Going into the 2009 Draft, the Patriots had several key goals they needed to achieve.
First, get as much value as possible for their picks. This is always Belichick's first priority. He knows, as well as any coach out there, the value in draft picks and how getting the right guy, at the right price, is the most important aspect of the draft.
Second, fill significant holes on the defensive end.
Third, leave the team with a good start for next season by not mortgaging next year's picks for this years.
How did the Patriots grade out?
Ultimately, I think the Patriots succeeded. Let's look at the draft goal by goal.
1. Get as much value as possible
The Patriots were most notable in the first round for their constant trading down. Moving from the 23rd pick to completely out of the first round altogether through a trade with the Ravens, the Patriots seemed to just refuse to pick in the first round.
Belichick's distaste for the first round is pretty much lore around draft circles. First rounders, especially high in the round, generally demand significantly higher guaranteed money than even veteran free agents at the position can get (read: Matt Stafford's $700,000 more guaranteed than even Albert Haynesworth got from the Redskins this offseason).
That's a top-heavy stat, as the top 10 guys get the biggest of those foolish contracts, but the first round is a big step up from the rest of the draft in terms of compensation.
Value is the key in the draft because, let's be honest, the draft is often hit or miss. As closely studied as each player is, it's very difficult to know exactly how each prospect will fare at the higher level. The NFL isn't just faster than the college game, it's more complicated and requires a level of dedication many guys simply don't have.
Still, the Patriots made only one mistake here, in my mind. The first was overlooking the value available to them at the #23 pick. There were rumors, before the draft, of the Patriots moving up possibly Jacksonville's spot at #8 either to pick B.J. Raji ahead of the Packers or perhaps to hope a player like Tyson Jackson, Aaron Maybin, or even possibly Aaron Curry would be there.
In the end, though, the Jaguars balked at the deal and the Patriots stayed at No. 23. When they were on the clock, however, a gem in Michael Oher had fallen to them. Now, Oher is admittedly raw as a prospect, but his combination of size, strength, and mean streak are rare to see so low in the first round.
It seemed like a slam dunk Belichick pick, especially since the Patriots have a secure offensive line and wouldn't need to depend on Oher right away.
Instead, the Patriots traded out of the round, letting the Ravens take Oher as the replacement for Jonathon Ogden at left tackle.
Obviously, the wisdom of this move depends on whether Oher ever pans out into an Ogden-esque tackle, but considering the Patriots spent a late second round pick on Sebastian Vollmer, a brawling, huge, but even more raw tackle in his own right, I do question the value of the trade.
But since we don't know how high Oher was on the Patriots' draft board, it's impossible to be too down on the trade.
2. Fill Significant Holes on Defense
The New England Patriots offense is a powder keg waiting to be lit. With a deep, versatile (if not supremely talented) running back corps, one of the most steady, deep offensive lines, and of course Brady, Moss, and Welker, the Patriots are stacked on offense. On defense, it's been a tougher battle.
On the defensive line, the Patriots have maybe the best front three there is in Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren, but they've had health problems and all three are nearing the end of their current deals.
In the linebacking corps the versatile and talented Mike Vrabel was traded and while Jerod Mayo was phenomenal in his premier season, the remaining linebackers are a combination of unheralded and aging players.
The buzz entering the draft was that the Patriots would be able to choose from a host of possible DE/OLB prospects that could fill the gap left by Vrabel and, possibly, look at a guy like Rey Maualuga to play at ILB with Mayo in the future.
Neither of those things happened, though, as the Patriots drafted one linebacker in the third round, Tyrone McKenzie, who has since injured his knee and won't play this year, leaving the linebacker spot unsettled for the moment.
The Patriots also decided against picking up anybody who might fill in at DE should Seymour and Warren find their time in New England at an end after their current deals, although the selection of Ron Brace, Myron Pryor, and Darryl Richard, all project DTs who could possibly replace Wilfork, signals change may be coming. Since Wilfork is one of the best at his position (if not the best, period) and is just 27, there may be some shuffling at that spot.
The defensive backfield is where the most questions remain for the Patriots, however. Rodney Harrison is testing his interviewing skills for the NFL Network, Ellis Hobbs was traded to the Eagles, and the additions of Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden hardly settled the matter.
Springs is aging and Bodden, although occasionally showing flashes of excellence, has never been the consistent force at CB that he could be.
The selection of Oregon safety Patrick Chung at No. 34 is a good one as all reviews of the young man's character and love of football are glowing. Connecticut's Darius Butler, too, was a steal in the second round and, as roommates at the rookie minicamp, it seems they're having a positive effect on one another early.
Overall, we'll have to see how the season plays out, but there is certainly more talent going into camp this year compared to last year at this time.
3. Leave Next Year's Draft Intact
While the Eagles may arguably have had the best draft in terms of gathering for the future and getting the most for their money, the Patriots were active in their own right.
Through their several trades, the Patriots were able to secure two extra 2010 second round picks (from the Titans and Jaguars) and also a seventh from Philadelphia (and a fifth, which they traded to Tampa Bay for TE Alex Smith).
There is always the temptation to include picks in future drafts for players now. For many coaches or front office people, this year is all they have left. There's no tomorrow in the NFL if you don't win today. For Belichick and the Patriots (and really, any club) not getting a good return on your investments is no way to go about your business, even if it leaves you less secure now.
Belichick will be with the Patriots next season for the draft; he knows to not throw away next year chasing after a prospect this year. While I may disagree with the trade of Ellis Hobbs, by not overpaying Jacksonville to move up to #8, they were able to maintain the quality of their draft future and, by just moving down further in several sports, acquired picks for next year, as well.
I'm going to pull a Florio here and give the Patriots an incomplete, but a thumbs up. There's never any way to know, mere weeks after, how any draft will pan out. The consensus these days seems to be you should grade drafts 3 years after.
So therefore I'll just say there are things I liked about the Patriots draft and things I would've done differently, most of which I've outlined above. The Patriots' moves all made sense, at the very least, and are defensible, which is all you can really ask for in a draft.
Either way we won't know how this group pans out until they actually get on the field and play under those Sunday night lights for a few seasons.
See you in three years, I guess.