Reach For This Guy

Wilson Pick Triggers Uproar; Fans Question Belichick’s Aim

by Dan Snapp

Matt Light will retire on Monday. He had a tremendous career, sliding in as the starting left tackle almost immediately, and offering solid play on the field and solid character off it for more than a decade. But Light’s career should also serve as reminder for us all to stop thinking we know better than Bill Belichick what he should do with his football team.

The day after the 2001 NFL Draft, in an excerpt he wishes he never wrote, Ron Borges opined:

On a day when they could have had impact players David Terrell or Koren Robinson or the second-best tackle in the draft in Kenyatta Walker, they took Georgia defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who had 1 sack last season in the pass-happy SEC and is too tall to play tackle at 6-6 and too slow to play defensive end. This genius move was followed by trading out of a spot where they could have gotten the last decent receiver in Robert Ferguson and settled for tackle Matt Light, who will not help any time soon. 

Of course, Terrell, Robinson and Walker were huge NFL disappointments, with only Robinson exhibiting any longevity. Ferguson in eight years in the league put up stats that Wes Welker could produce in about 21 games. An immediate impact player, Seymour quickly went from Borges target to Borges confidant, and Ron’s go-to guy when looking for dissent in the New England locker room. Light, of course, did help soon, quickly starting 12 of 14 games his rookie year and – when healthy – never relinquishing his left tackle position through the remainder of his career.

In a way, you can’t really blame Borges. He was just going by the same draft guides we all were following. I remember thumbing through the pages of a Sporting News draft guide at the time, trying to locate this inscrutable Matt Light person. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen on the tackle pages. I finally found reference to him as an honorable mention at guard, basically the 20th or so name listed at that position. And here the Patriots had actually traded up a couple spots to get him. To my oh-so-ignorant viewpoint, it was an outrage.

Eleven years, three Super Bowl titles, five Super Bowl appearances, six AFC Championship Game appearances, and nine division titles later, we’re still questioning Bill Belichick. And again, it’s all about what Belichick should have done with the 48th pick of the draft.

Illinois safety Tavon Wilson, like Light 11 years before him, was picked there, and depending on which draft resource you were following, it was anywhere from three to five rounds too high. Some even thought he would go undrafted altogether.

It wasn’t because of anything from Wilson’s measurables; he has NFL safety size, speed and strength. He wasn’t a character concern, nor did he possess any injury flags. But he didn’t get invited to the NFL combine, and the punditry who produces the bulk of NFL draft guides didn’t deem his Illini production strong enough to merit mention as one of the top safeties in the draft.

That’s all well and good. They make these draft guides for a reason, and if a guy is picked well in advance of where they think he should be picked, they’re supposed to say so. Their expertise, their well-hewn standards and criteria, and their months of preparation for this day all said Wilson was a reach.

But was he drafted too high? That’s something they, you or I will never know. That’s an element known only to the next team prepared to make Wilson their pick, whether it was somebody waiting at 50 or somebody waiting at 190.

Pre-draft, Wilson visited with the Chargers (49), the Falcons (55), the Texans (58)*, the Ravens (60), the Colts (64), Bucs (68)* and Cardinals (80). Now a visit gives no indication how much a team wanted him, nor how high they’d slotted him. It’s speculation, just like anything else, but it does show interest.

* The Texans and Bucs did swap those respective picks on the night of that Friday night.

While Jimmy Johnson counseled Belichick on the draft philosophy of trading back to acquire value, he also advised that when he was certain he wanted a player and was in position to get him, he’d stop worrying about where everybody else thought the player would be picked. The most important thing was to get the player he wanted. Essentially, try to gain value in the draft, but make sure you still get your guys.

With that in mind, and with the Patriots at the time of pick 48 possessing only one other pick, perhaps Belichick viewed Wilson as a third-round talent, but somebody he knew he wanted. “Why not grab him at 62 then?” some have asked. Well, if Wilson was the guy Belichick truly wanted, and since he had visits with four teams picking between 48 and 62, why risk it?

Belichick has many more factors to weigh than do the punditry: what player does he want; is that player a fit; where will the player realistically be picked; is he rising or falling; how many picks has he remaining in the draft; and can he find trade partners to get to the spots he’s trying to reach. All the punditry has to consider is the player spot.

Plus, their livelihoods are not so dramatically tied to the success of the picks as are the coaches and scouts for each franchise. As much as I believe the pundits put in thankless hours of preparation, I believe teams put in more.

That doesn’t prevent them from making mistakes. Obviously, the Patriots have had some draft failures in recent years. Darius Butler**, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, etc., were poor picks in hindsight. Wilson, for all we know, could be a disappointment like those picks. But the point is, at this juncture we simply don’t know. Nobody does.

