Stash the cornerback concerns for a second.

Hold the wailing about wide receivers.

And forget the sluggish linebackers – at least for now.

More than players or positions, the success of the Patriots’ draft will hinge on evolution: whether or not the front office continues the work started last offseason, when lead executives Dave Ziegler, Eliot Wolf and Matt Groh began updating the team’s scouting systems and processes ahead of the draft.

Ziegler and Wolf were rare outside hires who blended their external experience with the present system to end a drought of five straight disappointing drafts. And they hit a grand slam, adding Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson, all impact rookies. Now Groh, a Patriot lifer, leads the personnel department.

What will he do?

Advertisement

Bet on his own intuition, as Bill Belichick and former director player of personnel Nick Caserio did in their final years together, reportedly at the expense of their scouts’ input? Or apply an evolved approach to an evolving game, which Groh admitted earlier this month the team must do, specifically at linebacker?

“It’s a different game than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago and that player has also changed. There’s not as many of those big linebackers. They just, they don’t exist,” Groh said. “Colleges want them smaller because they’ve got to be able to adapt to the college game … So it’s with all the positions, it’s what the college game provides us.

“We have to just take what they are going to give us from year to year.”

Early signs have been positive.

According to sources, the Patriots’ offseason approach has largely been collaborative, with low-level scouts gathering intel in free agency, when Belichick, Wolf and Groh divided the contract negotiations. After Groh was promoted, Wolf received a title change, becoming the Pats’ first director of scouting ever under Belichick, potentially an indication he’d received a pay bump after interviewing for two GM jobs in January.

Wolf is regarded as an independent thinker and sharp evaluator. He grew up in Green Bay where, among the dozens and dozens of variables that factor into player evaluation, film study and practice notes were weighted heaviest. After spending almost two decades with the Packers, he left for Cleveland, where he served for two years as an assistant general manager.

Advertisement

It’s no accident multiple players from his previous stops — former Packers wideout Ty Montgomery and one-time Browns Terrance Mitchell, Mack Wilson and Jabrill Peppers — now call New England home. His words have sway.

“(Wolf) was great in the building,” Caserio told the Herald in February. “He was very receptive to some of the things that we were doing that were different than he learned. But I always respected his evaluations and opinions of players because he understood the league and what would play in the league. Which I think, anytime you’re putting a team together, is important to understand.”

And then there’s Groh, whose own family describes him as having “Patriot DNA.” Hired in 2011 as a scouting assistant, he’s grinded his way from the basement at 1 Patriot Place to becoming “as good as anybody” who’s worked in the director of player personnel’s office, according to Belichick. Groh assembled the team’s draft board last offseason, replaced Ziegler in February and says the front office will maintain the synergistic practice Ziegler helped put into place.

“It’s definitely a collaborative process. It’s great working with coach (Belichick). Absolutely love it,” Groh said. “With all the input that he asks from us and just getting his ideas and the information that he has on these players through his different relationships across the country at different schools. It’s been fantastic.”

However, no person or process is perfect. And Titans GM Jon Robinson, formerly the Patriots’ director of college scouting who initially interviewed Groh, remembers a young scout with a tinge of arrogance; the same feeling that allegedly led Belichick and Caserio to defy their scouts for years.

“(Groh) was a little more bullish on his opinion,” Robinson told the Herald, “but at the end of the day, he was for whatever went best for the team.”

Advertisement

Come draft night, the clearest sign Groh and the Patriots have grown and modernized will be how they replenish their linebacker depth. Will they accumulate the same slow-footed, 250-pound run stuffers the Bills exposed twice last season? Or draft faster, pass-first players who can get them up to speed?

Because trading for the 233-pound Wilson or investing a fifth-round pick into 236-pound Cameron McGrone last year isn’t sufficient evidence to prove the front office has changed. Those were transactions that carried minimal opportunity cost, especially with Wilson in the final year of a rookie contract. Not to mention, the Pats re-signed all 255 pounds of Ja’Whaun Bentley to a solid two-year deal at the same time.

However, drafting Georgia’s undersized, instinctive and playmaking dynamo Nakobe Dean (5-11, 229) in the first round would indisputably indicate the team’s process has changed. The same as taking Utah’s Devin Lloyd (6-2, 237) or Alabama product Christian Harris (6-0, 226). Because a first-round pick — or even a high second-rounder — represents real commitment.

Furthermore, since the start of the modern roster-building era in 2012, the Patriots have invested less draft capital into inside linebacker than any position except tight end. Also at the bottom: interior offensive linemen. So, if Boston College guard Zion Johnson gets the call at No. 21 or Texas A&M’s Kenyon Green dons a Pat Patriot hat and bear hugs Roger Goodell, know his first steps taken in Foxborough will be into a new era.

The same holds true for a first or second-round receiver.

Because the Patriots are not blind to their weak spots. But for too long, pride made them blind to their blind spots, and now they’re playing catchup.

“We’re looking to get faster everywhere. It’s not just defense, it’s offense, it’s special teams,” Groh said. “It’s not just linebacker. I think there’s multiple ways to do that.”

The old way or the new, which will it be Thursday night?


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.