"Rooter" Analysis: A Breakdown of the 2008 New England Patriot Draft Class

Will NortonCorrespondent IMay 6, 2008

I can remember when Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn were fresh looking rookies, ready to make their mark on the NFL. I remember when Ben Coates was virtually unstoppable and Bruce Armstrong was a brick wall along an otherwise porous offensive line.

I remember these older Patriots teams because I have been a “rooter” of New England Patriots football since I was young.  “Rooter” probably isn’t even a word, much less a term that resonates with the average sports fan.

But to me, as child, being a “rooter” meant waking up every Sunday at 12:30 p.m. (hey, I was a growing boy who needed his sleep!) and anxiously awaiting the 1:00 p.m. kickoff. It meant throwing the pig-skin at halftime and having several fellow rooters over to my family room to watch the games. It meant getting seriously bent out of the shape when those horrible Patriots teams of old would find ways to fumble away leads and miss last second chip shots. It meant letting football dictate your Sunday, so much so that the inevitable Sunday night date with the homework I had put off all weekend was an upbeat conquering of academic assignments if the Pats had won, but a depressing, fruitless battle with concepts I couldn’t understand if the Pats had lost.

No one remembers these old Patriots teams. No one remembers the 4-12 seasons, the countless Bledsoe interceptions, the wasted 1st Round draft picks, and the realization that this year- whatever year it was in the 1990s- probably wasn’t the year of Pat the Patriot.

Being a Patriots fan now is completely different. We all know about Mo Lewis’ hit, Tom Brady’s rise to super-stardom, the 3 Super Bowls in 4 years, and the regular season dominance that has come to define the boys in Foxbrough. Complain about anything as a 2008 Pats fan, and people will say, “What the hell you got to whine ‘bout, eh?”.

They are right in many ways. Watching #12 is a joy. Knowing you will make the playoffs is an absolute luxury. Owning the Jets- a team that used to torment me annually, especially when The Tuna came back to New England wearing green and white- is a point of pride.

But most assume that Patriots fans weren’t there for the bad days too. They think we all jumped on the band-wagon when Brady’s Bunch upset the Rams and their plethora of offensive weapons and pizzazz. That just isn’t true.

And I have to say, the last two seasons of Patriots football have left me with a sour taste of morning breath in my mouth. They have been inexplicably painful.

Losing to the rival Colts and the Manning-that-could-never-win-the-big-one  in the AFC title game- a game which the good guys led 21-3 at one point- was painful and sobering. Going 18-0….no, let me put that another way: not suffering defeat until the last minute of the season was a punch to the gut I’ll never forget.

Truth be told, these last two seasons of Patriots football have been exponentially more painful than those past seasons of undisciplined football, 1st Round playoff exits, and Pete Carroll shenanigans.  2007 and 2008 have been seasons devoid of closure and satisfaction for Pats fans.

Quick Note: You’ll notice I don’t mentioned 2006, when the Patriots lost in the 2nd Round to the Broncos at Mile High. I don’t mention it because we might have been the better team that night, but we played undisciplined, poor football. We turned it over 5 times and simply didn’t execute. That will happen to even the best of teams. That I can accept, that I can cope with, that I can move on from with time.

It’s not like the act of losing a football game is something I as a Pats fan can’t accept or deal with. I can. No one can win all the time, and no one probably should. It’s losing the way we’ve lost the last two years that has been painful and almost unbearable to watch.

 In both playoff loses, the Patriots have been unable to get the other team off the field in the most important drive of the game. Defense- something that used to be the hallmark of Patriots football- has failed the boys in red, white, and blue. Slow, aging, and unable to keep up, the lovable but clearly vulnerable core of New England’s defense has let us down against both the Manning brothers.

But hope springs eternal, especially for us rooters, and the April NFL Draft is a time for every football fan to dream of rebuilding, of rebirth, of new fate and new hope. Some teams have more to build around, some teams have more needs to fill, but every team gets to add at least one projected impact player and optimistically look forward to the coming season.

For Pats fans, this Draft meant the opportunity to get younger and faster on defense. We could have drafted zero offensive players, and that would have sat fine with me.

Watching Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli run the Patriots draft operations over the last 7 years has been a treat. They always seem to trade down to get more value, they almost never waste picks on guys they know they won’t be able to financially afford, and they are two of the best at assessing whether or not a college star will be able to adapt to the schematic difficulty and demanding versatility inherent in New England football.

Coming into this year’s draft was a bit, uh, different. A top 7 pick for the team that was 2:00 from 19-0? Okkkkk. I could hardly remember the last time the Pats picked in the top 10. That said, I and many other “rooters” knew that the Pats would more than likely trade down to save cap space and would be wheeling and dealing all weekend.

