After last week's NFL Draft, the draft "gurus" have made it clear that they don't like the approach Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't draft any pass rushers in this year's draft, especially after the defensive wizard seemed to marvel at the depth of defensive line talent and how the key of this draft was correct evaluation of the front seven players. Most were smart enough to know that Bill was saying something with a deeper meaning here, however pretty much everybody failed to correctly read into the coach's philosophy. He didn't draft a defensive front seven player until round six, so in a bit of revisionist history, I'd like to propose that Belichick wasn't planning on taking any defensive ends out of this crop to begin with. It's pretty well known that Belichick doesn't take defensive players who don't fit his system. That's why he's developed the likes of Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, and Ty Warren, to name a few. That's why he's passed on other high profile defensive players, most notably Clay Matthews. Patriots fans love to think what could have been, and while they're at it, they love to hate New England's 2011 draft. But why? Let's take a closer look at what they really got compared to what some fans feel they should have done.
Offensive Tackle Nate Solder
"Where's the pass rush?"
Most New England fans wanted to see a big name pass rusher here, especially after Mel Kiper had been throwing around names like Cameron Jordan and Ryan Kerrigan. When is Mel Kiper ever wrong? Remember, for those of you not keeping track at home, Mel Kiper is the guy who scratched his head and got confused when the Patriots drafted Logan Mankins in the first round of the 2005 draft. Offensive linemen may not be the most exciting picks in the draft (and let's face it, the draft is a hyped up entertainment event for TV when it's really a big crapshoot), but you can bet your rear end that Tom Brady has been able to stay so good for so long because of the blocking he's gotten from the likes of Mankins. Belichick is notorious for trading down out of his draft picks, and it's become common for him not to make high first round picks. What players has he drafted in the top 20 in his Patriots tenure? Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo, and now Solder. It's worth noting that other first round picks include Brandon Meriweather (24th), Vince Wilfork (21st), and Devin McCourty (27th).
More often than not, Bill Belichick hits on his first round draft picks, and most of the time they make fans scratch their heads. It's pretty fitting that one of the most buzzed about, most liked drafts (in terms of draft grades that come out a week later, before any rookie has even set foot on the field) Belichick had ended up being by far his worst. In 2006 the Patriots were supposed to have struck gold with Laurence Maroney in the first round, Chad Jackson in the second round, and David Thomas in the third. The only one of these three who has even amounted to anything is Thomas, but he is by no means stellar. It just goes to show how valuable post-draft "grades" are. Back to the matter at hand, Belichick made this pick because Solder is basically an immovable object and the Patriots have to get ready to move on from Matt Light. They may even have to face a future without Logan Mankins, which would open up a huge hole on their line. Keeping the 34 year old Tom Brady upright has to be a top priority for the Patriots.
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling
"Still no pass rusher?"
Many fans ache over Belichick's "terrible" drafting because instead of pass rushers Brooks Reed or Jabaal Sheard, the Pats elected to use the 33rd overall pick on often-injured cornerback Ras-I Dowling. It's just too bad that the focus isn't on how good of a cover corner Dowling is when healthy and how none of the injuries Dowling have battled should become long-term concerns. Additionally, look at the Patriots defensive backs. McCourty, a Pro Bowler in his rookie year, is a stud, but after that it's almost safe to label Darius Butler a bust, and Kyle Arrington doesn't seem good enough to be counted on in a major role. Sure Leigh Bodden is coming back, but after missing the entire 2010 season his health is a question mark, and if he returns to form, can it really hurt to have three really good cornerbacks? I think the Packers just won a Super Bowl with three guys named Woodson, Williams, and Shields, and you can never have too many stoppers in your secondary when you have to beat guys like Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger to make a trip to the Super Bowl. Taking this all into account, I have yet to hear a good reason why the team with the worst third down conversion percentage on defense by far doesn't need a cover corner. Sure a good secondary can only do so much without a good pass rush, but keep in mind the Patriots led the NFL in sacks in the second half of last season, have Ty Warren coming back for 2011, should be able to see developmental progress from Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich, and can also target some pretty good free agents. It's not Bill Belichick's philosophy to draft pass rushers as most of them bust, so it's not the end of the world that he neglected this area of need in the draft. This is a problem that could probably fix itself if given another year.
