When a team finishes with the highest-scoring offense and the worst third-down defense, you would expect the defense to be the draft priority.
Although experts and fans pegged the front-seven as the Patriots’ biggest need, Bill Belichick spent only a sixth-round pick on a pass rusher.
By the time the Pats made their last selection at No. 219, the team had drafted a quarterback, two offensive linemen, two running backs, a blocking tight end, two cornerbacks and an outside linebacker.
Not exactly what most fans were expecting.
The draft haul leaves a lot of questions: Where will the pass rush come from? What is the plan for Ryan Mallet? Is there a change in offensive philosophy? Another tight end?
As someone who takes a heavy interest in scouting and the draft process, I can say many of the picks were head scratchers. That being said, I think nearly every pick has a fair explanation and fit behind it.
Patriots 2011 Draft Class
1(17) Nate Solder, T, Colorado: With Matt Light’s 10-year run possibly over, the Patriots needed to secure his replacement. Solder was one of the top options available and was said to be on the Giants’ radar at pick 19. Also, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan and Aldon Smith were already off the board (although I think the Pats should have given consideration to trading up for Quinn). That said, Solder has tremendous upside because of his size and athleticism, but will he be able to play right away? He has boom potential, but could also fail because of his lack of power and strength.
2(1) Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia: After passing over Cameron Jordan and other pass rushers in the first round, many thought the Pats would take either Brooks Reed or Jabaal Sheard with the 33rd pick. We were all wrong when Belichick opted for Dowling, a first-round talent who slid because of a senior year marred by leg injuries. I’m torn on this pick because Dowling is definitely a solid player with the ability to form a lockdown tandem with Devin McCourty, but by selecting Dowling the Patriots took themselves out of the running for any of the other 3-4 OLB prospects in round two. The Pats have swung and missed on a corner with an injury history – Tyrone Wheatley – so let’s hope Dowling can stay healthy and play to his abilities.Grade: B-
2(24) Shane Vereen, RB, California: Heading into the draft, we all knew running back was a need. While I think he was drafted a little early, I liked the complete game that Vereen brings to the table and don’t think Mikel Leshoure or Mark Ingram were elite enough prospects to take earlier in the draft. Physically, Vereen has it all - size (5-foot-10, 210 pounds), speed (4.49) and strength (31 reps). He was also a productive player who rushed for 1,176 yards last season and has good hands and blocking ability. I don’t think he’s a great player by any means, but he is good in all areas and will have a nice role in this running back stable.
3(9) Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU: This pick makes sense at one level, but overall I don’t like it. Ridley is a tough, hard-nosed runner who gets stronger as the game goes on. However, I see him as a similar player to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and I think there were better options on the board. Ridley wasn’t highly rated by most draft experts and probably should have been more like a fourth- or fifth-round pick. I do like his role in this offense, but he isn’t dynamic.
3(10) Ryan Mallet, QB, Arkansas: Yes folks, you read that right. After falling all the way into the third round, the Patriots stopped Mallet’s embarrassing slide and selected him with the 74th overall pick. Despite off-the-field concerns and poor athleticism, the Patriots obviously felt his value was too good to pass up. Mallet is certainly the most pro-ready quarterback from the 2011 class, possesses a cannon for an arm, played in a pro-style offense and was productive in the best conference in college football. If he stays out of trouble and learns under Tom Brady, he will be the best quarterback in this class. If not, he’ll be cut. I’m not sure what his role is going forward. Will he be the QB of the future, or is he future trade bait if he proves to be a good guy?
Grade: If he manages to put it all together and replaces Brady or is flipped for a future pick, this will be an easy A, anything less and it’s a complete flop.
5(7) Marcus Cannon, T/G, TCU: If you want big, this is your guy. The former Horned Frog left tackle stands 6-foot-5, 358 pounds and was called “a dancing bear” by Mike Mayock. He should have been a late-first or early-second round pick, but he fell due to medical concerns after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. However, he is expected to make a full recovery, and if so, the Patriots got a mega steal this late. Cannon obviously has tremendous size and strength, but is nimble on his feet and would seem like an ideal fit at right guard with Sebastian Vollmer and Solder as the tackles. If he is healthy and can make the move inside, the Patriots’ offensive line just got a whole lot better.
