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Why don’t Patriots draft players like Jason Pierre-Paul? Different draft strategies led Patriots, Giants to Super Bowl

01.27.12 at 1:15 am ET
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Jason Pierre-Paul is just the type of player the Giants would go after in the draft, and just the type of player the Patriots would avoid. (AP)

Jason Pierre-Paul has become one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL, a key component of a Giants team that is relentless in its effort to beat quarterbacks senseless. Yet the difference-making defensive end represents precisely the type of player whom the Patriots wouldn’t touch in the draft.

Why?

The answer helps to illustrate how the Giants and Patriots have rebuilt their rosters to make their respective runs to Super Bowl XLVI. There’s a reason why the NFL draft gets so much attention each year. Champions are built in the draft, and next Sunday will feature a matchup of two previously championship-caliber teams that have used the draft in drastically different ways to get back to the Super Bowl.

The cogs — Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker, Eli Manning and Osi Umenyiora, among others — are still there, but the Patriots and Giants have reloaded in the draft over the last four years. Both teams have done well, though they’ve done so with different philosophies and different results.

The Patriots have drafted 41 players since 2008 (the first draft after Super Bowl XLII), and 24 are still with the team. The Giants have drafted 31 players since 2008 and have kept 23 of them. The highest Giants pick not currently with the team from the last four drafts? That would be 2008 fourth-round pick Bryan Kehl. The Pats, meanwhile, have parted ways with seven players taken in the first three rounds of the last four drafts.

Since the 2008 draft, the Patriots have moved down or out of the first round a total of six times. The Giants haven’t moved — up or down — at all in the first round. The Pats have sought value in compiling more picks, while the Giants, who have been slotted inside the top 20 twice, have taken advantage of whatever situation they’ve been in and aimed for a home run.

In 2010, they took a risk, going after a raw pass-rusher — just the type of player Bill Belichick has historically avoided — and selected South Florida’s Pierre-Paul 15th overall.

Though he was perhaps overshadowed by polarizing players like Tim Tebow and Dez Bryant, there were few prospects in that draft more intriguing than Pierre-Paul. Once an inexperienced scrawny kid who didn’t even start playing football until his senior year of high school, the Florida native played his freshman year of college at College of the Canyons before transferring to Fort Scott Community College.

It was there that Pierre-Paul started getting some attention. He transferred to South Florida, had a big game against Syracuse (a sack and an interception returned for a touchdown), but despite his lack of experience, he declared for the draft at season’s end.

By the time he arrived in Indianapolis for the Combine, it was hard to tell what he was, but there he stood, a 6-foot-5 player who was now fit, having gained over 100 pounds in less than three years. He ran a 4.64 in the 40-yard dash, and had potential to be a dominant pass-rusher in the NFL, whether as a down lineman in a 4-3 or as an outside linebacker in a 3-4.

When draft day came, the Giants scooped him up with the 15th overall pick — seven spots before the Patriots were slated to pick (they would trade the pick, which became Demaryius Thomas, to the Broncos). In a draft in which pass-rusher was certainly at or near the top of the list of Patriots’ needs, it would have taken two changes in philosophy for the Pats to get someone like Pierre-Paul.

First of all, they obviously would have needed to trade up in the first round, something Belichick hasn’t done since 2003 (they moved up one spot from No. 14 to 13 to grab Ty Warren). Second, Belichick would have had to break his invisible rule of not taking pass-rushers high (though the Pats took Jermaine Cunningham in the second round, his selection was the highest the Patriots have selected a pass-rusher in years — though the team drafted the likes of Warren and Marquise Hill in 2003 and 2004, respectively, both players were more of bookend five-techniques than players who would routinely rush the passer).

The Patriots found success in the 2010 draft, grabbing the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Spikes. Belichick stuck to his habits – tight ends and Florida players – while the Giants stuck to adding pass-rushers high.

To this day, the Patriots seem to enter the draft every year with a big need at pass-rusher, and it’s a need that the team generally doesn’t address. The Giants place a premium on top-tier pass-rushers (they drafted three in the first 45 picks — Mathias Kiwanuka, Clint Sintim and Pierre-Paul — in a five-year span), while the Patriots seem to ignore it at the top of the draft each year. The Patriots’ leaders in sacks this season — Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, with 10 apiece — were both veterans brought in via free agency following the lockout. The Giants’ two sack leaders — Pierre Paul (16.5) and Umenyiora (nine) — were drafted by the Giants in the first and second round, respectively, of their drafts.

The Giants hold a clear pass-rush advantage over the Patriots. In addition to having one of the best in the business in Pierre-Paul, the Giants as a team totaled 48 sacks in the regular season, good for third-best in the NFL. The Pats were 14th in the league with 40 sacks.

Super Bowl XLVI will have plenty of star-power from players who weren’t there when the Giants took down the Pats four years ago. Guys like Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Hakeem Nicks and Pierre-Paul will take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium as proof that their respective teams have hit big in the draft when they’ve needed to, and players such as Victor Cruz and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are prime examples of their teams’ fortune when it comes to undrafted free agents.

In the draft, it’s clear the Pats and Giants do their own thing. The fact that they’ll be seeing each other next Sunday makes it pretty clear that both strategies — however different they may be — have worked.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Andre Carter, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty
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