Why Eliot Wolf was built to lead Patriots at the NFL draft

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Green Bay Packers front office gathered on NFL draft day in the 1990s, it was a star-studded cast of scouts on general manager Ron Wolf's staff joined by a youngster dreaming of one day working in the NFL.

That youngster?

None other than current New England Patriots director of scouting Eliot Wolf, Ron's son.

Eliot developed a passion for scouting at age 10, and when he would go to work with his dad on draft day as a teenager, he had a specific assignment. Whenever a player was selected, he was to remove the player's card from the Packers' board, hold it up for everyone to see, and then place it with the team that made the pick.

According to those in the room, Wolf always knew where the player's card was located, which reflected what round the Packers had him graded.

"He was in high school at the time, probably a freshman. That was when we manually had tags on the board," recalled former Packers director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie. "We trusted him, because to physically take the name off the board and put it with a team, that's special. He knew what he was doing."

The decisiveness with which he carried out the responsibility -- finding one player on a draft board composed of hundreds -- made an impression on the older full-time staff members around him.

"Ron was my boss, my mentor, and Eliot would be in the room and at first you're thinking 'He's the boss' kid.' But it didn't take long before you were like, 'Wow, he really knows his stuff,'" recalled Andrew Brandt, who joined the Packers in 1999 as vice president of finance.

Some of Wolf's closest friends say his memory is a steel trap. They also say you wouldn't believe his impeccable notes and scouting reports unless you saw them yourself.

Turns out McKenzie was the first to ever see a scouting report from Wolf.

"I remember his dad asking me, 'Can you get him some guys to write up and see what you think. He thinks he wants to be a scout.' So I gave him about five players to write up and he attacked that like Ray Lewis attacking an 'iso' play at the goal line," McKenzie cracked.

Wolf was in high school at the time, but McKenzie reviewed his work as if it was from anyone on the full-time staff. Wolf has never let him forget it.

"I had sifted through them and gave them back to him. We went over them a little bit and of course, his dad had asked me, 'How do you think he did?' I told him that I put some corrections on there and we talked it over, but he's going to be OK," McKenzie recalled.

"It may have been 10 years later, after he was hired and working on our staff in pro scouting, and Eliot said to me, 'Do you remember those very first reports you had me do? I still have them because there was so much red ink that you had on those. You put me in my place.' He is highly competitive and that was pretty cool. 'I kept those reports' was how he motivates himself."

Three decades have passed since those beginnings, but the essence of it helps explain why Patriots owner Robert Kraft appointed the mild-mannered Wolf as the leader of New England's personnel department after Bill Belichick left the team in January.

In two weeks, the 2024 NFL draft kicks off in Detroit -- one that Kraft has called the most anticipated draft in his 31-year tenure, mainly because of the No. 3 pick, the highest under his watch.

Wolf's debut at calling the shots this offseason comes at a pivotal moment for a franchise that has fallen on hard times -- coming off a 4-13 season with no clear quarterback for the future. Kraft is entrusting Wolf -- and his staff -- to pull the right card off the draft board once again.

"I think Eliot has good training, good pedigree," Kraft said. "We're starting new chapters in our development as we evolve here. I like the young people we have doing this and I've encouraged them to be collaborative."

WHEN ELIOT WOLF reflects on those early years in Green Bay, in what he describes as a "phenomenal front office," the lessons were plentiful.

The staff was loaded with those who would go on to lead their own teams -- former Packers GM Ted Thompson, former Browns and Chiefs GM John Dorsey, current Seahawks GM John Schneider, former Washington GM Scot McCloughan and McKenzie, who spent nearly seven years as Raiders GM.

There were others, too, such as the No. 3 overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft, Alonzo Highsmith, who joined the Packers in 1999 as a scout. Highsmith ascended in his post-playing career as a trusted personnel advisor and close friend to Wolf. Highsmith was hired in February to join Wolf in New England as a senior personnel executive.

Wolf learned from Thompson how humbleness and introspectiveness could form an ideal combination. And that's how some of Wolf's friends describe him today -- like an "old soul" with one unique twist: He loves reggae music.

Of course, Wolf watched every move his father -- a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in 2015 -- made with curiosity. He has fond memories of attending the NFL's annual combine in Indianapolis with him, where Ron would always sit at the start of the 40-yard dash alongside legendary coach Bill Parcells and late Raiders owner Al Davis.

It's hard to get a better education in football than that.

Wolf eventually enrolled at the University of Miami, where he studied English with a focus on creative writing. He volunteered for the Hurricanes' football team in recruiting and stayed involved with the Packers upon his return home during breaks.

"As he ascended to more of an actual full-time role -- first in summers when he was at college, then after college -- I noticed that he was such a respected member of the staff at such a young age," Brandt said.