5(28) Lee Smith, TE, Marshall: When I first saw this pick flashed on the screen, I ran straight to my computer to look him up. This year’s tight end class was pretty awful, but I hadn’t even heard of this guy. At first I was up in arms over the selection of another tight end after we stockpiled the position last year. But upon further review, I think it was a solid move. Smith is regarded as the best blocking tight end of the crop and is a decent pass catcher as well. Remind you of Alge Crumpler? That seems to be exactly what he was drafted for – to replace Crumpler after this year. Despite limited athleticism, if he can take over in that role, I have no problem using a late-round pick on him.
6(29) Markell Carter, DE/OLB, Central Arkansas: Three cheers for the first pass rusher! Well, it wasn’t exactly the guy we were hoping for, but it’s something. Carter is a small-school guy who has the prototypical height and speed for the 3-4 OLB spot. He stands 6-foot-4, roughly 250 pounds and ran a 4.70 forty while amassing 12 sacks over the last two seasons. He needs to add strength (only 17 reps) and obviously didn’t play against top competition. Perhaps the Patriots can groom him as a pass-rushing specialist.
7(16) Malcolm Williams, CB/S, TCU: Former four-star recruit who never really emerged as a college player after spending two years at JUCO. Strictly a special teams option at this point. Disappointed the Pats didn’t target Mark Herzlich or Greg Romeus with this pick as the team could have used another developmental pass rusher instead of a fringe special team player.
When I look at this draft class, two things really stand out to me: a new offensive philosophy and the lack of pass rushers.
By selecting two offensive linemen with early starting potential and a blocking tight end, it signals to me that the Patriots are looking to become a more run-oriented offense.
The Pats could have an offensive line that goes with two 6-foot-8 tackles, a 6-foot-5, 358-pound right guard and a mauling left guard in Mankins if he is re-signed.
I think this strategy is only reinforced by the fact they took two running backs with back-to-back picks and did not select a receiver, a position that many thought needed upgrading.
It seems that the four-back stable of Woodhead, Green-Ellis, Vereen and Ridley will be the present and the future, and I think all four have a specific role in the offense.
Moreover, Smith is a physical blocker who has the potential to be an Alge Crumpler clone. I’ve also read he could be groomed as a developmental offensive tackle with his natural height and length.
On the other hand, I can’t ignore Belichick’s lack of addressing the pass rush.
While I understand the run on defensive ends came early, the Pats were in a prime position to move up a few spots and take Quinn or Kerrigan, but opted not to do so.
With the selection of Dowling at pick 33, this signals to me that the Patriots have a different strategy on defense: coverage.
Instead of trying to add pass rushers, the Pats may try and copy the Jets’ strategy of locking down receivers and preventing quarterbacks from having open targets.
In my opinion, getting pressure on the quarterback is the best way to help on third down, but if Dowling plays to his abilities, the Patriots could have a formidable trio with Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty and Dowling.
This would slide Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington into reserve roles in dime situations where both players are better suited at this stage.
Hopefully these young guys like Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich and Eric Moore truly develop like Belichick seems to believe, otherwise it could be a repeat of last year all over again.
In closing, the Patriots definitely got tougher and more physical on offense and re-stocked at offensive line. The past playoff losses against the Giants, Ravens and Jets have all been due to poor offensive line play, and this weekend the Patriots took a big step forward.
Belichick also was able to secure extra first- and second-round picks in next year’s draft through trades with the Saints and Raiders.
I think the key to this draft’s success hinges on Solder’s ability to be a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle and Dowling’s ability to stay healthy and be a very good No. 2 corner opposite Bodden. It may sound simple, but when the team chooses to use two high picks on players we didn’t necessarily think were the greatest needs, they have to play well.
Overall grade: My immediate thought is this isn’t as good as last year’s class as the two running backs and tight end don’t have great upside, but Cannon/Solder and Dowling could be very good players. I would give this class a B with the potential to be an A depending on Mallet’s role and because of the extra picks acquired for next year.