If the NFL Draft is like Christmas for football fans, the Patriots fan’s experience is much like waking up Christmas morning only to find that your gifts have been delayed in transit. The excitement and anticipation is replaced by confusion, followed by frustration, vague detachment and jealousy. Instead of unwrapping the shiny new toys you’ve seen advertised, inside is a picture of the gift and a promise that you’ll love it eventually.
The Patriots strategy this draft was clearly one aimed at maintaining the team’s competitiveness well into the future. They stuck firmly to their principals of selecting for value and stockpiling future picks. They also continued their recent tradition of taking players who are highly talented, but slipped due to off-field or injury concerns. The Patriots scout specifically for their own schemes, which is why they often have prospects higher or lower on their draft board than other teams. This can give the impression that they reached for a player, or did not take a highly rated player when they had the opportunity. New England is a stable franchise with an established culture, and can afford to develop players more slowly than other teams, or allow them time to recover from injury. Rookie receiver Taylor Price and defensive back Josh Barrett, who was acquired off of waivers were two such examples last year.
What is especially important to the Patriots is that their players have a genuine dedication to the game. They want players who make football their life and are constantly trying to improve. Maturity and leadership are also highly valued. Six of their nine picks were team captains, and every player spent at least four years in college.
When you finish first in your conference it usually means you have a strong nucleus of players, and unless many of them are scheduled for free agency or retirement there are not a lot of holes to fill. Unlike Atlanta, who took the "one player away" approach, trading away a slew of picks to move up and select wide receiver Julio Jones, the Patriots added players with high upside who will not necessarily be expected to start right away.
Their first selection, offensive tackle Nate Solder of Colorado, is a gigantic player who is very athletic. He has all the physical tools to become an elite left tackle, and pass protection is his strength. He will need time to refine his game and add muscle, but will be learning from esteemed offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia who should be able to mold him into a starter by 2012 or earlier.
Massive players with quick feet are hard to find, and usually go very high in the first round. Solder was only the second offensive tackle taken in this draft, after Tyron Smith of USC. Clearly Belichick felt there was better value selecting the second tackle than the eighth defensive line player. He passed on Cameron Jordan, a pass-rushing defensive end with 3-4 experience, who many, including myself thought would be a nice addition. It should be noted that other 3-4 teams with DE needs such as Dallas, Washington, and San Diego also went in another direction from Jordan who ended up with New Orleans, a 4-3 team.
The best part for New England is that due to the likely adoption of a rookie wage scale for this year’s picks, they will not have to pay Solder a huge salary like some recent OT prospects. The Patriots still have right tackle Nick Kaczur under contract, and can temporarily move Sebastian Vollmer over to the left side until Solder is ready to step in. Solder and Vollmer are both excellent in pass protection, and should form a solid tandem that will keep defenders away from Tom Brady for as long as he wants to play.
Belichick loves to draft players he has received inside information about through his relationships with college coaches, such as the three Florida players he took in 2010. In the case of Solder, he was able to tap recently-hired Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Moses Cabrera for an in-depth analysis.
When it was New England’s turn again at number 28 overall, they elected to trade the pick to New Orleans for a 2011 late second rounder, and the Saints' 2012 first round pick. They turned down the opportunity to select available defensive linemen such as Muhammad Wilkerson or Cameron Hayward, who went to 3-4 conference rivals the Jets and Steelers respectively. With the first pick of round two, Belichick again ignored the front seven, selecting cornerback Ras-I Dowling over Jabaal Sheard and Brooks Reed who both went within the first ten picks of the round. These two moves indicated the Patriots did not feel there were any pass rushers worth selecting high in the draft, or that the ones they were interested in went too early in the first round. One option would have been to trade up, but that would mean sacrificing flexibility later in the draft and giving up multiple high picks. Belichick covets and hordes his draft picks, especially those in the early rounds. He understands they are the best way of adding talent to a team without having to pay that player a huge amount, as opposed to bringing in free agents whose price can be inflated by another team also bidding for their services. Players taken in the second and third rounds are especially important because there is a good chance they may become a starter, but if they don’t pan out you are not losing too much money by cutting or trading them.
There was much speculation that they Patriots would trade their #33 pick to a team in search of a quarterback, but no deal materialized that New England felt was worthwhile. Already in possession of an additional first rounder for next year, they decided to take a highly regarded cornerback who at one point in 2010 was expected to go in the first half of round one before missing much of his senior season due to injury. Dowling has good size and speed, and knows how to make plays on the ball. He is very fluid for a corner of his size, and can also play some safety. He should contribute on special teams units and sub packages right away, and could eventually replace Leigh Bodden at outside corner. If Dowling is as good as advertised, and both he and Bodden fully recover from their injuries, the Patriots could have three excellent CBs, virtually unheard of in the NFL. Like All-Pro Devin McCourty, they are aggressive, physical corners who can tackle and create turnovers – the ideal type for Belichick’s scheme. New England’s secondary could be one of the best in the league with rising star Patrick Chung stepping into a starting role alongside the clutch and dependable James Sanders or mercurial Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather.
