With the Patriots being the toast of the town for 18 games of the season, they must have a bad taste in their mouth from their Superbowl loss to the Giants. Although New England always seems to replenish their roster with inexpensive players that flourish in their system, this year the Patriots' coaching staff will have some serious work to do.
With the loss of Asante Samuel to the Philadelphia Eagles, the team seems to be in a serious transition at cornerback. With small free-agent signings like Jason Webster, Fernando Bryant, and Lewis Sanders, the Patriots hope they can at least fill some of the void left when Samuels flew to Philly. If they so decide, New England could always move safety Brandon Meriweather to cornerback, a position that he rotated in and out of during his time at Miami.
The problems with New England's secondary, however, don't end there. With Eugene Wilson bolting for the Buccaneers, and Randall Gay slipping away to the Saints, the Patriots have to hope that their veteran free-agent pickups and recent draft picks can pick up some of the slack.
The other notable weakness of the Patriots going into the draft was the lack of youth and speed in their linebacking core. With retirement approaching for Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau, the Patriots didn't have the line-to-line playmaker who has been a huge proponent of their defense. The biggest loss may come with the Patriots cutting Roosevelt Colvin. When Colvin was injured last year, Bill Belichek's defense took a serious hit.
With their starting linebackers getting older, and running backs from other teams getting younger and faster, the combination seems deadly for the Pats. With only Adalius Thomas and the free-agent signing of former New York Jet Victor Hobson as their young proven linebackers, New England was more than ready to get younger and quicker with their draft picks.
The only other notable loss in free agency was Donte Stallworth. Yet as everyone saw last year, Stallworth didn't play a huge role in an offense centered around Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The Pats should be able to utilize Jabar Gaffney as a third receiver with no difficulty. If not, they still have Chad Jackson, a former second-round pick, still waiting for his chance to play a role in what should again be a heavy pass-first offense.
With their involvement in the notorious Spygate scandal, the Patriots lost their first-round pick, 31st overall. Yet with the Patriots, that of course matters absolutely nothing. As with every year, the Patriots go into the draft with multiple first-round picks. The front office and General Manager Scott Pioli always finds a way to trade back, acquire more future draft picks, and still manage to garner the player they wanted all along. As a result, this year the Patriots were in possession of the 49ers first-round pick as a result of the Niners movement up to draft offensive lineman Joe Staley last year. Now, equipped with the seventh pick overall, New England was able to bringing in an impact player that most teams in the Superbowl would never have a chance of drafting.
That player was none other than Tennessee linebacker, Jerod Mayo. With over 140 tackles last year in the rugged SEC conference, Mayo dominated. In my humble opinion, he's one of the best true "playmakers" in the 2008 draft. He is more than willing to fly to the ball and deliver the big hit.
With his quickness and ball skills he's able to track down the ball carrier quickly, and is more than capable to make plays in open space. Watching him play at Tennessee, I though he was one of the better overall linebackers in college football.
Yet, because of his willingness to fly to the ball, Mayo sometimes tends to overrun plays. It is at these times that his quickness comes back to haunt him. With Mayo's overall physical talents, his abilities seem to translate well to the middle-linebacker spot in the NFL. Yet in the Patriots scheme, he will have to settle for playing one of the inside linebacking spots. If the Patriots utilize Mayo well, he could soon become the stalwart of their defense in the future.
With their second-round pick, the Patriots drafted cornerback Terrence Wheatley out of Colorado. Wheatley has what Al Davis regards as the most important characteristic in football. Speed! That might not translate well to the NFL all the time, but Wheatley may prove Al Davis right.
By drafting Wheatley, the Patriots drafted a corner who does two things. Runs and hits. Despite his lack of size, Wheatley loves to go for the big hit. He usually connects on these hits, but when he doesn't, he tends to be smart and wrap up his opponent.