**Butler, it should be noted, was collectively viewed as a “steal” when he was picked, with much of the punditry slotting him as a first-round talent.

Incidentally, with the aforementioned pick 190, Tennessee drafted Oklahoma State safety Markelle Martin. Martin was an All-American and a Jim Thorpe semifinalist, and at one time occupied the collectively-determined “third best safety in the draft” mantel. By the time of the draft, his stock was slipping, but Todd McShay’s final mock still had him as a late second-round grade.

Had Belichick just drafted Martin at 48, none of this second-guessing would ever have occurred. Instead, Tennessee got a “steal” at 190. So say the pundits.

  • latetodinner

    One other thought to add to this excellent analysis.  Belichick has several times over the years said that the Patriots go into each draft with ratings on only about 100 players.  They preselect only players they think will fit their team.  they do not waste time scouting players they will not take regardless of “draft expert value” ratings.  So in the case of Wilson not only do I think that the Patriots had him rated where they did but I doubt they had other players rated as high and worth of the 2nd round pick.  The pundits can second guess all they want but in the end Belichick has a clear vision of what he wants.  He does not compromise, sometimes he is right and sometimes he misses…but in the end he clearly sees his roster which I think is more than most GM/coach combos can see while they are drafting.  As such I think the team he assembles is usually better than the sum of its parts.

    • bsmfan

      I’d love a book by Hoodie after all is said and done on the draft stuff like this.

      Honestly, I think that half the teams who pick high now are either reading at or going verbatim for whatever Kiper or McShay, et. al., put out there.. and wonder.. what if they did pick for team needs?
       

      • Nuf Ced

         Just look at the Bengals draft… Mike Brown is the poster child for the GM relying on over the counter retail draft guide

    • Marima07

       The Patriots do not subscribe to the national scouting service and use Belichick’s unique system for drafting players.  So when Belichick says he doesn’t really care how another service or team ranks a particular player, he means it.  He trusts his own scouts to rank prospects based on how well they would fit into the Pats’ system.

      • bsmfan

         That’s why I think it works for him and the team.

  • Alex

    Outstanding article, Chris. Easily the best thing I have read regarding the Wilson pick. Well done.

    • Chris Warner

      Thanks, Alex. Would love to take credit, but it all goes to Dan Snapp who submitted this piece.

      • Alex

        Man, I could’ve sworn that said Chris Warner on the byline.         

        Great job, Dan!

  • bsmfan

    Have any of you guys who keep better tabs on Pats draft history compare the Hoodie-era to what the, say, Steelers/Ravens/Green Bay has done over the years?

    I wonder because there was  an article in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer (I think) from their known-NFL beat writer Mary Kay Cabbot? And she basically put the Pats/Steelers/GB up there. I don’t have the link or recall it that much but I’d love to see some side-by-sides.

  • Winning_Again

    Awesome article Dan. It’s not often you find these old articles to put what writers say into perspective. Obviously if somene like Rappaport or Reiss wrote something like Borges did back then, I would feel differently. This take was just another in Borges’ line of bullets thrown BB’s way.

    Side note: Don’t know if anyone heatrd D&C this morning, but I tuned in for 10 minutes on my way to work. Heard the Rev. Gerry Callahan laying into the family of Junior Seau for potentially reconsidering there stance on donating his brain. Leave it to Gerry to blast Samoan culture and basically insult any of their potential reasons for even thinking of reconsidering. While it would probably be beneficial to science, I would not insult someones beliefes in a public forum like this. Another fine moment for the model human being GC.

    • bsmfan

       Yeah, I heard that and was taken back. I have no clue of his religion or the culture itself, but usually what happens after a life passing/death is one of the most deeply held and respected things inside a culture, no?

      The sad thing is that if they ultimately decide against it, the conspiracies will be going wild with someone slipping them money from Park Avenue.

      • Winning_Again

        IMO, I think it would be beneficial to other as far as research goes, but to crucify someone’s family/religion is flat out wrong. Gerry thinks everyone should follow his moral compass; if we did, the world would be in much worse shape.

    • Marima07

       With Junior Seau leaving no instructions to counter what he knew to be the traditions of his culture, his family has to make the choice that’s right for them – not what Gerry Callahan thinks is best for the NFL.  There’s no disputing the very real grief of Seau’s mother and family, and to tell them they’re doing the wrong thing is just… wrong.

  • StephenStarring

    great article

  • Marima07

    Terrific piece, especially in the wake of the pundits scratching their heads once again over the Tavon Wilson pick, and the successful careers of Richard Seymour and Matt Light.  What’s the difference between a reach and a steal?  Time.