Everyone who looked at the Patriots last year could see that they were a powerful team with one severe shortcoming—they lacked a pass rush. They could pass. They could run. They could stop the run. They could cover about as well as anyone else, at least once they went from the soft zones they played early in the season to more aggressive coverages.
The quality of the defensive backs became clear as the yardage per pass play against them, monstrous early on, went down as the year went on and wound up being roughly average, together with a large number of interceptions. What was intolerable was the pressure put on them by the amount of time that opposing passers had to throw the ball. Mike Wright, who played only 10 games, led the team with 5.5 sacks. That has to change. In the Pats' playoff loss, Mark Sanchez was able to light up the board against them.
There were, to be sure, significant offensive needs that had to be addressed. With Stephen Neal retiring, Matt Light's play beginning to decline, especially in pass protection where he is no longer quick enough to stay with the faster pass rushers, and Logan Mankins in a contract dispute that is likely to the end of his relationship with the team, the line, which has been a strength of the offense for the last few years, needs refurbishing.
Center is not a problem; Dan Koppen is still at the top of his career. Similarly, right tackle is in the capable hands of Sebastian Vollmer, who was a distinct upgrade from his predecessor, Nick Kaczur. The team has one solid guard beside Mankins, super-sub Dan Connolly, who has succeeded Russ Hochstein, as the man who can play either guard position or center as well as most NFL starters. Connolly filled in for Mankins during his holdout last year and for Neal after his injury and played well in both spots. They would really, however, rather have Connolly available as a prime reserve again.
The Pats picked up two top offensive line prospects. First draft choice Nate Solder, from Colorado, is big, with the frame to get bigger, while also being quick enough to deal with the speed rushers. He is one of only two offensive tackle prospects to run the 40 in less than five seconds; for a man that size, that is really fast. He's also one of the real tough guys in this draft.
In the fifth round, they probably got the steal of the draft. Marcus Cannon, a behemoth offensive lineman from Texas Christian, was, until a month ago, expected to go in the first round; at the latest, at the top of the second round. The Patriots would not have been able to get him with any of their picks after their No. 33, if they could get him then. Then he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a treatable cancer. He has been treated and will probably be ready to play by the time this season begins.
He will play at something between 350 and 375 pounds, yet is as quick as most offensive linemen weighing 40 pounds less. Though he was a tackle at TCU, his future with the Pats is as a guard. This man is going to be a real road-grader, this generation's Nate Newton.
With all the draft choices the Patriots had, one would think they would have gotten a blue-chip pass rusher, someone like Cameron Jordan, Da'Quon Bowers or Ryan Kerrigan. They passed on all the big-name pass rushers, not drafting a pass rusher until the sixth round, when they took little known Markell Carter of Central Arkansas.
Carter's sack numbers are good, but they were gained in less-than-outstanding competition, and he is a bit small for an outside linebacker in the Patriots' system. It does appear that he can muscle up and wind up playing at an acceptable size. The question is—will he be an improvement over Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham or Rob Ninkovich in the pass rush?
Some of the other picks look like good acquisitions. Stevan Ridley of LSU is a power running back, a big banger who may be in line to take over Sammy Morris's position as the team's power back and sometimes fullback. Lee Smith, their second fifth-round pick, comes with the reputation of being the best blocking tight end in this draft. This would appear to anticipate Alge Crumpler's retirement either this year or next. Smith is also a decent pass catcher, though he lacks the speed to go deep that Crumpler had.
The Pats took a couple of gambles that could pay off big if they work out. One issue that has constantly been a problem for them has been a lack of size in the cornerbacks. Few of the Pats' corners through the years have been as much as six feet tall.
On pick No. 33, they took Ras-I Dowling, a big, physical corner from Virginia. Corner was not particularly a position of great need; Devin McCourty on the left corner is on the verge of becoming an elite corner, while Leigh Bodden, assuming he is fully recovered from last year's injury, is a solid player who makes big plays.
However, their depth is less than great; Kyle Arrington is just adequate, purely a journeyman, and Darius Butler, of whom big things were expected, has been disappointing.
