The 2011 NFL Draft came and went, and as usual, one of the most active teams in the draft was the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick absolutely loves trading and executed four trades during the draft.
In addition to those four trades, the Patriots acquired nine players—exactly as many picks as the Patriots entered the draft with. They were able to do so while adding picks for 2012, plus both the Saints' first-round pick and the Raiders' second-round pick are now in the Patriots' possession.
So how did the Patriots do in my class? Let's have a look under the hood—the Belichick hood, that is.
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That was probably the one word going through Patriots fans' minds when the team drafted Nate Solder. As in, "again" the Patriots have taken a player we had no idea was on their radar, and who doesn't fill any glaring need.
The Patriots have the advantage of one of the best offensive line coaches in the league on their team. This gives them confidence that Nate Solder can realize his full potential.
In a recent article, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss heaps praise on Solder. Reiss cites that Solder played in all but two offensive plays since the start of his sophomore season, and only allowed five sacks on 1,400 passing plays.
Solder will play left tackle, and could be the eventual replacement for Matt Light if he develops.
Saying the magic phrase, "Don't be surprised," may be a draft prep no-no, but I think it's safe to say that no one should be surprised if Belichick makes moves like this all the way into his final year as head coach.
Belichick is always fighting to stay a step ahead of the competition, and with this trade, he sets himself up with two first-round choices for next year and picks up a second-round pick this year.
The argument could have been made to go with one of the available five-technique defensive linemen at this pick, especially with both Cameron Heyward and Muhammad Wilkerson still on the board. Instead, the Patriots took the value route with this first-round pick.
For the fourth year in a row, the Patriots drafted a defensive back in the first two rounds of the draft. This year, they got the biggest cornerback on their roster in Ras-I Dowling.
Bill Belichick alluded in an interview that Dowling has the range to play safety:
"He hasn’t played safety, but I think he has the size, ball skills and tackling ability that you could probably make an argument that he could project in there if you wanted him to. I think for right now, we’ll play him at the corner, but he is big. He does tackle well. He’s tough. He’s got good range, good ball skills."
The Patriots love that kind of versatility in their defensive backs. What's more, Dowling plays in a system that Belichick says is similar to New England's. He has been doing a lot of things the Patriots ask of their defensive backs in college. That should make for a very smooth transition to the NFL.
Vereen isn't exactly a great back between the tackles, but his potential on passing downs makes him a very intriguing prospect at running back. He shows great hands and can even comfortably split out wide. He has solid awareness as a blitz protector in the backfield as well.
In two-back formations with Danny Woodhead and Vereen, the Patriots will be very hard to get a read on. Who's running a pattern, and who's blocking? Vereen is a new Swiss army knife for the Patriots to add to the collection.
Overall, Vereen looks like a fit in the system. With 3,508 yards of total production and 35 total touchdowns in his three-year collegiate career, the production is there to warrant the pick in the second round.
I'm just as much an advocate of a solid trade as the next guy. When the Patriots traded the 60th pick for a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick, though, I was a bit surprised. There were still some solid prospects in the front seven left on the board in USF defensive tackle Terrell McClain and Georgia defensive end Justin Houston.
Regardless of the end result, this is just the type of draft board manipulation Belichick and the Patriots love to do.
The selection of a second running back may be dubious, but it reminds me a lot of the Patriots selecting two tight ends last year in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Ridley and Vereen play the same position, but are very different backs in their skill sets.
It also signals a shift in focus of the offense. Yes, the pass-happy days of 2007 are far in the rearview mirror. Now, with two big offensive tackles, two tight ends and four running backs, the Patriots are set to be a run-heavy offense.
The Patriots will look to exploit weaknesses in defenses that have geared themselves toward stopping the short passes. Small defenses with speed could have a hard time stopping such a big imposing offense.
In that regard, Ridley adds quite a bit of power. He's a great between-the-tackles runner, and can find those holes pretty quickly. He lacks suddenness, but makes up for it with football intelligence and making good reads.
This one could be remembered for a while as "the Randy Moss pick" acquired from the Vikings for the record-setting wide receiver during the 2010 season.