A strong pass-rush can help make up for a weak secondary, but perhaps New England plans to test if the inverse is true as well. I am a big fan of the Dowling pick and agree with the adage that you can never have enough good corners. Every season there seems to be injuries at the position. Kyle Arrington was a surprisingly capable stand-in for Bodden last season, and having a quality player ready to step up is very valuable. The Patriots suddenly have a glut of talent at the corner position after struggling through 2008 with Ellis Hobbs atop the depth chart. This will come in handy when facing teams like the Colts, Packers or Saints who like to spread the field in multiple receiver sets.
Last season the Patriots had the highest turnover differential in the league, due in no small part to Brady’s incredible streak of interception-free games. They also had key takeaways which were the difference in games, such as Sander’s goalline pick off Payton Manning. Bill Belichick knows that winning the turnover battle often means winning the game, and is trying to install a secondary capable of generating interceptions. In 2009 Bodden recorded five picks, with Meriweather chipping in another five. Last season McCourty snagged seven as a rookie, while Chung, Sanders and Meriweather each had three. If Brady and the offense continue to pile on the points, forcing opponents to take more risks by throwing the ball downfield, the New England defensive backs should be able to take advantage.
The remainder of New England’s 2011 draft was an exercise in filling anticipated holes in the roster and stockpiling future talent. On day two, they were able to trade picks from rounds three (92) and four (125) and come away with Oakland’s 2012 second rounder, which could be very high in the round. This sets the Patriots up with two picks in each of the first two rounds next year, and also gives them some ammunition if they want to trade for a veteran.
New England also took advantage of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallet’s slide to select a player with impressive physical talents and a deep love for football that slipped into the third round due to drug and alcohol related rumors and accusations of being arrogant. He will have time to develop behind and learn from the legendary Tom Brady. He could eventually replace Brady, or be dealt for a high pick like Matt Cassel.
Another skilled prospect who slipped was Texas Christian University offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, a massive player who is upwards of 350 pounds, yet moves surprisingly well. He was taken in the fifth round, which could be an absolute steal. Cannon played both tackle positions in college, and has first/second round talent, but fell due to a recent diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This will delay his NFL career, but Cannon is expected to make a full recovery. He will probably move inside to guard where his combination of size, strength and agility will allow him to overwhelm defenders in the running game and ably protect the quarterback on passing plays.
New England filled a glaring roster hole with the selection of two complimentary running backs on day two. Second round pick Shane Vereen of California is a small but stout back with excellent versatility. He has speed and strength to go along with pass-protection and receiving skills. Opponents will have trouble predicting what type of play will be run when he lines up in the backfield, something that cannot always be said for BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Danny Woodhead.
In the third round the Patriots took another running back, LSU’s Stevan Ridley. At 5’11", 225lb, Ridley is a more powerful, move-the-pile back. He may take over the fullback/running back role from Sammy Morris, and at the very least will contribute as a bruising, run-down-the-clock type late in games. Both running back selections were considered a bit of a reach, but they will make the Patriots instantly younger at a position where they had an NFL-high three players over the age of 30 last season. Belichick knew which RBs he wanted from the deep 2011 crop, and struck early rather than risk missing out.
Another boost to the running game will be tight end Lee Smith out of Marshall, who was taken in the fifth round. Smith is not very fast, but excels as a blocker, and will serve as a replacement for Alge Crumpler when he retires. The focus on the offensive line and particularly the running game could be an indication that New England plans to have a more balanced attack, moving away from their reliance on the short passing game. I doubt there will be an major shift in philosophy, given Brady’s passing prowess, but the ability to pound the football when desired will certainly make it easier on the passing game, and keep defenses from dropping as many players into coverage.
In the seventh round the Patriots took another player from TCU, defensive back Malcolm Williams who projects as a special teams player. This is similar to what they have done in the past when the see a likely rookie free agent they are interested in but don’t want to compete for his signature.
The biggest storyline from the Patriots 2011 draft will be how they refused to address New England’s biggest weakness, the lack of pass rush. Belichick did draft Central Arkansas DE/OLB Markell Carter in the sixth round, but he will likely begin as a special teams player if he makes the roster. The draft is not the only way to add talent, and it is possible a trade or free agent acquisition could bring some front seven help. More likely, Belichick is comfortable with players already on the team and feels that they can elevate their level of play this season. Jermaine Cunningham has adapted well to the OLB position after playing DE in college, and may be ready to emerge as a consistent threat. Rob Ninkovich was a forgotten player on the team before last season, and he went on to play an important role for the team as a part-time starter. The roster is also stocked with young defensive linemen such as Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Myron Pryor, Kade Weston and Eric Moore. Any of them could step into a starting role with a strong training camp and preseason (provided the labor issues are resolved in time).
Overall I would give the Patriots a B+ grade for this draft, but we will consider that grade pending until we are able to see the players on the field. That may not be until 2012 for many of them even if there is football this year. Most impressive was that New England started with six picks in the first three rounds and made five selections in those rounds which included potential starters at left tackle, cornerback and quarterback, while also adding 2012 first and second round picks. This draft serves as an example of how to maintain the long term health of a franchise.