The New England Patriots, as is seemingly the norm at this point, had an interesting weekend at the 2011 NFL Draft, with the standard amount of traded picks (they now have two first rounders and two second rounders in 2012) and surprising selections (see: Mallet, Ryan). So how did the Patriots do in the 2011 NFL Draft grades?
They entered the draft with an obvious deficiency on defense, specifically putting heat on opposing quarterbacks. The Pats finished the 2010 campaign ranked 32nd in the league -- that's dead last -- on third down with opposing signal callers posting an outrageous, 103.4 passer rating in such situations. Was that the fault of a young secondary? In some part, sure. But the inability of the Pats to generate pressure on even a partly consistent basis from anywhere in the front seven along with the preponderance of evidence that suggested a lot of depth in this year's draft class in that area made it seem like a slam dunk that the coach Bill Belichick would grab at least one defensive lineman or linebacker with one of the team's 10 selections.
And then, he didn't.
Instead, as well as making the usual boatload of trades, the Pats drafted two offensive lineman (one with their first pick in the first round), two running backs, another cornerback, another tight end, and a quarterback -- choosing not to go anywhere near a front-seven defender until the sixth round. Once again, Belichick defied the predictions of the so-called draft pundits who almost universally agreed that given the Pats raft of picks and the amount of available impact-type guys at or near the top of the entire draft class, one or more of them would be wearing a New England uniform if and when the 2011 season came around.
But Belichick and the Pats instead chose to focus more on the offensive side of the ball, both in terms of the running game and in keeping Tom Brady upright and healthy. The defense, which will depend on the further development of young players like Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes, as well as the return from injury of Ty Warren, takes a back seat. So with that, let's take a look at the Pats draft, player by player, and let's do it report card style.
FIRST ROUND, #17 - Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Thanks to the retirement of Stephen Neal, and the tenuous contract status of Matt Light and Logan Mankins, the Pats came into the draft with their offensive line, the team's most consistent positional group other than quarterback during Belichick's tenure, in limbo. Enter Solder, a mammoth, 6-8, 319-pounder who started every game of his final three years with the Buffaloes at left tackle. With Solder in the fold, the Pats can either plug him right in at the left tackle spot, move him to the right side with fellow behemoth Sebastian Vollmer moving to the left, or re-sign the veteran Light and develop Solder as insurance. Whichever way they choose, this pick, though very safe, makes a lot of sense. GRADE: A-
SECOND ROUND, #33 - Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia
Not only does Dowling's unusual first name make him sound a bit like classic "Batman" villain, Ra's al Ghul, but according to most experts, possesses first-round level talent, only dropping to the early second round due to ankle and knee injuries that plagued him throughout his senior year with the Cavaliers. Dowling, a 6-1, 198-pounder, is the fourth corner drafted by the Pats in the first two rounds in the past four years. Along with incumbents Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler, Leigh Bodden and Jonathan Wilhite, the Pats are flush at this position. Which makes Dowling's selection, especially given the Pats weaknesses in other areas on defense, all the more puzzling. GRADE: C
SECOND ROUND, #56 - Shane Vereen, RB, California
Vereen, a 5-10, 210 pound scatback, ran for 1,167 yards on 231 carries (5.1 YPA) in 2010 for the Golden Bears and also caught 22 passes for 209 yards out of the backfield, scoring 18 TDs overall. He projects to be an all-around back in the Kevin Faulk mode and was just the third running back taken overall in the draft. His skills not only as a pass catcher but also in pass protection enhanced his appeal for the Pats. With Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor all near the end, it made sense for the Pats to go after someone to join BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead in the backfield and Vereen looks like a solid choice. GRADE: B
THIRD ROUND, #73 - Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU
Where the selection of Vereen made sense, taking Ridley, another running back, just 17 picks later did not. Ridley shined in 2010, gaining 1,147 yards on 249 carries (4.6 YPA) and scoring 15 TDs in his first year as a feature back and is more of a traditional, power-type runner, as opposed to Vereen, an all-around back. Where Vereen' skills compare comparably to Woodhead's, Ridley is more like Green-Ellis. Ridley may turn out to be a fine NFL player and his selection certainly solidifies the Pats depth in the backfield while also suggesting that the team will look to utilize its running game more in 2011. But this pick was still a head-scratcher. Running backs are as easy to come by as any other position in the NFL (witness Green-Ellis and Woodhead, both undrafted free agents). Given all of the Pats deficiencies on defense, choosing another back here just doesn't compute. GRADE: D
THIRD ROUND, #74 - Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
The biggest bombshell of the draft was the Pats selection of Mallett, a cannon-armed QB once thought to be a potential No.1 overall pick who fell all the way to round three thanks to a series of knuckle-headed behavior both during and after his career at Arkansas. On the level of sheer practicality, choosing Mallett here seemed a stretch. The Pats are obviously set at QB for at least the next 4-6 years and again, Mallett will be no help to a defense that needs it big time. But from a long-term standpoint, the move clicks. If the Pats can develop Mallett and if he's patient, he could wind up Brady's heir apparent. Or, he could be developed to use as trade bait down the road, a scenario that makes sense given how starved for help so many teams are at the QB position. Again, choosing to eschew defense for a position the Pats are rich in here seemed odd, but if there was a risk worth taking in this draft, Mallett may well have been it. GRADE: B+
FIFTH ROUND, #138 - Marcus Cannon, OL, TCU
Again, looking to bolster depth on their offensive line, the Pats took another monster in Cannon, who measures up at 6-5, 358 pounds. Cannon was seen as another guy with the skills to go much earlier but he fell to the fifth round due to recently being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Cannon is scheduled to have four chemotherapy treatments between Thursday and June 29, and has a 90 percent success rate for beating the cancer. If Cannon is healthy, he could wind up being a major steal for the Pats here. Considered one of the strongest, most powerful linemen in the draft, he projects to replace Neal at the starting right guard spot for years to come. GRADE: B
FIFTH ROUND, #159 - Eric Smith, TE, Marshall
Down here in the fifth round, teams are sometimes looking just to fill out their roster but even so, the Pats selection of yet another tight end was dumbfounding. A yearly occurrence under Belichick, taking a tight end worked like a charm last season with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but hasn't so much in years past with guys like Garrett Mills and the now departed David Thomas (not to mention Ben Watson, Daniel Graham, etc.). Smith (6-5, 266) gives the Pats four tight ends and while he may be a good blocker, an eventual replacement for veteran Alge Crumpler and a backup long-snapper, his selection was, while predictable, pretty mystifying. GRADE: D
SIXTH ROUND, #194 - Markell Carter, OLB/DE, Central Arkansas
Finally, the Pats took a pass rusher in Carter, who had 13 sacks, 30 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles his last two years in school. He's 6-4, 252 pounds and would appear to be a project for the Pats to develop. Bonus points for him actually being a pass rusher. GRADE: B
SEVENTH ROUND, #219 - Malcolm Williams, DB, TCU
Williams, 5-10, 204 pounds, played both corner and safety for the Horned Frogs and had 20 special teams tackles in his last two years at Texas Christian. Needless to say, if he makes the final cutdown, he'll likely do it as a special teamer. GRADE: B-