Running back Shane Vereen
"This might be alright, but waiting on that pass rusher..."
After an ACL tear last season coupled with his advanced age, Kevin Faulk is probably done. They shouldn't count on him to come back, and even if he does Fred Taylor is gone. As likable as he is, BenJarvus Green-Ellis just didn't force any defenses to respect New England's running game, so even though Green-Ellis and Woodhead seems like a capable tandem, this is an upgrade that had to be made. Vereen provides more of a home run threat than Green-Ellis (who will probably still do most of the heavy lifting on the ground), who was rather pedestrian against better-than-average defensive units. The Law Firm is serviceable and a fan favorite, but if he's not going to keep the defense from loading up on defensive backs to stifle Tom Brady, they've got to find a running back who will. Around this point of the draft the Patriots could have taken a pass rusher like Justin Houston, but Belichick obviously didn't see a fit for his defensive schemes. If he did, he would have pulled the trigger on somebody.
Running back Stevan Ridley
Last season, New England's running back rotation was Green-Ellis, Woodhead, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, and Sammy Morris. The Pats can't expect Faulk to come back and Taylor's contract is expiring. Taylor is old, hasn't shown that he's got a lot left in his tank, and thus is expendable. Sammy Morris is pretty old too, which means the only guys the Patriots have whom they can count on going forward are Green-Ellis and Woodhead. And only time will tell whether or not Woodhead is for real or just a one year wonder who quickly gained a cult following. Still, for a team that spreads its carries around, it's not like the Patriots to go with two backs. Vereen and Ridley are upgrades over the veterans they have and will become developmental guys who may be able to carry a big load for the offense if needed. Taking two running backs back-to-back may look just downright stupid to some, but taking two tight ends named Gronkowski and Hernandez worked out all right last year. Best case scenario could be the same sort of results out of the backfield. Imagine the passing lanes a more electric running game could open up.
Quarterback Ryan Mallett
"Now this is interesting, but a pass rusher would be nice"
As a Patriots fan, even I was confused that the Pats didn't select a defensive lineman to this point (mostly because bust-rate of pass rushers aside, it's hard to downgrade from Brandon Deaderick and Gerard Warren), but I think the consensus of the entire fanbase is that this was a very good pick for the Pats. Tom Bradly (tragically) won't be around forever, and at 34 it's not too early to start grooming a successor. Mallett has the arm, the accuracy, and the football IQ to be a true big-time QB, but his behavioral issues scared most teams away. Where better for him to mature than New England? They even kept Randy Moss in line for a few years, and in general this is just a locker room with a history for keeping immature players in line. If he doesn't work out, he can be cut at no cost. If it does work out, the Pats just used a measly third round draft pick for a guy who could turn out so good that the Patriots don't even lose a step after Brady retires.
Offensive Lineman Marcus Cannon
This isn't the last guy the Pats drafted, but frankly it's the last guy I've even heard of and to be blunt, probably the lowest-selected guy in New England's draft class who has a good chance to amount to anything. Cannon has been described by pundits as "first or second round talent" but fell all the way down to round 5 because of a treatable form of cancer. He will miss likely all of the upcoming season from chemotherapy and his recuperation, but the year after that he'll be back, and if he can beat cancer, he's got the willpower to succeed in the NFL. Like Solder, Cannon is one of those immovable objects and his blocking prowess will probably lead to Tom Brady buying the man a few steaks before the golden boy's career is all said and done. In 2011 he won't have an impact barring something incredible and miraculous, but in the long run he is the successor to retired guard Stephen Neal and may move over to the other side of the line if the disgruntled Logan Mankin jumps ship. Not a pass rusher, but in a division filled with elite pass rushers, Bill Belichick has shown he's one step ahead of the game once again by loading up on blockers to negate the blitzing.
As always, the NFL Draft is a total crapshoot, and it's completely pointless to try and grade the drafting mere days after teams are through making their selections. With my concluding thought, I'd just like to remind everyone that it's usually a good thing when Bill Belichick's decision-making confuses everyone else.