With that, the Patriots shocked the world with yet another one of their draft choices, selecting Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett with their 74th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
With what Belichick could do with this pick, the potential return on the investment could be huge. If the Patriots play their cards right, they could eventually flip Mallett for a first-round pick. Who knows, maybe they'd just rather have Tom Brady develop his own successor.
It all remains to be seen, but either way, the risk is low and the reward is high. Gotta love that about Belichick.
The Patriots packaged pick Nos. 92 and 125 to the Oakland Raiders for the 219th pick this year and the Raiders' second-round pick in 2012.
Belichick loves trading with Al Davis, especially around draft time. Usually when involving picks, the Patriots' won't be very high and the Raiders' won't be very low. For this reason, moving the 92nd overall pick and moving down 94 picks from 125 to 219 this year isn't that big of a loss when coupled with the possible reward of a top-10 second-round pick.
With two first-round picks and two second-round picks stocked up for 2012, it appears Belichick is ready to dominate the draft yet again next year.
Wow, what a beast the Patriots got with this pick. The 6'5", 358-pound offensive tackle may play better at guard, but the Patriots may like him better there anyway.
He's an above-average run-blocker with sound technique and a mean streak. Putting him at guard would not only utilize that strength, but would also hide some weaknesses in pass protection. His below-average agility makes him susceptible to some agile pass-rushers, but he'll be man-on-man with a big body on the inside.
Somehow, at 6'5" and 358 pounds, I like his chances.
The major factor contributing to his fall was being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cannon has already begun treatment and should be 100 percent by the beginning of July, according to Boston Globe's Greg Bedard via Twitter. He was rated much higher before those reports surfaced, so the Patriots could have a steal if Cannon is cleared as expected.
Remember all that stuff I was saying earlier about the Patriots gearing up for a run-heavy offensive attack when Tom Brady's time is up?
At 6'6" and 266 pounds, Smith has similar dimensions to Rob Gronkowski, but the two are very different. Smith's 40-yard dash took him five full seconds, so he probably won't be quite the threat up the middle that Gronkowski is.
Smith's strength is as an in-line blocker. He will serve many purposes, both to put a chip on edge-rushers and to open up holes outside on stretch plays. Get ready to watch the Patriots control the ball effectively for years to come.
Talk about a sleeper pick, Carter wasn't even mentioned in the Pro Football Weekly draft guide.
At 6'4" and 252 pounds, he's not ideal size for a Patriots' 3-4 outside linebacker. Markell Carter has the potential to contribute immediately in the sub package defense as a pass-rusher. He played mostly defensive end at Central Arkansas, and though he didn't face any top competition in Division I-AA, he was able to rack up 62 tackles, 19 for losses of 103 yards and six sacks last year.
Carter may not be the top prospect Patriots fans had prayed for, but there is some raw talent there. With the emergence of outside linebackers that may be considered too small for their scheme yet have the ability to rush the passer, perhaps Carter will be a diamond in the rough.
And until you've seen the video on the kid, you really aren't aware what he's capable of.
The Patriots weren't looking for a future starter in their defensive secondary when they turned in their pick for Williams. What they will probably get out of him will come on special teams, where he played a lot with the Horned Frogs.
In that regard, he has great speed with a 4.47 40-yard dash. He can cover kicks immediately for the Patriots.
What else they'll get out of him might be minimal. He will be fighting for time with seven other defensive backs, and that's if he even makes the roster.
The New England Patriots aren't in the business of convention. They seem to go against conventional wisdom at every turn, and they are always criticized for it. That's funny, I seem to remember them winning more games in the past decade than any other team.
Thus, it's hard for me or anyone to question the picks themselves.
The overall haul here for the Patriots gives them two new prospects at cornerback, running back and offensive tackle (though Cannon is more of a guard), plus it gives them one new prospect each at rush defensive end, tight end and quarterback.
That's not a terrible haul at all, and though some (read: most) Patriots fans will complain about the lack of focus on the front seven, let's give the picks some time to pan out before we trash them. Let's remember, too that the Patriots come out of this draft with four picks in the first two rounds of 2012's draft.
Belichick is sitting pretty once again.
Overall Grade: B+