NFL Draft 2011: Patriots Won't Rely on Rookies - That's a Good Thing

With the 2011 NFL Draft now in the rear mirror, I think one of the biggest things scaring Patriots fans is the fact that the Patriots did not fill any "major needs" along the front seven of the defense.  I would attest that there was not a major need along the defensive front seven, but that is another story.  

The only need I would say the Patriots had heading into the draft was along the offensive line, with the uncertainty going on there.  While the Patriots drafted two players along the line, left tackle Nate Solder and guard/tackle Marcus Cannon, neither player will be expected to assume a starting role from day one (assuming the Patriots manage to bring back Matt Light).  Ras-I Dowling, Shane Vereen, and Stevan Ridley could also all be year one contributors, but the Patriots don't necessarily expect and will not be relying on those guys to contribute.

And I think this is what has some Patriots fans up in arms.  In 2010, the Patriots were in a rather unique situation.  The team had holes to fill.  When Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were drafted, people expected them to be contributors from day one because the only body they had at tight end was Alge Crumpler.  Jermaine Cunningham was expected to contribute as a pass rusher immediately because the Patriots were so thin there (and the team had no idea Rob Ninkovich would be a viable option).  At inside linebacker, as soon as Brandon Spikes was drafted, it was pretty obvious the Patriots would be relying on him as the strong-side inside linebacker.  Zoltan Mesko was counted upon to be the team's punter of the future as soon as he was drafted.

You could make the argument that based on the way the Patriots drafted last year, there was no room for error.  For the team to succeed, many of the players drafted had little room for error.  Luckily, for the Patriots, all of those players turned out to be great successes (I'm not discounting McCourty, he just wasn't penciled in as a starter day one, the team had Bodden and Butler supposedly ready to be starters).  Many of those players will be expected to take on even bigger roles next year.

But keep this is mind: the 2011 draft class is not the 2010 draft class.  These rookies will not have the pressure to step into starting roles immediately.  If they do not develop as quickly as expected, the Patriots will fare just fine.  They have the depth and more importantly quality depth to succeed without these guys.  But this is a good thing!  While the 2010 class was certainly more exciting because of the fact that the rookies were expected to play such prominent roles, anything extra the 2011 rookie class provides will be as an upgrade to the current personnel (provided injuries do not force them into major roles).  If the Patriots re-sign Matt Light, Nate Solder will likely be the third tackle and any playing time he does receive will be an attribute to his development.  Ras-I Dowling will likely be the top back-up as a boundary cornerback, with Leigh Bodden and Devin McCourty firmly entrenched as the starters.  Again, the Patriots will not be relying on Dowling to perform.  Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley should get some touches as rookies, but if they do not develop as quickly as possible, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead will share the running back duties just fine.

Would I have liked to see the Patriots address the front seven of their defense earlier than the sixth round of the draft?  Sure.  I thought there were some good players available at certain that could have competed well.  But there's a reason I am not a talent evaluator.  The Patriots were in a position where they could simply select the best player available and continue to upgrade their depth.  That is exactly what they did.  Even if the Patriots have drafted an outside linebacker early, the team has Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham, Eric Moore, and Rob Ninkovich already atop the depth chart.  No rookie would have just stepped in and played.  They wouldn't have been relied on, just as with all of the other positions the Patriots addressed in the draft.  The reason the Patriots never selected a pass rusher is because the board just never fell that way.  And I do not know about you, but I am not one to question Bill Belichick's draft board.

Bottom line: Patriots fans should be happy that the rookies will have the time to develop and not be forced into any major roles early.  For many teams, the opposite is true.  While that strategy seemed to work for the Patriots in 2010, it's risky business.  The fact that Bill Belichick has the confidence to draft simply on best player available is a testament to the current quality of the Patriots starters.

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