A month ago, in the midst of preparing for the draft, Patriots coach Bill Belichick flew to the Florida Keys to visit with former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, who never met a draft-related trade he didn't like. The two went out on Johnson's boat, and for five hours the retired coach spun tales about how he squeezed out defensive end Jason Taylor in the third round, linebacker Zach Thomas in the fifth, defensive tackle Leon Lett in the seventh, cornerback and Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown in the 12th. "Bill had concerns about having too many picks who might or might not make your team," Johnson told SI last week. "I told him, 'Hey, never worry about that. Picks are currency. Multiple picks give you a comfort zone, and you're never afraid to make a mistake.' "
During last weekend's NFL draft, Belichick turned Johnson's advice into reality TV. Beginning a two-year plan to make the plodding Patriots younger and faster up and down the depth chart, Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli made five trades, picked three players they think will help the team right away and began to lay the foundation for a golden draft in 2004, when the talent pool is expected to be significantly better than this year's.
The Patriots now have a league-high eight selections in the first four rounds of 2004. (No other team has more than five.) Last Friday, New England traded a third-round pick this year for Miami's second-rounder next year. And on Saturday, New England wheeled and dealed with its league-high 12 selections, making four trades. One of those deals involved moving up one spot in the first round, changing positions with the Bears and sending them a sixth-round pick to choose Texas A&M defensive tackle Ty Warren with the 13th pick. Later in the first round, Belichick and Pioli turned down an offer to get Miami's first-round choice next year and swung a better deal from Baltimore: The Patriots moved down 22 slots—from the 19th pick to a spot early in the second (No. 41 overall)—in order to get the Ravens' first-round pick in 2004. Trading back up five spots to No. 36, New England selected a player, Illinois cornerback Eugene Wilson, whom it had in a group of six players graded at No. 19. The Saturday haul: Warren, who's expected to be a long-term starter at left end, and second-rounders Wilson and Bethel Johnson, a wide-out from Texas A&M who, after top three selections Charles Rogers and Andre Johnson, might be the receiver in the draft with the best combination of size and speed (201 pounds, 4.37 in the 40). On Sunday, New England used a fourth-round choice on Temple defensive tackle Dan Klecko, whose father, Joe, starred on the defensive line for the Jets in the 1980s.
"One of the things I learned from Jimmy," Belichick said in his Gillette Stadium office late on Saturday, "is to go into a draft with a list of 20, 25 players you really want, from the start of the draft to the end. Forget the ratings, forget what the experts say. We drafted three of those guys. We could have had two more, but if you can secure an extra first and second next year, that's just good long-term football business."