By not selecting pass rushing prospects in the draft, players such as Jermaine Cunningham will really be allowed to develop and (hopefully) realise their potential.
Now that the 2011 NFL Draft is complete, I will be writing a number of articles, based on thoughts I had following the Patriots draft class of 2011.
Following the 2011 NFL Draft, the Patriots have been criticised by fans and media for failing to address their most pressing need - the pass rush. As a title contender, many feel the Patriots are simply a 10-sack-per-year rusher away from glory. However, in what could turn out to be a poor overall draft class for the entire league, the Patriots steered clear of overdrafting prospects on a needs basis, stuck with their board and will allow some of the young talent already on the roster to develop in 2011. Should they really be criticised for this approach?
As the fallout from the 2011 NFL draft continues, experts and fans continue to ponder over the draft selections of the New England Patriots, with many observing the Patriots failed to address their need for pass rush. Peter King summed up the general consensus in his Monday Morning Quarterback column:
"The Patriots got cute. They set themselves up for the future, when they'll control the 2012 draft again with two first-round picks and two second-rounders. This is a draft New England needed to add pass-rush pieces, not just one. And they got none."
Personally, I think King knows less about identifying college talent than Matt Millen, but his comments do represent the common feeling amongst media and fans alike. The Patriots are ready for a title charge and missed the boat by failing to address their biggest need.
However, I have said it before and I will say it again, not every need can be addressed in a single draft. The strength of this draft class was in the defensive line, that's for sure, but that does not mean the whole of the draft was a strong draft. Yes certain areas of this draft were deep, but as a whole it is not difficult to reason that the 2011 draft could well prove a weak class overall. Every General Manager in the league fawned over how deep the 2010 draft was. Essentially, the 2010 draft poached talent from the 2011 class, since Junior prospects in 2010 declared early for the NFL anticipating both labour uncertainty and, more likely, a rookie salary cap. Not only that, but many juniors from the 2011 College conferences did not declare, for the same labour uncertainty which could cause them to lose out on mini camps and conditioning programs, all essential in the life of a rookie, without which a rookie could quickly find himself down on the depth chart. So, many stayed in school and will come out in a much stronger 2012 NFL Draft.
So, back to the strength of the 2011 draft - the defensive pass-rushing types that the Patriots need. Due to the fact that this was the clear strength of this class (as evidenced by the number of defensive front seven players chosen in the 1st and 2nd rounds) in a relatively weak overall draft, it is also not difficult to reason that the value of these players would be dramatically inflated compared to say, if the juniors who stayed in school had come out. If there is one thing that Bill Belichick will not do, it is reach for a need. Consider the following comments by Belichick, made just before the start of the 2011 draft:
"If you take a need and the player doesn't pan out then you're at the same point all over again...Certainly the defensive line front seven is an interesting situation this year...a lot of those players will get drafted high and the teams that get the best players will probably feel the best about this draft."
Belichick knew the best of the defensive players would go high...probably too high for their value, and he simply will not reach for that need. He intimates that the teams that evaluate the talent best will feel confident in their draft and will be the most successful in time. However, Belichick will be considering the context in which these players are evaluated:
1. Evaluate the talent of those players correctly
2. How far will their value be inflated by a possible poor draft overall
3. What talent in similar positions (DE/OLB) will be available in coming draft classes
Looking at the draft through this lens shows that the Patriots rightly stuck to their guns and acted with conviction. They knew the value of defensive front seven players would be inflated, and so rather than overdraft one of these prospects, which would not produce optimal value, the Patriots will consider addressing the position in another strong front seven class in 2012.
It helps explain why the Patriots did not select either Muhammad Wilkerson or Cameron Heyward with the 28th overall pick, seemingly ideal 5 technique defensive ends, ahead of other waiting 3-4 teams. The Patriots did not value either player at that spot, and probably felt their value was inflated. While some have chastised Belichick for this decision (and for similarly ignoring Brooks Reed and Jabaal Sheard at 33), it is important to remember that he is not simply drafting to accumulate picks:
"You're not trading for pick No. 21, you're trading for a specific player you want to take with that pick...sooner or later, you've got to convert those picks into productive players."
As Belichick says, it's a player you want, not the picks. He would rather take a player whose stock is down due to injury or media crusade, than overdraft and risk value. It helps explain why he took players like Ras-I Dowling, Ryan Mallet and Marcus Cannon - all 1st round talents whose stock has slipped. The Patriots have a 14-2 team and so can afford to wait for such players to make the necessary adjustments to the pro game before they allow their superior talent to take over.
In not addressing their defensive front seven with a premier pick in the 2011 draft, it also facilitates a process that some tend to forget or minimise - development. Just last year, the Patriots indeed selected an outside linebacker in Jermaine Cunningham, who showed promise in his rookie year. They also signed free agent Eric Moore, a player who made an immediate impact rushing the passer. Outside linebacker in the Patriots scheme is considered league wide to be one of the more complex positions to play, since it carries a multitude of responsibilities. I am not suggesting that either Cunningham or Moore are the solution at outside linebacker, but I am not ready to say that neither can do the job. In the next year, we will really see what development each player can make in this system and what improvements they can make.
Similarly, players like Brandon Deaderick on the defensive line will be allowed to show if they can make the leap in their 2nd season and contribute on a more full time basis. The Patriots defense has seen a huge infusion of youth in the past few seasons. Before adding another influx, it's time to see if recent additions can mature and develop as professional football players. Then we will see what true needs the defensive front seven has.
After allowing the dust to settle on the 2011 NFL draft, I have an appreciation for the decision making made by the Patriot brain trust. To me, they have taken a pragmatic approach and understood that the cream of the defensive front seven talent might not be there with one of their premium picks, and would not overdraft a prospect since this would not bring good value. They stuck to their draft board, with a distinct eye on the 2012 draft. Perhaps one of their 1st round picks will bring about a star defensive front seven player. In the meantime, we will get to see whether some of the defensive talent acquired in the previous two years can develop under perhaps the greatest coach of all time into impact players in their own right.