What  Belichick and Pioli managed to lock up from what was, by all accounts, a fairly average 2008 draft class both excited and confused me. Here’s my take on the Patriots 2008 Draft class:

1stRound: LB Jerod Mayo, Tennessee: With Teddy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel aging, and Adalius Thomas clearly more effective on the edge as a rusher as opposed to in coverage, the Patriots primary need entering the draft was fresh legs in the line-backing corps. I like everything Mayo brings to the table: versatility within the position, film room intelligence, top-notch SEC competition in college, and sound tackling technique. He will be able to stabilize the middle of the field and should bring an element of closing speed and athleticism not seen in a New England line-backer in a long while.

2ndRound: DB Terrance Wheatley, Colorado: Defensive back was another glaring need for the Patriots entering the draft. With Asante Samuel departing to Philly and not a lot of proven talent remaining in the mix, the Patriots clearly needed to assess secondary depth through the draft. But Wheatley- by all accounts- was a bit of a reach in the 2ndRound. Under-sized and a bit soft against the run, Wheatley was someone I thought they could have gotten later in the draft. His blazing speed attracted Belichick, and the Patriots do indeed need to get faster in coverage. But I view this pick as a reach, one that might not yield production in the next two years. In essence, I was surprised that the Patriots went so early on a guy who didn’t stand out in college and would have been available later in the draft. That said, Wheatley and 2007 1st Rounder Brandon Meriweather could develop into a lethal speed/power combination down the road.

3rdRound: LB Shawn Crable, Michigan: I love this pick. Crable is an under-valued, athletic linebacker who should fit nicely into the Pat’s 3-4 schemes. I thought this was a steal at #78 overall and I view Crable as a guy who could step in and contribute as a rookie. If not, he will be able to offer a lot on special teams with his strength and explosion through blocks. This pick filled a position of need and targeted a player who will be able to adapt to the Patriots system.  Mayo and Crable could form a very nice line-backing duo for years to come.

3rd Round: QB Kevin O’Connell, San Diego State:  This pick is indefensible to me. I know having depth is always good, and I know taking the “best player available” (which O’Connell wasn’t) is a strategy the Patriots like to follow, but I can’t support this pick in any way. You have the best QB in the league and you’re drafting a 3rdstring backup with a top 100 pick? There will come a day where acquiring a QB to fill #12’s shoes will be a huge priority for this franchise, but last Sunday was not that day! As I see it, the Patriots had an obligation to fill a surplus of other needs before even looking at the QB position. Backup Matt Cassell will be up for free agency after this year, but who cares? There are always capable backups out there. I would have liked to see the Patriots add more depth with their defensive backs or take a lineman of some sort with this pick. I was shocked and disappointed to see Belichick and Pioli target a position of abundance and proven NFL production with this high of a pick.

4thRound: DB Jonathan Wilhite, Auburn: A Junior College transfer, Wilhite was a decent selection at #129 overall. I like his speed, his one-on-one skills, and his experience coming out of Auburn. He isn’t the biggest of guys, and I would love to see the Pats add a tall, more physical corner sometime soon, but Wilhite’s ability in the slot and in transition are adequate strengths. Again, defensive back was an area of extreme need for the Patriots, and this is a pick I simply trust our draft experts with. I personally think Terrance Wheatley would have been available with this selection.

5thRound: WR/KR Matt Slater, UCLA: Slater had a great senior year returning kicks for the Bruins, and he might be able to assist an area that was surprisingly average for the Patriots during their 18-1 season: special teams. Slater has great speed and excellent break-away ability, something that should allow him to hit holes and keep running. Who knows how he will adjust to the NFL game and the increased overall speed that is implicit in the special teams game, but I like the selection this late in the draft because it addresses an area the team was weak in the year before. Slater has NFL genes in his blood (son of former Rams great Jackie Slater), and I always like when the Pats add guys with that dynamic.

6thRound: LB Bo Ruud, Nebraska: Hey, speaking of NFL genes, ever heard of MLB Barrett Ruud of the Tampa Bay Bucs? Little brother Bo comes out of Nebraska with excellent intangible strengths and good coverage skills. This is just the type of guy I could see being a factor on special team for the Patriots. A great worker with an intense work ethic, Ruud will add some energy and depth to New England’s line-backers and special teams. We’ll see how far he makes it out of camp.

So the Patriots ended up with 7 total picks from the draft. They took 3LB, 2DB, 1KR/WR and 1QB. I would call that an appropriate balance given the team’s needs, but I stress again that the QB selection- their 4th highest pick of the 7- was a wasted opportunity to add another young lineman or skill player.

The crop should add precisely what Belichick and Pioli targeted, however: speed and youth.

This writer hopes the injection of youth and athleticism can help the Patriots gain closure in what should be another competitive and highly anticipated 2008-9 campaign.