There's always a mad rush to put grades on each team's picks in the draft minutes after its conclusion. In reality, it takes at least three years to really find out how each team did in the draft.
In the heat of the moment, the immediate aftermath of the 2011 NFL draft, the New England Patriots' grades were all over the spectrum. At the time, I gave them a B+ overall. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. gave them a C+. Clifton Brown of Sporting News gave them an A+.
That year was supposed to be the year the Patriots finally broke the mold and drafted a topnotch pass-rushing prospect in the first round. With so many available—Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Jabaal Sheard, Brooks Reed, Ryan Kerrigan and others—there were more than enough opportunities to help boost the pressure packages.
"I think that's really going to be a key part of this whole draft, I think, when we look back on it in a couple years and evaluate it," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on Sirius XM Radio, via WEEI.com, days before the draft. "It will probably come down to which teams are able to evaluate those front seven positions. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of those players taken high...The teams that are able to come out with the impact players in that group relative to the teams that take players and they aren't able to contribute for them has a lot to do with who's able to gain the most out of this draft so that will be an interesting part of it."
It took until the sixth round for the Patriots to finally draft a pass-rusher, which had some people sour on their grade.
Belichick made several big trades in 2011, and while some people have come to mock him for trading down or out of the first round, he moved around the board beautifully and made several trades that helped bring in important players for the future of the franchise.
Now that we have a three-year sample size on the players the Patriots drafted (and also the ones they didn't draft), let's go back and take a look at how they fared over the 2011 draft weekend.
LT Nate Solder—First Round, 17th Overall
After all that talk of pass-rushers, Belichick went with a tackle, and it proved to be the right decision. A look at the players drafted after Nate Solder reveals very few topnotch defensive end prospects—although hindsight being 20-20, one could make the case for Muhammad Wilkerson in this spot.
Solder was initially in line to be a rotational tackle or a swing tackle in jumbo packages, but an early injury to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer forced Solder into the starting lineup.
The Patriots also had to be thinking about finding Matt Light's eventual replacement as the left tackle; he was 33 years old entering the 2011 season and retired after it was over. Solder immediately switched to the left side and has been a mainstay ever since. He has some lapses in pass protection, but he has been one of the most consistent young tackles in the league over the past two years.
The Patriots got one of the two best offensive tackles in the 2011 draft with the 17th overall pick. For perspective, the third offensive tackle was taken with the fourth pick in 2013, the 11th pick in 2010 and the eighth pick in 2009.
In selecting Solder, the Patriots found the heir to Light and are set at the position for the foreseeable future—as long as they can get a deal done for him with his contract expiring after the 2014 season.
First Round, 28th Overall—Traded to New Orleans Saints (Mark Ingram) for Second Round, 56th Overall (Shane Vereen), and 2012 First-Round Pick (Packaged With 2012 Third-Round Pick to Draft Chandler Jones)
The Saints used the Patriots' pick to draft running back Mark Ingram, who has not panned into the player many thought he would be coming out of Alabama.
On the flip side, the Patriots took Shane Vereen in the second round and were able to grab Chandler Jones using the first-round pick they got from the Saints in the 2012 draft. Ultimately, the Patriots got a starter and a quality backup for the price of one first-round pick.
CB Ras-I Dowling—Second Round, 33rd Overall
There were some reports swirling that the Patriots could be looking to trade this pick, but they wound up taking Dowling instead. In hindsight, they probably would have been better off collecting as much value for this pick as possible.
At 6'1" and 198 pounds with 31" arms, Dowling had all the size you could want in an outside cornerback. He was expected to be a first-round pick entering his senior season in 2010 but missed most of the year with an ankle injury. There were other injury red flags around Dowling coming out of Virginia, but Belichick and the Patriots chose to overlook those concerns in the name of his high ceiling.
Dowling immediately emerged from training camp as a starter in the secondary and sparked some hope for the future with his play in the first two games of the season before suffering a season-ending hip injury. He returned in 2012 and played the first six games of the year before again suffering a season-ending injury. He returned to training camp in 2013 but was cut before the season began.
RB Shane Vereen—Second Round, 56th Overall
Instead of going for the top running back in the draft, the Patriots sat back and took the two-pronged approach in the middle rounds of the draft, and they started by taking the scatback, Shane Vereen.
Vereen came NFL-ready with experience in a spread offense at Cal that promised to make him an immediate threat on third downs. He was knocked for a lack of size (5'10", 210 lbs), which some scouts thought would prevent him from being an every-down NFL back. So far, he hasn't emerged in that capacity, but the Patriots haven't asked him to.
Instead, they drafted him for his versatile skill set and have deployed him all over the field as both a running back and a receiver.
Unfortunately, Vereen has not been fully available to the Patriots after missing most of his rookie season with an injury and eight games in 2013 with a broken wrist. When he's been on the field, though, his presence as a matchup weapon has started to take shape. If he can stay healthy, his value to the Patriots will prove itself with time.
The Texans turned the Patriots' selection into cornerback Brandon Harris, who has yet to start a game and has been a fourth cornerback for them for the most part. The Patriots turned their two picks into running back Stevan Ridley and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, one of whom has been a bell cow in the backfield, and the other has been a valuable backup in any role he's been asked.
