Ridley Could Prove to Be a Big Score
They selected a diverse group that included some who were overlooked, and one who experienced a dramatic fall over the first two days of the draft.
What may be the most impressive thing about this group, though, is that of the nine players selected, only one does not remain on their roster today.
Though not many national pundits had the Patriots adding to the offensive line with their first selection, the Patriots took a player who appears to now be the left tackle of the foreseeable future in Nate Solder.
The recent retirement of Matt Light makes this pick look even more important, as Solder is now charged with protecting Tom Brady's blind side. The Patriots may have seen Light's future with the team would not be long, so they acted and made the call to select Solder in the first round.
Solder is a very athletic left tackle who will be very successful dealing with the athletic pass-rushers deployed in defenses across the league. If there is one thing he could improve, it would be his physicality and strength for dealing with bull-rushers and larger defensive lineman.
In 2011, he saw part-time action filling in on the line at both left and right tackle, as well as a third tight end at times.
In Dowling, Bill Belichick selected the type of player he likes to find—a good talent whose stock falls due to his health, similar to Rob Gronkowski who Belichick selected in Round 2 the year before.
Dowling, who has been fighting injuries just about as long as he has been playing football, proved early on that 2011 would be no different. After starting in the first two games of his career, Dowling landed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season with a hip injury.
Belichick clearly loves what Dowling can give the team on the field, as he put him in the starting lineup despite missing most of training camp with injuries. Regardless of what kind of talent Dowling has, it seems like the team may unfortunately never be able to rely on him because they will never know how long he can keep himself on the field.
Vereen is one of the more intriguing players the Patriots took in the 2011 draft, and we still do not know much about what his role will be with the team moving forward. On paper, he seems to be in the mold of a third-down back, but if that's the only way the team views him, it's peculiar they selected him as high as Round 2.
The team may see him as more than that, but with last year's emergence of Stevan Ridley, you have to wonder how much of a chance Vereen will get at playing an every-down role.
Even if he's viewed by the coaching staff as a third-down back, it's not a given that he will even beat out incumbent Danny Woodhead for that job.
You would have to believe that the team will look to use Vereen in some way this year after using such a high pick on him, or else, he could become another one of the team's apparent misses in recent drafts.
Though he fell out of favor a bit after a fumble vs. Buffalo during the final game of the regular season, Stevan Ridley had his moments throughout the year—enough of them that he's now the favorite to be the Patriots featured back in 2012. He averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry and totaled 441 yards during his rookie campaign.
He brings more flash to the table than former-Patriot Benjarvus Green-Ellis, and that should become apparent as he gets more touches in 2012. Ridley could become the running back fans have been waiting for ever since the end of the Corey Dillon days in New England.
Either way, it looks like Ridley will get his shot to show people whether he can be or not.
Ryan Mallett was clearly the biggest surprise selection for the Patriots in the 2011 NFL draft. In Mallett, the Patriots had a player fall into their lap who could arguably be the successor to Tom Brady.
Mallett has two of the most important characteristics scouts look for in a quarterback that cannot be taught—size and arm strength. He was viewed by many in the pre-draft process as a potential first-round pick who would likely be a starter in the league someday, but he ended up falling all the way down to the 74th overall pick, likely due to his perceived character issues.
This pick could end up being one of the most important in franchise history if he continues to develop over the next few years and Tom Brady either retires or is not re-signed by the team.
It's hard to imagine Brady not being back for any reason, but if he's not, Mallett may be waiting in the wings.
Cannon is one of, if not, the best stories from the 2011 NFL draft. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma after his physical at the scouting combine, and after having surgery last summer, he amazingly returned and played for the Patriots the same year.
Cannon could prove to be a key cog in the Patriots' offensive line, as starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is seemingly always battling back issues. If Vollmer cannot play at any point, Cannon would be the likely fill-in, as he was late in the 2011 season, once he was removed from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
His draft stock may have fallen due to his scare with cancer, but the Patriots may have gotten themselves a steal with Cannon in the fifth round. His size alone makes him an imposing presence on the offensive line.
With Smith, the Patriots selected one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft. However, they were unable to secure him for their practice squad after waiving him during final cuts last September, as the Buffalo Bills swooped in and added him to their active roster, where he still remains.
Carter is the definition of a development pass-rusher. A player drafted out of an FCS school where he did not go up against the type of competition most of the players selected had to face week in, week out.
He also was a bit undersized for the Patriots, but according to Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart, Carter is now up 25 pounds to 275, more in line with what the team would like from their defensive end/outside linebacker hybrids.
Carter still faces an uphill battle to carve out a role in the defense as a pass-rusher. He will have to beat out many players like Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette, Chandler Jones and Andre Carter who is likely to return. Another year on the practice squad could be in the cards for Markell Carter in 2012.
Malcolm Williams is another example of Bill Belichick doing something not many other personnel executives do during the draft—selecting pure special teamers.
Williams, like Matthew Slater and this year's Nate Ebner, was not a full-time player on defense in college. He, like those other two names, earned his place in the league by excelling on special teams.
Williams earned his place in the draft by proving what kind of athlete he was at TCU's pro day. Williams ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and showed off his 42-inch vertical leap to get the scouts' eyes on him.
Williams spent last year on both the active roster and practice squad at times. This year, with the added depth at safety, it will be much more difficult for Williams to earn a roster spot unless he has improved leaps and bounds from last season.
Like Markell Carter, another year on the practice squad would seem to be the more likely scenario.