The Portland Press Herald

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The 2011 NFL season may still be in limbo, as billionaire owners and millionaire players struggle to find common ground for a new collective bargaining agreement, but the league and teams are still forging ahead.

That was apparent earlier in the week, when the NFL released its preseason schedule.

And Thursday afternoon, Nick Caserio, the director of player personnel for the New England Patriots, made it abundantly clear that it’s business as usual at One Patriot Place.

In speaking to the media, Caserio said the Patriots are moving forward for this month’s NFL Draft, even if the team cannot sign the players it picks, bring them into Gillette Stadium or even give them a playbook.

“Our approach is no different from years past,” he said. “We’re looking for players who can improve our team the most. That’s what we’re focused on.

“We evaluate the player for his skill set, based on the information that we gather and we can move forward from there. So our approach really hasn’t changed.”

On March 11, NFL owners locked the players out of their facilities when negotiations for a new agreement broke down. The players union then decertified. And now the two sides are heading toward mediation, as ordered by a federal judge.

No one can predict when, or if, the stalemate will be settled. But the NFL will hold its annual draft on April 28, 29 and 30.

The Patriots are in great position, with nine picks overall, three among the top 33 players, six among the top 92.

On Thursday, Caserio spent about 35 minutes trying to explain how the Patriots evaluate college prospects. He spoke about the combines, the Pro Days, all-star games and 30 allotted visits each NFL team is allowed — that is, to bring a prospect to its stadium for a workout.

Those visits end next Wednesday, but, Caserio said, that doesn’t preclude teams from continuing to work players out. Teams can still go to a player’s school or hometown to work him out — something the Patriots have done in the past right up until the day before the draft.

That allows a final evaluation, something which is often needed when a team has questions about a player.

For instance, in days leading to the 2009 draft, the Patriots made some extra trips to evaluate Sebastien Vollmer, a tackle out of Houston, and Julian Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State. Neither was invited to the NFL combine, but both offered unique skill sets — Vollmer his size (6-foot-8, 315 pounds) and Edelman his ability to make plays despite his size (5-10, 198 pounds). They also projected Edelman to another position, settling on wide receiver.

In both instances, the individual trips paid off as Vollmer, taken in the second round, and Edelman, in the seventh, are valuable contributors.

“The whole thing about this process, the end goal is, two things,” said Caserio. “No. 1 is to get it right. No. 2 is the sooner the better.”

In other words, get your homework done early and make sure it’s done completely.

The draft process actually starts a year out, when teams put together a spring list of prospects and start rating them. As the fall season starts, the teams pay particularly close attention to senior starters, and any other prospects — or, in Caserio’s words, “thousands of players.”

Around Dec. 1, the team puts together lists, grading the players by position. And that list is constantly evolving.

What was interesting on Thursday was that Caserio’s press conference also included a look at the Patriots possible draft list.

Prospects were ranked by position on a white board to the right of Caserio as he talked. Whether or not those were the true rankings — and they were probably close — it was interesting to note that the positions with the longest lists were outside linebacker, defensive end and any offensive line position.

Those are the areas the Patriots need help at, as well as running back, and with the number of draft picks the Patriots have, it wouldn’t be surprising if Bill Belichick and Co., trade some of those picks for a higher selection to get the man they want.

Asked what sort of things the team takes into account when grading a player, Caserio made it simple: “We grade the player for what he is, what he can do on a football field.”

Each player card involves gridiron hieroglyphics that will alert team’s to a player’s weaknesses: Lack of height, weight, speed (for his particular position), if he played at a lower level of competition, or if he has questionable character.

Caserio stressed that all NFL teams have their own rating systems, but that they are all looking at the same pool of players.

The bottom line in this draft, and every other, is simply “to find the players who can help our football team.”