RB Stevan Ridley—Third Round, 73rd Overall
Talented running backs are often available well outside of the first round, and the Patriots were able to find one of the 2011 draft's most productive backs in the third round with Stevan Ridley. In fact, he has the second-most rushing yards of any back drafted that year.
|Stevan Ridley vs. DeMarco Murray|
|Stevan Ridley||Carries||Yards||YPA||TD||Rec||Rec Yds||TD||Fum|
|DeMarco Murray||Carries||Yards||YPA||TD||Rec||Rec Yds||TD||Fum|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Ridley was productive in college with 1,147 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, but there were questions as to whether he had true breakaway speed, and those questions were only exacerbated when he ran an unimpressive 4.66 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. He hasn't been a breakaway runner, but he's averaged a healthy 4.5 yards per carry in his career.
Of course, Ridley has been dogged by fumble problems throughout his career, which have hindered his ability to maintain his role as the bell cow. However, when he's not fumbling, he's been very dependable and has had his share of big runs to help get the Patriots offense moving.
QB Ryan Mallett—Third Round, 74th Overall
Ryan Mallett slipped in the draft due to reported concerns about drug use while at Arkansas. Mallett has ridden the pine since joining the NFL, and most of his work has come in the preseason.
The Patriots continue to wait for a team willing to give up a second-round pick for the services of their backup quarterback—they don't want to give up Mallett without getting something in return for three years of development and three years of using up a roster spot. Multiple teams inquired about Mallett prior to the 2013 draft, but the Patriots opted to hold onto him instead.
He is set to become a free agent following the 2014 season, so the Patriots have to make a decision on whether he is worth keeping around for another few years as a backup or whether it's time to move in another direction, as the team must begin making serious considerations for life after Tom Brady.
Third Round, 92nd Overall (OL Joe Barksdale), and Fourth Round, 125th Overall (RB Taiwan Jones), Traded to Oakland Raiders for 2012 Second-Round Pick (Tavon Wilson)
The actual trade itself was considered a great deal for the Patriots at the time. Getting a second-round pick from the Raiders was seen as a smart investment, as the Raiders are always a good shot to pick in the top half of each round.
The Raiders actually got the better player, though. Joe Barksdale was a starting right tackle for the Rams in 2013 and played very well. The Patriots, meanwhile, have not yet gotten quality play out of Tavon Wilson.
OT Marcus Cannon—Fifth Round, 138th Overall
Marcus Cannon was seen as a second- to third-round talent entering the draft, so it was somewhat surprising to see him fall all the way to the fifth round. Cannon was found to have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma—a highly treatable form of cancer—before the draft, but the Patriots liked his upside and were OK with the risk in the fifth round.
They were wise to make the move, as he was removed from the physically unable to perform list in November and was playing football again later that month.
Since being drafted, he has been about as valuable a backup as you could imagine, filling in at left guard, right guard and right tackle as injuries and exhaustion have dictated he do so. He started six games in 2013 at right tackle in relief of the injured Sebastian Vollmer.
Cannon could be a starter on other teams, so it will be interesting to see if the Patriots opt to move on from one of their starters at some point to give Cannon a shot or if they eventually pull the trigger on a trade.
TE Lee Smith—Fifth Round, 159th Overall
After drafting two of the league's best tight ends (at the time) in the 2010 draft, it seemed tight end was the one spot they were set headed into the 2011 season. Either the Patriots felt otherwise or they liked Smith's upside so much he became tough to pass up. He had a massive frame at 6'6", 266 pounds and 34.4" arms, which could help him in the red zone.
That being said, he was considered anything but a receiving tight end, running a 5.01 40-yard dash and catching just 75 passes in college. His biggest strength was as a blocker. In the end, none of it mattered. The Patriots waived Smith at the end of training camp in 2011, hoping to get him onto the practice squad, but the Buffalo Bills were right there to scoop him up off waivers.
Since joining the Bills, Smith has caught just 13 passes and two touchdowns.
DE Markell Carter—Sixth Round, 194th Overall
After spending the first five rounds taunting Patriots fans with the idea of drafting a defensive end, the Patriots finally grabbed an edge defender in the sixth round, nabbing Central Arkansas' Markell Carter.
Not much was known about him when he was drafted, but he was considered a developmental prospect at 3-4 outside linebacker at 6'4" and 252 pounds. He also had 30.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in the last two seasons of his college career.
Who knows whether the lockout hindered his growth, as he was never able to add the strength he needed through a full offseason training program, but either way, he was bounced on and off the roster in New England before ultimately being released.
DB Malcolm Williams—Seventh Round, 219th Overall
There were tools to like about Williams, who ran a 4.48 40-yard dash and had a 40" vertical jump, but the Patriots never expected to get more than special teams production out of their seventh-round pick, and it's a good thing because that's all he gave them.
Williams was on and off the roster from 2011 through 2012 and was out of the league in 2013.
Overall Grade: B
The Patriots made some great value picks and trades, but their grade is dragged down a bit by the big miss on Ras-I Dowling. In a year in which they essentially held three first-round picks, they missed a big opportunity on that last one.
They made up for it a bit by finding some core players in later rounds, particularly Stevan Ridley in the third round. Marcus Cannon in the fifth round proved to be a great value pick, with his health issues never becoming a problem.
The injuries to Vereen and the lack of a return on their investment in Mallett have also docked the grade a bit, although Vereen's potential remains a bright spot. This grade could continue to climb even higher if the Patriots are able to find a trade partner for Mallett or if Vereen stays healthy and becomes the X-factor the Patriots wanted when they drafted him.