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Nick Caserio goes deep on WR position, Patriots’ approach to NFL draft

04.29.14 at 2:58 pm ET
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Nick Caserio talked about the 2014 NFL Draft Tuesday in Foxboro. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

Nick Caserio talked about the 2014 NFL draft Tuesday in Foxboro. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — The Patriots drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce last April. They signed undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins out of the University of Cincinnati. Mark Harrison didn’t even see the field and could be a wide receiver or tight end in 2014. They signed Danny Amendola to replace Wes Welker. They brought back Julian Edelman this offseason.

But if you think that would keep them from drafting another high-profile, highly accomplished receiver this May, think again. Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ director of player personnel, said Tuesday during his annual pre-draft press conference that there is a lot that goes into selecting a receiver they project as NFL ready.

“To the receiver position in general, there are so many more multiples that are involved which a lot of these players don’t see. One of the things that has come into play is the use the high frequency-high tempo offense,” said Caserio, who will be in the Patriots’ war room May 8-10.

Caserio, taking after his boss Bill Belichick, gave a fascinating play-by-play Tuesday into exactly how the Patriots evaluate the position and how they project a receiver transitioning from college to the pros.

“So, you run a play, you sprint to the line and get a play off within 5-10 seconds. So, the player stays in one spot. Chances are, the player is repeating the same play,” Caserio said. “The complexity of coverages defensively is minimal because you can’t have a lot of calls defensively to combat the pace and speed of what a team is doing offensively. There are definitely more multiples coverage-wise that they’re going to see on a week-to-week basis, with a lot of time being the proximity of the defender between himself and the receiver.

“I would say the number of teams that actually play at the line of scrimmage defensively on a consistent play-by-play basis is very small so the majority of the time, the defender is five, six, seven yards off so he has free access into the defense so there’s less he has to deal with at the line of scrimmage. Now, you fast-forward when I would say the majority of time [in the NFL] you’re going to have a defender in your face at the line of scrimmage on the perimeter or on the slot as well. Inside, there’s some different components that go into play. There’s just more multiples, there’s more variety of coverages, there’s more disguise so the ability to think quickly and react to see. Some can do that better than others, from the sheer fact they haven’t been asked to do it.

“And the tight end position is different, but some of these tight ends are detached from the line of scrimmage 95-100 percent of the snaps. Well, the likelihood of that player actually doing that on a 70-snap game basis is minimal. He’s going to be on the line of scrimmage. I think there’s just more of a multitude, more multiples that those players are forced to deal with at those positions.”

Leading the wide receiver group as a consensus top-10 pick is Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins. Throw in Mike Evans (Texas A&M), Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State) and Marquise Lee (Southern Cal) and you have a group of immediate impact players.

This much is clear: Caserio and the Patriots feel there is a lot of depth in the wide receiver, running back and defensive line positions, with lots of diversity inside each group.

“It’s a good draft,” Caserio generalized. “Obviously, there’s a proliferation of underclassmen. I want to say the number is close to 100. So, they factor in like they do every year. Certainly it’s added a degree of depth to the draft. We’re excited about the opportunity next week and we’ll see how it all unfolds. I don’t think there’s a really set formula going into it [or] how we’re going to approach it. We’ve hopefully have put the work in and prepared and have the evaluations correct and ultimately make the decision that we feel is best for our team. In an effort to improve our team, this won’t stop the team-building process. There’ll be other opportunities for us to do it, but with the roster at 65 right now, there’s probably 25 spots, give or take, that are available. A large bulk of those will probably come next week and in a few weeks moving forward as well.”

The wild card could be just how NFL GMs rank the underclassmen and their individual ability to adapt to the NFL at a young age. Some 98 underclassmen are eligible for the May selection process.

“I’d say the underclassmen are a huge part of it, the largest number we’ve had,” Caserio said. “There’s certain positions, like there are every year, [that are positions] of strength. The receiver position is a deep group, there’s a deep group of running backs. I’d say there’s a deep group of defensive linemen that are different types of players. I think there’s a lot of good football players that may not get drafted which is the case every year, just from a sheer numbers standpoint. You factor in all those different situations and you’re going to evaluate the players the same way. It doesn’t really affect the evaluation process. You maybe have to go back a little bit more on some of the underclassmen who have declared because there’s less of a body of work that’s available but ultimately, the process is the same.”

Here’s more of Caserio from Tuesday:

On the challenge of evaluating each and every player: “Really, there’s no exact science as it relates to this. You just try to find guys that fit your team. And in the end, just try to evaluate them for the role that they’re going to have for your team. Inevitably, some work out, some don’t work out. You just have to go back and figure out why it didn’t work. Was it the player? Did we overvalue a certain aspect of his athleticism, of his actual ability, skill level? So, there’s a number of different metrics that you look at. Really, it’s specific to the player and everybody, I would say, starts at a different point. The progression in each player is going to be different. It’s a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, you’re trying to find players that fit your team. Not all players fit your team. Not all players fit your team. Some fit better than others. Hopefully, you do the best you can to identify those players and then fit them into your system. I’d say it’s really system-specific to our team, realizing there’s a number of those players that are going to be playing in the NFL. We understand that and we respect that. In the end, we just have to figure out the players that fit a specific profile and have a defined role and try to project them in. And, in the end, it’s still a projection element. There’s a little bit of hit and miss there.”

On the Patriots’ position heading into the draft: “If you look at our team, where we are today, if we had to go out there and play a game, we feel we could field a competitive team. So, you try to go through and find the players that fit best your team, regardless of their position. If we had to go out there and play a game today, we have a number of players. Now, we’re only four or five days into the offseason program. You’re really not sure what to expect. You have some inclination. Different players are going to progress at different paces and different speed. You can say that this player is going to come in and do ‘X.’ Well ultimately, the player’s performance is going to determine what his role is. You may have an idea of this how we envision the player but if he can’t come in and actually do that then in the end the competition, we let that unfold itself. The player’s performance ultimately is going to dictate how big a role that is. Ultimately, that is going to be based on his performance relative to other players at his position.

