FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The two newest additions to New England’s defense have a head start on adjusting to life in the NFL.
Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes starred under coach Urban Meyer at Florida. And Meyer is one of Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s closest friends at the college level.
“At least once a year, coach Belichick would come down and talk to the team,” Cunningham said.
The Patriots selected Cunningham, a defensive lineman who could play outside linebacker, with the 21st pick of the second round Friday night. Nine picks later, Belichick went for inside linebacker Spikes.
“I’ve seen him a few times around the facilities. I know him and coach Meyer had a great relationship,” Spikes said. “So I know he knows pretty much everything about me. I know what he’s about.”
Spikes recorded a mediocre 5.05 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Florida Pro Day, factoring into his placement in the draft and adding to his motivation.
“It’s definitely going to put a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “With coach Belichick, he looks at the film a lot more.”
Belichick hopes the former Gators can bolster a defense in transition from aging veterans to youthful athletes. Before last season, New England traded defensive end Richard Seymour and outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, and safety Rodney Harrison and inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi retired.
The result was a defense that had trouble rushing the passer and covering receivers.
But with 2008 defensive rookie of the year Jerod Mayo entering his third season at linebacker and emerging star Brandon Meriweather heading into his fourth year at safety, the Patriots are starting to develop a new defensive foundation. Spikes returned four interceptions for touchdowns and Cunningham had 19½ sacks in college.
“Brandon Spikes was pretty much the middle of our defense,” Cunningham said of his former college roommate. “Like Tim Tebow was the center of the offense, he was the center of our defense. When he goes out there and he’s clicking, the whole defense is clicking.”
The Patriots also drafted Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty with the 27th pick in Thursday night’s first round.
“Coach Meyer invited me to (his) clinic last year in the spring, similar to what I did at Rutgers this year,” Belichick said. “I saw all these (Florida) players at spring practice a year ago so kind of got a little jump on them.”
Belichick also got draft advice from an unlikely source — Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers. His daughter Callie, a volleyball player at Florida, is dating Spikes.
“He came with a good recommendation from Doc, which I appreciated,” Belichick said.
New England addressed another need Friday by selecting tight end Rob Gronkowski of Arizona with the 10th pick in the second round. Alge Crumpler, signed as a free agent, is its only tight end who has played in an NFL game after Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker left as free agents.
“I knew one of their needs was tight end and I just believe it’s a great fit, a great team,” Gronkowski said.
The 6-foot-5½, 265-pound Gronkowski missed last season with a back injury that required surgery. He also sat out three games in 2008 with mononucleosis.
“Our doctors feel comfortable about his rehabilitation,” Belichick said. “We have a deal. I don’t do diagnosis with the players and they don’t call plays.”
Gronkowski, who caught 75 passes for 1,197 yards and 16 touchdowns in less than two full seasons, was reluctant to talk about the injury.
“My back is 100 percent,” he said. “I’m ready to play. All of that is in the past and I don’t even want to talk about that anymore.”
Cunningham also was reticent — about an arrest in December 2007.
Cunningham and former Florida linebacker Jon Demps were arrested after a restaurant employee said they harassed him when told they needed to pay for a bag of chips. The players became verbally abusive toward the man and hit him with a sandwich and empty soda cups, according to a police report.
The misdemeanor battery charge against Cunningham was dropped two weeks later.
“That was in the past,” he said. “I’m just so excited right now that I have the opportunity to play with the Patriots. I’m just so focused on that.”
With their last pick on Friday, the 27th of the third round, the Patriots took wide receiver Taylor Price of Ohio. In 52 games over four seasons, he caught 149 passes for 2,019 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Belichick made four trades Friday and ended up with an extra second-round pick in 2011 when he sent the 26th pick of the third round to Carolina.