New England Patriot fans have been looking for the team to overhaul the defense, specifically by adding a pass-rusher, ever since the team finished 31st in defense a season ago. Bill Belichick wasted no time in addressing these needs and came out uncharacteristically aggressive Thursday night in the first-round of this weekend’s NFL Draft. For the first time ever, Belichick and the Patriots traded up twice in the first-round.
The first surprise of the night came as the Patriots acquired pick number 21 from the Cincinnati Bengals for the Patriots 27th and 93rd selections. At 21, the Patriots came away with Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones. In Jones, the Patriots finally acquire a top-talent at a position where they have been in dire need of one in recent seasons. No longer will they need to fill the line up with stop-gap players like Derrick Burgess. No longer will it be an annual tradition for mock drafts to have New England selecting a DE/OLB only for them to trade out of the first-round. The wait is over. Jones’s acquisition makes the re-signing of Andre Carter more of a priority not only because they would be ideal book-end rushers together, but also because Carter is a consummate professional that would make an ideal mentor for a young player entering the league like Jones.
Belichick stunned New England fans everywhere once again just minutes later as he traded up into the 25 slot from the Denver Broncos in exchange for picks 31 and 126. With the 25th pick the Patriots selected Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. This pick was to the surprise of no one, as Belichick continued to show comfort in drafting players from teams and coaches he is familiar with. With Hightower, Belichick has a player from Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide pipeline that will step in and make an immediate impact, regardless of whether the team runs a 3-4 or 4-3 defense primarily in 2012. The moves made tonight paired with the current personnel already on the roster appear to point at a 4-3 defense being utilized again this season. If that is indeed the case, Hightower would seem to fit right in, likely taking Rob Ninkovich’s starting role at outside linebacker.
Regardless of what scheme they decide to take the field with, the important take-away from tonight is that the Patriots have added two top-defensive talents that should be major contributors to the defense in 2012. On paper, this Jones/Hightower combo instantly make the defense more athletic and more disruptive to opposing offenses.
Heading into Friday and Saturday the Patriots only hold two more picks, both in the second-round, at picks 48 and 62. They still need to address the defensive backfield at some point, but at what position specifically really depends on their assessment of Devin McCourty. If McCourty remains at cornerback, which is the likely scenario, a safety should be a top-priority with one of their two second-round picks. Look for them to use a pick Friday night on a defensive back and turn the other pick into some later round picks. Bill Belichick hates going long periods of time with no picks and “watching the parade go by.”