The big problem for Wheatley is that he relies on his speed too much. Instead of giving up the big play, he sometimes likes to play it safe and just go stride for stride with fast wide receivers. The problem with this, is when a receiver makes a quick move on a comeback route to the ball, Wheatley's left downfield.
His lack of size at 5'10 with shoes on doesn't help his case, but if anyone can work magic with undersized cornerbacks, it's the Patriots.
After trading back with the Saints in the first round, the Patriots were able to pick up another third-round pick. With this pick, the Patriots selected Shawn Crable out of Michigan. Out of all of the Patriots' picks, this had to be the least questionable. Crable fits New England's scheme to a tee, and may eventually replace Colvin in the long run.
At 6'5" 245lbs., Crable is undeniably the perfect OLB in the 3-4 scheme. He's quick to make plays in the backfield, and should be significantly efficient at rushing the passer from the outside. His leadership at Michigan shows that he knows how to verbally lead a team to victories throughout the season.
The only problem with Crable may be the fact that he was nowhere to be seen on some plays during his last year at Michigan. If he can keep himself in the game, he should be an integral part of their defense next year.
With their second third-round pick, the Patriots selected San Diego State quarterback Kevin O'Connell. Yes, I did say quarterback. Don't worrym Patriots fans. O'Connell will probably become Brady's longtime backup, or trade bait for another team once he progresses in his skill set.
As of now, O'Connell's skill-set contains something Jon Gruden would drool over. O'Connell has the innate ability to run the ball and get away from blitzing defenses on more than the frequent occassion. His arm release isn't NFL-ready just yet. Think Aaron Rodgers coming out of Cal. But his arm strength overall is still high. If Brady ever gets hurt, the Patriots at least have a backup now that has more upside than Matt Cassell.
With their fourth-round pick, New England again went to the cornerback well. Out of that, they pulled Jonathan Wilhite from Auburn. As a Tiger, Wilhite was excellent in coverage. His above average speed allows him to make up any distance between himself and the receiver.
Yet there are two problems with Wilhite, one small and one big. The small one, ironically enough, is his size. At barely 5'9", Wilhite can easily be blocked during running plays by bigger, stronger wide receivers. The positive for Wilhite, despite his size, is his leaping ability.
His vertical jump more than makes up for those high tosses that quarterbacks try to float over his head. And as I acknowledged before, if anyone can teach undersized cornerbacks how to defend, it's New England.
The bigger problem for Wilhite is injuries. While at Auburn, it seemed that he was out injured more than on the field playing. If he can stay healthy, watch out, he could become a future starter down the line for the Pats.
In the fifth round, the Patriots selected someone that would help on the third and sometimes most important aspect of the game...special teams. With that in mind, New England selected Matt Prater out of UCLA. Not to be confused with the veteran kicker and journeyman with the same name, Prater is a wide receiver.
The Patriots, however, will utilize him mostly on special-teams coverage and especially as a kick returner. New England hopes that Prater will give their potent offense even more of an advantage in a game where field position continues to play an increasingly critical role.
With their final pick in the sixth round, New England selected linebacker Bo Ruud out of Nebraska. Not to be confused with his brother, Buccaneer linebacker Barrett Ruud, Bo intends to create his own niche in the NFL. As of now, Bo is the ideal run plugging inside linebacker. For the Cornhuskers, Ruud was constantly penetrating the backfield to stop running backs in their tracks.
The problem with Ruud comes with his coverage skills, or lack thereof. As of now, Ruud doesn't have the hip movement that would help him excel in defending the passing game, so he should remain as a situational linebacker at least in the near future. I do, however, think Ruud can eventually develop into the steal of the draft for the Patriots, if he can develop his pass skills for them.
Going into the draft, the Patriots always seem to have the luxury of choosing the best player available (BPA) at any position. This year, with their losses, they had some serious holes to fill. As usual though, Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli are going into the season with fresh faces ready to contribute, and only a few questions about their secondary remaining unanswered.