I have nothing against Ras-I Dowling. Same goes for Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Ryan Mallett. It's therefore not personal when I say that their selections make it impossible to, at this point, consider the 2011 NFL Draft a success for the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are famous for throwing curveballs with their wheeling-and-dealing on draft day, but this time they called an intentional walk with the bases loaded. New England came into the biggest day of the offseason with a glaring need at pass rusher, perhaps the most obvious hole in a roster in coach Bill Belichick's tenure, and left it completely untouched.
It was shocking, to say the least. It was like watching a movie gear up for a rousing finale, only to cut to credits halfway through.
Wait, that's it?
Dowling, Vereen, Ridley and Mallett all bring skill sets to the table, and will likely contribute for the Patriots at some point next year (Dowling) or further down the road (Mallett). But between the four of them, they had 0.0 sacks last year. The Patriots came armed with picks, needing a pass rusher, and they didn't get one.
The draft started fine for New England. With Matt Light's status up in the air and Logan Mankins still angry with his contract situation, the offensive line was a major concern for the team as well. The Patriots stayed put with the 17th pick and addressed the issue, taking massive and athletic Colorado tackle Nate Solder, a choice that appears difficult to argue.
But then things took a turn, pessimists would say for the worse, optimists would say for the bizarre. New England (as many expected) traded out of the 28th pick and the first round altogether, seeing hyped defensive propsects Cameron Heyward and Muhammad Wilkerson taken before it was back on the board to start the second round.
The calls for help on the defensive line and in the linebacking corps went unanswered on the second day. Dowling, a promising cornerback from Virginia, went at 33. With the 56th, 73rd and 74th picks, the Patriots boosted the NFL's top offense from a year ago with Vereen, Ridley and Mallett, respectively. In the meantime, hyped defensive targets Jabaal Sheard, Akeem Ayers, Brooks Reed and Da'Quan Bowers went off the board.
The lack of a pass rush plagued the Patriots last year even in victories, and was glaring in the embarrassing Divisional Round loss to the Jets that ended the season. New England didn't take a player for the front seven until the 194th selection in the sixth round, when the pick was linebacker/defensive end Markell Carter from Central Arkansas.
Belichick, for reasons unknown, drafted like a coach who still had Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin on his roster. Patriots fans felt like the draft was an April Fools Day prank, and the joke was on them.
The draft ended with alarm for Patriots fans, but not panic. After all, the start of the season is still months away, and it's possible Belichick was less than thrilled with the defensive prospects in this field and was preparing to lure a playmaker via free agency or to land one in a trade.
That would require a shift in the team's DNA, however, as the Patriots have really only aggressively pursued free agency twice in Belichick's New England career, in the offseasons preceding the 2003 championship squad and the 2007 team that made it to the Super Bowl.
The bottom line is that this team historically builds in the draft, and it has come and gone while seeing the Patriots put Band-Aids on the scrapes but no stitches in the gash.
We don't know, Bill. Mere days after a draft that was supposed to solve all the questions, we still don't have an answer.
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