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FARINELLA: Bad draft can have long-lasting effects - The Sun Chronicle : Patriots

FARINELLA: Bad draft can have long-lasting effects

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Posted: Sunday, May 4, 2014 12:00 am

As the 79th annual NFL Draft nears, I can't really tell you what the Patriots will do.

They keep their intentions very close to the vest. They might do a few things for public consumption to throw the bloodhounds off their trail, such as interviewing every quarterback and tight end in the country, but only some of that actually means anything.

When they're on the clock, they make their decision according to a series of factors - availability, need, expense and competition for the pick - and it all comes together in those 10 minutes Bill Belichick has on the clock.

It's not happenstance, mind you. The scenarios are well-rehearsed. But the last thing the Patriots would do is enter the draft with a preconceived notion and stick with it.

And that made me chuckle a little as I recalled past drafts.

One of those in particular was the 1992 draft, when the Patriots under then-GM Sam Jankovich offered a "prequel" of the Belichick years - particularly Belichick's penchant for trading his picks - but without the level of success that Belichick has enjoyed at his swap meets.

The Patriots of head coach Dick MacPherson ("No hugging!") entered the 1992 draft with the No. 8 pick in the first round, and there was some thought that they might be interested in David Klingler, the strong-armed quarterback from the University of Houston, to replace the gregarious but underachieving Hugh Millen.

But when the Cincinnati Bengals made Klingler the No. 6 pick in the first round, at least five picks earlier than anticipated by most draft observers, Jankovich's plans went out the window. He hurriedly decided that the next best plan would be to seek out a big offensive lineman, of which there were supposedly plenty in this draft. But working for a threadbare ownership as he did, he didn't want to spend Top Ten dollars for one.

Jankovich, who had been the athletic director at the University of Miami, fell in love with the notion of trading draft picks willy-nilly the previous year. He had the No. 1 pick in the land in 1991 and tossed it away to Dallas (and his former head coach in Miami, Jimmy Johnson) for the Cowboys' first-rounder (No. 11) and a second-round pick. They also had the 17th pick overall and traded a fourth-rounder as well to get No. 14 from the Cowboys.

The Patriots got tackle Pat Harlow and running back Leonard Russell with those two selections, which led Jankovich to sit before the New England media the next day and crow, "This drafting business isn't so hard."

So the following year, after Klingler went to the Bengals and Jankovich went to Plan B, he traded the eighth pick to Atlanta for No. 19 and change, thinking he could get a quality offensive lineman for a lower salary near the bottom third of the first round. To his horror, a sudden run on offensive lineman started with the Falcons' selection of tackle Bob Whitfield of Stanford with the very pick the Patriots had surrendered - basically the thrusting of a Bowie knife deep into Jankovich's back.

Over the next few picks, the top linemen disappeared from the board. "It was getting a little nervous," admitted then-personnel director Joe Mendes.

Jankovich had no choice. He called Johnson again, looking for a bailout before all of the best linemen were gone. The Cowboys, meanwhile, had two first-round picks, so Johnson sent No. 13 to the Patriots in return for No. 19 and picks in the third and fourth rounds. With the 13th pick, Jankovich pounced upon Eugene Chung, a rotund guard from Virginia Tech.

At the time, it looked as if the Patriots had dodged a bullet. Chung, a short-armed tackle in college, was seen as a legitimate conversion project to guard. But with the disappearances of Whitfield, Virginia's Ray Roberts (to Seattle) and Miami's Leon Searcy (to Pittsburgh), Jankovich panicked and took what he thought was the best big body available.

Chung lasted three seasons and played in 34 games. His nickname could have been "Turnstile." And Jankovich was out of a job eight months after making the pick.

OK, so he wasn't the only one to make a mistake in that draft. The Bengals certainly spit the bit with Klingler, who never amounted to anything in the pros. And the Cleveland Browns - yes, the Cleveland Browns of Bill Belichick - took "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell, the fullback from Stanford, with the ninth overall selection. That's one that Belichick surely would have wanted to have back.

Jankovich didn't come away totally empty-handed. Among the 17 players selected by the Patriots in the NFL's last 12-round draft, they got a few serviceable ones - linebacker Todd Collins from Carson-Newman, fullback Kevin Turner from Alabama, linebacker Dwayne Sabb from New Hampshire and running back Sam Gash of Penn State, who would eventually become one of Bill Parcells' favorite players at fullback.

But the bad drafting came at a bad time for the Patriots. Victor Kiam's ownership was in shambles and the NFL was about to pick over his bones and try to find someone to keep the team on life-support for the next season or so before a gleaming new stadium in St. Louis was ready for occupancy.

Needless to say, the 1992 season played out as expected. MacPherson, one of the nicest guys ever to be miscast as an NFL head coach, fell prey to diverticulitis at midseason and missed several games (replaced by "team spokesman" Dante Scarnecchia) and the team finished 2-14. MacPherson was fired, the NFL put brewing magnate (and St. Louis expansion committee member) James Busch Orthwein in charge as an interim owner, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that your New England Patriots would become the St. Louis Stallions in short order.

Of course, it didn't turn out that way. Wiser heads prevailed - the hiring of Parcells as head coach, an ironclad stadium lease and the sale of the team to Robert Kraft started the wheels in motion for the wild success the Patriots enjoy today. And that success is sustained by a considerably smarter approach to the draft.

We may quibble from time to time about some of the picks or moves made by Belichick and his personnel staff. It's still not an exact science, and Belichick would be the first to admit it. But at least it hasn't been a comedy act, as it was in 1992 - one that almost cost New Englanders two decades of wonderful pro football memories.

MARK FARINELLA may be reached at 508-236-0315 or via email at mfarinel@thesunchronicle.com. Read Farinella's blog, "Blogging Fearlessly," at thesunchronicle.com/blogs/markfarinella.

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