Although it always proves too early to tell, and football in 2011 is no guarantee right now, one of the “winners” in this past draft was the New England Patriots. Let’s take a look at what they did and how it affects their outlook for whenever they strap up the pads:
One gripe that I’ve been hearing from many Patriots fans is that Belichick didn’t go out and draft a top-notch pass rusher at the defensive end or outside linebacker positions. Well, to be frank, offensive line was a far more glaring and important need that the Pats absolutely had to address.
Long-tenured left tackle Matt Light is a free agent, guard Logan Mankins was franchised and has no long-term deal in place, and the team lost Stephen Neal to a somewhat early retirement. First-round pick Nate Solder is an absolute gargantuan of a human being and could easily start at right tackle with a full summer of strength and conditioning in Foxboro.
Solder has a strong basketball background, showing how athletic he is for his size and he should be more than capable of using his height to become a dominant tackle who can protect Brady’s blindside for many years to come. Draft prognosticators had Anthony Costanzo as the best linemen in the draft and he was available at New England's pick, but both Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick disputed this fact, labeling Solder as just that. I think I know who I trust in this situation.
Sebastian Vollmer proved himself more than capable of holding down the left side of the line after Light was injured a few seasons ago, and there is no evidence that has changed. Pressure will be off of Solder on the right side as he will not have to deal with each team's best end. Furthermore, the Patriots got a tremendous value pick in the fifth round when they were able to land TCU’s Marcus Cannon.
Sadly, Cannon will be out for the foreseeable future as he deals with chemotherapy that is a result of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, but that does nothing to undermine his talent. Many scouts felt that if healthy, Cannon would have been a surefire early-round pick, but the Patriots are just fine with Cannon slipping to the fifth.
In his past two seasons at TCU, Cannon did not allow a single sick of Andy Dalton and protected his blindside overwhelmingly well. The time off for Cannon should go a long way in his development, as he will be able to make a full recovery from cancer, learn the system, and be groomed behind All-Pro Guard Logan Mankins.
There is no more single important person on the Patriots roster than Tom Brady, and providing him with ample protection should go a long way in repeating the success of the past eight years. Brady was sacked 25 times this past season, and overwhelming defensive rushes were the deciding factor in the Patriots last two biggest postseason losses.
Looking ahead a year or two, the Patriots should have one of the biggest and toughest offensive lines in the NFL. Anytime you can anchor the line with two mammoths over 6’8’’at the bookends and incorporate a 6’5’’, 360-lb. guard into the picture, that is a chance you have to take, and Tom Brady will certainly attest to that.
After Devin McCourty’s explosive rookie season, it was easy to put the secondary on the backburner of most fans’ draft concerns. But let’s not forget that for all the progress that the Pats’ young secondary made in 2010, they still ranked near the bottom of the league. Leigh Bodden and Kyle Arrington, tough solid at times, are not the long term answer for this problem.
As a result, the Ras-I Dowling pick is seemingly the Patriots' best pick in this draft. While he may not be the big-name player most fans were hoping for, he loses nothing in talent. Dowling’s 2010 season at Virginia was derailed by injuries, but before that he was in the conversation of best cornerbacks in this draft class. His size (6’1”, 198 lbs.) will complement Devin McCourty extremely well, and he brings tremendous athleticism for a big corner. While he is a great cover corner, his size allows him to step up in the run game and make tackles, something that the Patriots secondary needs.
His ability to tackle will take some pressure off of the linebacking core, and eliminate some of the big plays teams were able to hit off of the Pats. He’ll join McCourty and S Brandon Meriweather in a youthful and talented secondary that will allow coach Belichick to be even more aggressive in his schemes. While there was a need for a pass rusher, building on an already impressive young secondary should go a long way towards improving the Patriots Pass Defense rankings. A good secondary is just as important as a good pass rush, and the Patriots are looking very good in this area.
Apart from taking a Tackle with their first pick, the Patriots also miffed some of their fans (and “expert” Mel Kiper, apparently) in bypassing Mark Ingram and trading their pick to New Orleans. But during his rant about Ingram and Clay Matthews, Kiper neglected to mention that they added another first-round pick next season.
Ingram’s talent is undeniable, yes, but the Patriots were able to grab their share of talent at the position with Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris are likely out the door in New England, opening up two more spots on the depth chart. Ben-Jarvis Green Ellis is a free agent as of now, and there is no guarantee we will see him in a Patriots uniform come the 2011 season.
Regardless of if he does return, the Patriots are truthfully left with two fairly inexperienced backs in the rotation. As good as Danny Woodhead was last year, and as much as I love him as a player, it is hard to not have an inkling of doubt that his success was sustainable at the level he brought in 2010.
Vereen is a small back with excellent hands, like Woodhead, who will be able to open up the Patriots offense even more and brings strong comparisons to Kevin Faulk. If he can truly be the next Kevin Faulk, the Patriots just got a dynamic player who can provide another dimension to an already stacked, young core. Ridley can bring what Sammy Morris did to the offense, and what New England hasn’t had since Heath Evans; a power, smash mouth full back.
Belichick has not used a full back in the offense since Evans departed for New Orleans, and the offense lost a dimension when he left. Hopefully Ridley can embrace this role and open up even more running lanes for BJGE, Woodhead and Vereen. If he can, more pressure will be taken off of Brady, and that is never a bad thing.
The "Head Scratchers":
The Patriots' picks of QB Ryan Mallett and TE Lee Smith out of Marshall were two picks that many did not understand. The criticism of Mallett has been overwhelming at times, despite his largely successful college career. While there are some off the field issues, the level of talent and the arm that he possesses are undeniable. He has the talent of a first round pick, but his level of maturity kept him from fulfilling such lofty expectations. There is no better place for him to be than in New England.
Belichick has proved time and time again that he can fix character and get the most out of his players, and there is no reason Mallett should be any different. Let’s not forget that Tom Brady is not infallible, and a top-notch backup quarterback is extremely important for any contending team. Just ask the Steelers during Big Ben’s suspension, or even the Patriots just recently when Brady tore up his knee.
Brian Hoyer has proven to be a quality backup in the past few years, but the natural talent level of Mallett should put Hoyer as the third man. Regardless of if Mallett is the next franchise quarterback in four or five years, or if he is being groomed as a trading chip, he certainly is not too much of a risky pick for the Patriots.
TE Lee Smith is also a solid value pick. He is a very strong pass blocker, and should be able to bring to the table everything that Alge Crumpler did (minus the veteran leadership). He will add to a tremendously talented group of players at the position along with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and he should take the pressure off of them in the teams’ blocking schemes. Smith goes 6’6’’, 266 lbs., more size that will certainly be welcomed.
As usual, coach Belichick and the Patriots came into the draft with a plan, and they executed it exactly as they wanted to. They added some extremely talented, but under the radar, players that will provide great value to an already young and loaded roster. And they also got richer for next year’s draft, adding another first- or second- round pick on top of the picks they already had in this round.
If the league is able to successfully put in place a new rule for rookie salaries, then we may just finally see Belichick use both of his first round picks in the same draft for once. Ty Warren is coming back from injury, they signed Marcus Stroud, and Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes will only get better. The pass defense should improve in 2011, and if it does then the Patriots will be a scary team to face next season.