“We can’t get everybody, but you try to earmark ‘X’ number of players and we try to get as much information as we can so that we’re prepared in the event that we have to make a decision at some point along the way. I think you’re looking more at their method of learning as opposed to what they actually are learning.”

On the personal significance of this year’s draft: “I know last year we got together it was under more difficult and everything that went on with the Marathon. I know it’s kind of belated.

“It was really neat and fascinating just to see the city and the way the region responded. It’s kind of uplifting. I know it’s a week ago. I thought it would be appropriate just, from my perspective, how neat it was to live in this region, to be in this city and to see the support, the number of people that ran, 30-some-odd-thousand people that ran the race and the million that watched. Really cool, really neat. Obviously, we’re in a better situation than we were a year ago.

“We’re obviously getting close. Just want to recognize John Robinson and his staff, just the amount of time and effort they’ve put in. It’s an exhaustive process that really goes back to this time a year ago in preparation for this draft. There’s a lot of people that are involved. John and his staff do an outstanding on a number of different levels. Certainly grateful for his efforts.”

Q: Is there a line you won’€™t cross with players who have character issues? And if so, has that line moved after some of things you’ve been through? “I think the players, really, you look at the entire body of work when you create the profile on a player. There are a multitude of metrics that go into that: the player’€™s performance, their football character, which is separate from their off the field character, if you will. There are a number of things that go into the profile of the player: their medical history, their performance, their play history. You’€™re really trying to take all that information and say in the end, here’€™s the profile of that player and then if we feel comfortable organizationally with that player then we make the decision. If we don’€™t feel comfortable, then we move on to the next player. Each player is going to have their own package and we understand that and we realize that. Ultimately we have to make the decision that we feel is best. We spend a lot of time on that and we try to make the best decision we can for us at the time.”

Q: How important is the interview process, and what are you trying to gauge when meeting with a player?: “A lot of things. The interview process in and of itself, you touch on a number of different things. It’€™s their personal situation, their background, the football component of it I’€™d say is significant. As an example, let’€™s say you have a player that you talk to at an all-star game. So you have one exposure there with someone from your personnel department. Then you’€™re at the combine and you have another dialogue with them, whether it’€™s a position coach or Bill [Belichick] or myself and then you go out in the spring and you work them out. Let’€™s say you try to teach them your system, install some of your system, go through their role, ‘€˜OK, here is this play, here is your assignment,’€™ and then you have that same player and you bring him to your facility and you’€™re looking at his recall. ‘€˜OK, how did he handle the information that we gave him? Is the same story that he gave one coach, is it different from [another]?’€™ You have really a system of checks and balances. It’€™s not one 15-minute combine interview where you say, ‘€˜OK, we’ve got it all straight.’€™ That’€™s really just an introduction. In some cases, you’€™ve had some exposure at different points along the way. It’€™s very extensive, it’€™s very exhausting and it touches on a number of different areas and really what we’€™re trying to do is try to figure out within the confines of this building, will he be able to handle the demands of our program on a day to day basis. Really that’€™s what you’€™re trying to get to. You try to dig in as best you can, as much as you can, on a variety of different topics and areas. The football component is a huge part of that process, just in terms of their learning capacity, in terms of the ability to actually play within your system. There’€™s definitely a lot that goes into it.”

Q: Have you had any more interaction with the top quarterbacks this year than in the past?: “I think this year is really no different. I think what we try to do is take each position and really try to know top to bottom as thoroughly as we can, as many players at that position. Historically we spend a lot of time this time of the year, whether it’€™s players that we bring to the stadium, that we work out on campus. The process, I would say, is really no different this year than it was in years past. It’€™s all with the idea of trying to gain as much information about that position group top to bottom so that when you’€™re sitting up there looking at ‘€˜X’€™ amount of players, you have a good baseline of information and it’€™s not, ‘€˜Well, we haven’€™t spent enough time.’€™ The answer isn’t, ‘€˜I don’€™t know, we haven’€™t spent enough time with him.’€™ Look, we can’€™t get everybody but you try to identify and earmark ‘€˜X’€™ number of players and then we try to get as much information as we can so that we’€™re prepared in the event that we have to make a decision at some point along the way.”

Q: One theory is that you could get information on a quarterback if you face him the next year. Is that overstated in your opinion or could there be value to that?: “When you talk to a player, I would just say generally speaking, when you talk to a player that’€™s played at whatever school, you try to go through and say, ‘€˜OK, what have you done offensively or defensively? Your role, your position, what’€™s your assignment?’€™ A lot of time, when you’€™re watching the film you really don’€™t know what they’€™re asked to do. You’€™re trying to actually have the player teach you what’€™s going on here to see if he can learn anything. Once a player gets into the NFL, whatever he’€™s done in college or whatever he’€™s learned or whatever system that he’€™s played in, it’€™s really irrelevant. Now they’€™re moving forward, they’€™re going to be with another team so it’€™s going to be specific to that team. If a player is playing, like let’€™s say he went to Illinois, just to pick a school. So you get some information about what they did at Illinois and then he’€™s in the league playing for Buffalo. Does it really matter what he did defensively at Illinois? I don’€™t know. In the end, you want to, when you meet with a player, you’€™re trying to look at his mental acumen and his capacity to learn. How does he process information? How does he recall? Does he need repetitions? Is he more of a visual learner? I think you’€™re looking more at their method of learning as opposed to what they actually are learning, if that makes any sense.”

Read More: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots, NFL Draft, NFL draft underclassmen
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