: Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE, Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIRE

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