Belichick-Pioli Remain Unpredictable
All Offense Through Three Rounds
Recent New England Patriot draft history has been good. We haven't had to wait the typical 2 to 5 years to evaluate the level of talent and contribution of most of the players. A lot of them have been impact players from the first kickoff, others were clearly fast-developing, and very few have been merely adequate or complete busts.
Far be it from me to doubt the best football personnel analysts of the generation, but I think the first three picks amount to a sure winner, a likely contributor and a possible bust. The jury just may be out on a couple of these guys for quite a while.
I know most of the Boston media will be (a la Bob Ryan) shocked -- shocked -- that there were no big defensive names among the first three picks, but I'm hardly surprised at all. What happened after the third round is matter for another discussion.
The New England Patriots drafted RB Laurence Maroney of Minnesota in the first round, WR Chad Jackson of Florida in the second round, and TE Dave Thomas of Texas in the third round of Saturday's Day One of the 2006 NFL Draft.
Overall, it was a decent day, but it won't go down in history with the drafts of the first few years of the Bill Belichick - Scott Pioli era. There's a good chance two of the three selections will play immediately, and possibly with some legitimate impact.
The pick of the litter could be Chad Jackson, who quite possibly could make us forget David Givens ... in time. (I'm not over-qualifying that, am I?) Projected to go in Round 1, Jackson slid to a point that he was an offer New England couldn't refuse.
It's interesting to note at this point that while the Patriots were expected to draft heavily for defense, the whole league seemed to be doing the same thing. Twenty-two of the first 32 picks were defensive players. That means perhaps that most of the defensive players New England wanted were already off the board. Belichick and Pioli are known for drafting defense, sure; but they're also know for sticking to their draft board, and the top players remaining when their selections came along were top pick Laurence Maroney and Jackson.
Getting back to Jackson. His one knock is that he doesn't have that elite, breakaway speed to get those 30-plus YAC receptions. Big deal, right? New England has won three Super Bowls without that. What he does have is good height, good speed, good hands, good open-field moves and intelligence, which gives Jackson the kind of potential past prospects (remember free agent Donald Hayes a few years back?) never lived up to.
As is, he could be a starter on opening day, giving Tom Brady that tall, fast sideline receiver he's grown accustomed to with Givens on the roster. But it will take time until Jackson (an inch taller than Givens) truly replaces Givens, who really began to develop last year and late in 2004. Jackson supposedly could also return punts, but he doesn't really seem to fit the Patriots mold there.
WR Chad Jackson of Florida.
There's plenty more good news about Jackson. He seems well-versed on the finer points. One item in his draft report that jumped out at me is his propensity to block well downfield and not stop until the whistle blows. That will be a nice change having someone of his size pushing around a few defensive backs the way guys like Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson simply can't.
Jackson also has excellent hands on and after the catch, is known for making very few mistakes with or without the ball, and while he won't outrun anybody, he can make people miss and he can fend off tacklers.
There's no doubt New England has always needed a receiver of Jackson's type, even moreso since the loss of Givens, and to get him with a second-round pick is a steal. I'm not sure why fans, talking heads or anyone else is surprised. Belichick-Pioli get an A for this selection.
Like Jackson, Maroney came into the draft after his junior year. At 6-feet-0 and 216 pounds, he's an inch shorter and 9 pounds lighter than Dillon. Again, there's lots of good news, but for a first-rounder, there are a couple too many caveats.
Let's start with the positives. Maroney is an imposing back, and he'll put on more weight in the pros. He's labeled as "a punishing back" (I love that term, especially if it truly applies.), a solid North-South runner with deceiving cut-back ability. He's no Barry Sanders in the open field, but he has good vision, and he can get through holes and power past or over a lot of single tacklers.
RB Laurence Maroney of Minnesota.
Maroney is also a legit threat out of the backfield, and he's been known to make even tough catches. He should be brilliant on screens and over-the-middle dumps. While I suspect this would be the end of Heath Evans, it's possible this makes Kevin Faulk tradable, and New England could look to fit Faulk into a package and trade for a major defensive back or linebacker.
The only con on Maroney's draft sheet is that he doesn't always give a 100 percent effort. He doesn't attack when there is a small hole or no hole and he goes down easy, and he runs upright too much. He also is lax in blocking and picking up blitzers. The former is coachable, and he'll learn. The latter certainly won't be acceptable to Belichick or any of his coaches, so either Maroney will learn the hard way, or he'll find the door quickly.
I would think there's a good chance he'll learn the hard way, but he could end up the first major early-round bust of Belichick-Pioli braintrust. I give New England a shaky B on this pick.
Now we come to a seriously questionable selection in tight end Dave Thomas. Sure, the Patriots like having three tight ends; they run a lot of two tight-end sets, and Ben Watson and Daniel Graham can't both be out there every play, and you can't count on both of them being health for all 16 or more games. But Thomas seems like the kind of guy that would have been available in the fourth or even fifth round, and this pick seems a bit wasted.
At 6-3, he's tall enough, but at only 239, if he doesn't bulk up, he's a little light for a blocker, and he certainly won't be dragging tacklers with him. Thomas is known to have pretty good speed, but not the kind that will help him gain separation from coverage or be in position to make downfield blocks. He's also less than agile, and sometimes has problems blocking more athletic linebackers and d-backs. He also allegedly has a hard time blocking aggressive blitzers.
TE Dave Thomas of Texas.
On the bright site, he's smart and runs good routes and knows how to position himself to block out pass defenders. He has good hands and can make quick moves after the catch, so he has YAC potential. That's about it. He might be a good compliment to a third-down back, where both can get beyond the line of scrimmage and pick up short yardage for first downs, and he might excel in those new tight-end screens the Patriots seem fond of, especially if he has blockers of his own.
You never know with a guy like Thomas. He could be a pleasant surprise, a Christian Fauria-type, reliable hands in those goal-line situations. Or, he could fade into oblivion like Brock Williams (No. 3 pick in 2001 after Richard Seymour and Matt Light). I rate this pick a C+.
I think Pioli and Belichick went a long way to solidify the Patriots growing offensive prowess, but there are certainly still a lot of question marks for a team trying to recover dynasty status. And not only will a couple of these guys have the potential for immediate impact, if they turn out like the masterminds expect, they've done a lot to prepare for the future too. Me? I'm not completely sold, but I'm optimistic.
I give the Patriots Day 1 draft a B+.