If Dowling can be a first-class corner, he will take away the passes to slot receivers that bedeviled the Pats last year. His size enables him to cover bigger receivers, and his tackling ability will let him shut down the middle of the short zone. This is a pick that looks like a direct response to one play.
Last year, in the playoff game against the Jets, Mark Sanchez hit Jerricho Cotchery on a short crossing pass. Cotchery was inexplicably wide open and took the ball for 58 yards, leading to what proved to be the decisive score. Same play with Dowling, if he's what the Pats think he is. Dowling flattens Cotchery for either an incompletion or a gain of only a few yards.
There are two questions about this pick. First, isn't No. 33 an awfully high pick for a nickel back? That seems like overkill for a player who will see only spot duty.
The second is Dowling's injury last year; is he fully recovered, and does this indicate that he is brittle, someone who will be in and out with injuries? The guess here is that he will turn out to be a good player and useful, both as a nickel back and as someone who can step up and be a solid starting corner if McCourty or Bodden gets hurt. Asante Samuel was that kind of player before Ty Law's injury and then his departure pushed him into a starting role.
The big roll of the dice was in the third round. The Patriots drafted quarterback Ryan Mallett of Arkansas. Mallett has the biggest arm of anyone in this year's draft; he will certainly have the biggest arm the Patriots have had since Drew Bledsoe. He is also a big, strong quarterback like Bledsoe.
On the other hand, he shares Bledsoe's negatives—immobility and lapses of judgment. Certainly the Pats could do much worse than another Bledsoe when that day comes that Tom Brady is no longer the Tom Brady who won all those Super Bowls, and that day will probably come just about the time that Brady's present contract is running out. The question is whether Mallett can be steadied down, as Bledsoe gradually was.
There are some good signs about this pick. Mallett's ratio of TD passes to interceptions has been very good each of the last two years. His completion percentage, mediocre in his junior year, soared last year and was very good.
Mallett comes to the league with a better touch on the deep throw than Bledsoe had. When Bledsoe came to the Pats, he could zip a ball to any receiver who didn't have a defender underneath him, but could not drop a pass over a defender into the receiver who'd gotten past him. By his fourth season, Bledsoe had fixed that, but that's a fix Mallett won't need. The pick could be a home run. Mallett was considered a possible first-round pick, and the Pats got him in the third.
There is one pick of whom a great deal is not expected. In the seventh round, the Pats drafted Malcolm Williams, a completely unheralded cornerback from TCU. Williams is not coming in to contend for a cornerback spot; he is to be a special teams player and a back-of-the-roster reserve.
That leaves the pick that is a complete head-scratcher. With their late second-round pick, the Pats took Shane Vereen, a small running back from California. Vereen is not a bad prospect, but he brings nothing that the Pats have not gotten over the last few years from Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk. He lacks the pop to be a workhorse runner and gets by on being nifty and a good receiver. Can you say Woodhead?
There were other more promising runners available when they took Vereen. This is not to slam Vereen; he is no doubt a good prospect. Still, this is bringing freezers to the Eskimos.
Ultimately, any critique of this draft is not about what it did do—every player picked appears capable in the function for which he was taken. They all appear to be capable of playing well and all are high-effort players.
The knock on this draft will be what it did not do. It did not produce a high-level pass rusher. It also did not produce a new right defensive end on the Richard Seymour/Ty Warren level. Mike Wright, who will be playing that position, is not another Seymour; he resembles more Jarvis Green, Seymour's many-year reserve, who frequently had to step up when Seymour was injured and played at an average level against the run, slightly better than average against the pass.
One last note: The Pats did not draft Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was available at any of their picks. Herzlich is a great story, a former top-level prospect who developed cancer and after treatment, came back to be a solid linebacker again. I had picked him as someone the Pats could draft in the fourth or fifth round. He is strong against the run or pass and a decent blitzer. He may have been done in by his selection of an agent.
Tom Condon's name is poison with the Patriots; they have not drafted another Condon client since the circus with Ben Watson's signing back in 2004.
Ultimately, nobody drafted him. That raises the question. This is a good guy, a character guy, a good player. Why would no one touch him? Is it Condon? Is it some residual health problem? Some defect in his game not apparent to those of us not in the business but evident to the professionals?
Final grade on the Pats' draft: B-. They got good players but failed to address problems.