Quarterback Ryan Mallett has played 24 snaps in his three seasons with the Patriots. There's a chance that he's cut before the start of the final year in his contract. Typically you'd consider that level of output from a third round pick a bust.
I'll argue that Mallett was not a wasted pick.
There's at least two ways to determine "waste":
1) If the team misses out on a player selected between the player's pick and the team's next draft pick.
2) The player provides no value during his tenure with the team.
Let's look at both points.
The Patriots didn't miss out on anyone after Mallett and before their next pick of Marcus Cannon.
Mallett was selected 74th overall and the Patriots didn't have their next pick until the 5th round, 138th overall. The Patriots didn't miss anyone.
First, we can look at the players in that range who made an impact.
There's Jurrell Casey, a 6'1, 305 DT for the Titans who just signed a mega-extension, selected 77th overall. Mason Foster of the Buccaneers (84) and K.J. Wright of the Seahawks (99) would both be excellent linebackers in the Patriots 4-3 front.
However, going back to 2011, the Patriots weren't operating in the 4-3 front. That was the first season the team thought they might adjust to the 4-3. That was the year of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson; it was a 3-4 team that moved into the 4-3 due to injury.
Sam Acho of the Cardinals (101) has seen some success in the 3-4 front, but at 6'1, 255, he doesn't have the mass the Patriots look for in an edge setter- a possible oversight in scouting, but not a player the Patriots would select at any point in the Bill Belichick tenure.
In retrospect, those players could have helped, but you can't say the Patriots "missed" since they weren't a fit for the team. Those types of players weren't even on the radar.
Beyond those three, the tight end duo of the Browns' Jordan Cameron (102) and the Broncos' Julius Thomas (129) were both fourth round picks. This was the year after the Patriots selected Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, so the team didn't miss either of those players.
Guard Clint Boling of the Bengals (101) would make sense now, but wouldn't at the time with Dan Connolly just emerging and being an expected piece of the future.
No other players selected in that range has made any real impact since entering the league (although it could be argued that the Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts could have thrived in a different situation). So the idea that the Patriots selection of Mallett forced them to miss out on a prospect might be overblown, especially at the time and make-up of the Patriots 2011 team. Factor in that Mallett was the highest rated quarterback on the Patriots draft board, and it's a value pick that just made sense at the time.
The second point is especially difficult to quantify since back-up quarterbacks have no statistics to prove their value. No one would argue against drafting a back-up running back in the third, because you can point to their direct impact in the Patriots committee. The only stats we have on Mallett don't paint a picture of anything he's offered the team.
The real value in Mallett has come as the only other quarterback on the Patriots roster during his tenure. He's played Peyton Manning in practice on the scout team. He's been Jake Locker. He's been Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Other than the times the Patriots play Julian Edelman at quarterback to prepare for mobile quarterbacks, Mallett's out there helping prepare the Patriots first team defense.
He's performed well in that role. According to former Patriots safety Steve Gregory, "[Mallett's] got a strong arm and he can make all the throws, so he gives us some trouble [in practice].’’
From day one, Belichick has said that Mallett's done a great job of playing against the first team defense. Mallett used his time against the top unit to get himself adjusted to the speed of the NFL, but Belichick also trusted Mallett's ability to prepare the defense for upcoming weeks.
Mallett allowed the team to hold just two quarterbacks, offering an important roster spot typically designated for the third quarterback. Additionally, the Patriots could use a practice squad spot for a different position.
The value of a back-up quaterback is tremendous; they're one injury-riddled play away from changing the course of a franchise's entire season. A quarterback injury can sink an entire year, and the Patriots were willing to depart with a third round pick to secure what they viewed as the top insurance policy on the market.
Mallett might not have taken the field in his three season with the Patriots, and it's possible he won't be on the team for his fourth. But I feel confident in saying that, unlike other third round picks who only see the field for 24 snaps, Mallett was far from a wasted pick.