COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots made seven selections in the 2013 NFL draft, yet the best choice may have come in Round 7.
At pick No. 226, head coach Bill Belichick and his "braintrust" drafted Michael Buchanan, a touted defensive end from Illinois whose stock dropped in part due to "character concerns."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? New England's brass taking a chance on a top-flight talent marred by their own track record?
Last year's draft saw a similar situation in the case of Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was taken by New England in Round 7 following an untimely arrest. That move has panned out well for both sides. Franchises don't often acquire a starting-caliber player that late in the game.
Nevertheless, no prospect is the same.
Buchanan was arrested and subsequently suspended from the Illinois football team for suspicion of driving under the influence in 2010. He was also involved in an altercation -- one which left him with a broken jaw -- in 2012.
And despite finishing off his Illini career with an underwhelming senior season where his sack total regressed to 4.5, Buchanan was still seen as a fourth- or fifth-rounder by the respected evaluators at CBSSports.com and Ourlads.com.
In statistical contrast, Brigham Young's Ezekiel Ansah totaled 4.5 sacks last season and ended up going fifth overall to the Detroit Lions. By no means does Buchanan have the upside of Ansah, but his baseline could be far greater.
He's no slouch athletically, either, especially as far as 6'5", 255-pounders are considered. Buchanan knows how to turn the corner, as evidenced by his 6.91 three-cone time -- third-best among defensive linemen at the NFL combine. He also provides good strength at the end spot, as suggested by his 22 reps of 225 pounds on the bench in Indianapolis.
Those measurements reinforce what is already apparent on film: Buchanan is a dangerous pass-rusher. He explodes off the line and uses his hands to finagle offensive tackles.
He looks too lean on some plays, getting shoved upright and out of position versus the run. Then at another glance, he looks mean on passing plays, often making violent tackles in the backfield.
Through all of the assessing, however, his best trait is arguably his versatility. That's music to Belichick's ears.
No. 99 can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or a defensive end in a 4-3, which makes him an ideal "Elephant" in New England's hybrid fronts. Buchanan began playing the "Bandit" role -- a linebacker/safety hybrid -- as a sophomore in 2010.
Which brings us to his experience: Buchanan has a lot of it.
He saw work in 10 games as a true freshman in 2009, registering just one pass deflection. But in 2010, Buchanan started eight of 11 contests, totaling 40 tackles, two sacks, a fumble recovery and two pass deflections.
Then in 2011, Buchanan started 12 of 13 games, racking up 64 tackles, 7.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and one pass deflection -- earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. He was, however, in tandem with future Houston Texans first-round pick Whitney Mercilus.
So once his final season in Champaign, Ill., arrived, expectations were high. Unfortunately, a new coaching system was in the fold, Mercilus was not, and his production suffered.
But while he didn't tally the sack numbers most anticipated, his 57 tackles, one forced fumble, five pass breakups and his first career interception weren't a bad consolation. He earned a second-team All-Big Ten nod once again, even garnering a Senior Bowl invite.
Just imagine how high he could have gone if not for the baggage or the down senior year. Those two deductions dropped Buchanan from a late Day 2 pick to a late Day 3 pick. Which, in turn, made him a must-have prospect.
That's probably not news to Belichick.
During his post-draft press conference, Belichick vetted the selection of Buchanan. Albeit brief, he didn't mince words (via Patriots.com):
"He's had a good, productive career at Illinois. He's played with a lot of good pass rushers up there. He's had production every year in a good conference, a steady player."
Production. Good conference. Steady. Those are three descriptions that resonate.
Is he this year's Chandler Jones? That'd probably be overly optimistic. But does he have the characteristics to develop into a very strong rotational end, or even potential starter for the Patriots?
The Patriots also nabbed Southern Mississippi outside linebacker Jamie Collins and Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson in Round 2, Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan as well as Rutgers safety Duron Harmon in Round 3, Texas Christian wide receiver Josh Boyce in Round 4 and Rutgers inside linebacker Steve Beauharnais later on in Round 7. Just don't be surprised if Michael Buchanan ends up the best "value pick" in this draft class.
New England's showed some pre-draft interest in Buchanan, as Christopher Price of WEEI.com first reported. It ended up not being just another example of due diligence. Instead, it came to fruition because Belichick and Co. found the risk to be worth the reward.
Buchanan wouldn't be in Foxboro if that wasn't the case.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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