Wolf's first official job with the Packers came as a pro personnel assistant (2004-2008). Mike Sherman was the Packers' head coach/general manager at the beginning of Wolf's tenure and he noted how Wolf grew up on the job -- literally.

"His dad ran the draft room previous to me doing it, and he was always right there by his side. He was quiet back then," said Sherman, who first met Wolf in 1997 while serving as a Packers assistant coach. "He's grown up a lot since then and he was someone you would seek his opinion on things, which I always did."

Wolf kept moving up -- to assistant director of pro personnel (2008-2011), assistant director of player personnel (2011-2012), director of pro personnel (2015-2016) and director of football operations (2016-2017) -- before the Packers hired his colleague Brian Gutekunst as general manager in 2018.

Wolf had also interviewed for the GM job, among other openings around the NFL, at a time he and his wife Regan were starting a family that now includes daughters Daisy, Liza and Sylvia.

Wolf departed the Packers' organization after 14 years in an official capacity. He'd work the next two years as the Browns' assistant GM under Dorsey before joining the Patriots as a consultant in 2020-2021 -- fulfilling a variety of personnel-based responsibilities for Belichick -- and then being awarded the director of scouting title starting in 2022.

"My time in Green Bay meant everything," Wolf said at this year's NFL combine, the lone time he's answered questions from reporters since assuming his elevated role. "It's where I learned my foundation of scouting, leadership, how to treat people, how to deal with people. Really, just everything in terms of the business of football.

"It's prepared me for this moment to help the New England Patriots get back to where we need to go."

GETTING THE PATRIOTS where they need to go starts with a decision on who to draft with No. 3 pick, with most expecting it to be a quarterback.

This will be Wolf's most significant decision since taking over leadership of the personnel department, and comes after an uneventful offseason in which the team has mostly re-signed its own free agents while taking an unsuccessful big swing for receiver Calvin Ridley (who signed with Tennessee).

On March 21, the day Wolf celebrated his 42nd birthday, he traveled with first-time head coach Jerod Mayo to the University of Michigan to watch quarterback J.J. McCarthy, among others, at the school's pro day. Wolf also attended pro days for USC quarterback Caleb Williams, LSU's Jayden Daniels and UNC's Drake Maye.

The Patriots had as many as nine staffers at pro days for Daniels and Maye, a reflection of how the organization has studied top quarterbacks extensively, which included bringing Maye and Daniels to the team facility over the past few days.

The Patriots' ideal scenario is by April 25 -- the draft's opening night -- they'll have conviction about one of the quarterbacks available to them. Mayo recently said they haven't reached that point yet.

If they don't reach that point, the team is open to other options, such as trading down.

Either way, Mayo said the presence of veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal in free agency, provides them an ideal scenario in which Brissett can start while also possibly helping mentor a rookie.

Regardless of who that No. 3 pick will become, Wolf has a philosophy to stick with on draft day and beyond.

"Trust what you see and believe in it," Wolf said. "But also really lessons about people. I still believe, and this is great to be able to work with Jerod -- who also believes it -- this is a 'people' business. It's about developing people."

Mayo has already seen how Wolf, who friends describe as "loyal and a good listener," has put that philosophy into action as they take initial steps to establish a new culture.

"His steadiness. Eliot has a great attitude and mentality to not only picking players, but also the staff. He was very influential in putting together the coaching staff as well," Mayo said. "I've been watching him from afar for a couple years now, and it's just jelled nicely. He brings a fresh perspective."

Wolf changed the team's grading system, which he described as a transition from role-based to value-based. Wolf said it starts with a ranking of "this guy's the best, this guy is the worst, and everything in between falls into place," which is different from the prior system based on "more nuanced approaches."

His hope is that it makes it easier for scouts to rate prospects accordingly and help determine where players will get drafted. He also shared his belief in the "Packer Way" -- which will prioritize drafting, developing and re-signing players, and also "honesty, respect and treating people the right way."

Those are tenets he learned from his father, who is now 85, and had relied on them to help turn the Packers around in the 1990s -- which included a Super Bowl championship (over the Patriots) in the 1996 season.

At some point in the future, Mayo said the Patriots hope to have Ron Wolf visit Gillette Stadium; he's invited to stay as long as he'd like -- the hope that his presence would reinforce a culture of developing those within it.

Perhaps that visit will come during the NFL draft, when his son's passion for football was first hatched by pulling cards off the Packers' draft board as a teenager in the 1990s.

"Eliot has been doing this for so long, back when he was a kid. He was in every single draft," Sherman said. "So he's been surrounded by this his whole life and I think he's benefited from it quite handsomely."

Or, as McKenzie put it simply: "He was always built for this."