The Patriots have done a complete 180-degree turn from their 2010 draft by taking purely developmental prospects in ’11. It was a strategy you would expect from a team that had a 14-2 record, but not what you would expect from a club that ranked 25th in defense and last in third-down defense last season.
Last year's draft produced six regular contributors — CB Devin McCourty, ILB Brandon Spikes, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, TE Rob Gronkowski, TE Aaron Hernandez and P Zoltan Mesko. Seventh-round DE Brandon Deaderick played in 10 games, and undrafted rookies Dane Fletcher, Kyle Love and Sergio Brown also saw the field often.
This year, likely not a single Patriots draftee will start Day One, let alone hold a candle to the contributions of the '10 class. Bill Belichick loaded up on developmental prospects at positions where starters are cemented, but aging.
The one position every Pats fan cried for an upgrade at was on the edge, a pass-rushing defensive end or outside linebacker. With the 33rd pick of the draft, New England had multiple guys to choose from who could fill that role — Arizona's Brooks Reed, Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard and Georgia's Justin Houston among them. Instead, the Pats took CB Ras-I Dowling.
The Pats finally addressed the need in the sixth round, selecting Central Arkansasl DE-OLB Markell Carter, a … wait for it … developmental prospect.
And the Pats weren't shy about their strategy. They took two players who were on the biggest slides of the draft. QB Ryan Mallett from Arkansas, who has a first-round arm but questionable character, and TCU OT Marcus Cannon, an early-round selection if it weren't for the recent news that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Neither Mallett nor Cannon will start next year. But the Patriots not only can afford to be patient with these prospects, they also can afford to "miss" on a draft pick.
The Patriots opened the draft with OT Nate Solder, who has excellent size but will be a project. Getting a developmental blind-side tackle made sense, we didn't know at the time, though, that it was the start of the team's trend to draft guys who could help in the future, but not in 2011. Solder and Cannon will battle to fill in the spot that will open when Matt Light's time in New England is complete, and Cannon could be a guard down the line.
The Patriots were the last team you'd expect to draft a tight end, but they spent a fifth-round pick to select Alge Crumpler's heir apparent, Marshall's Lee Smith, a physical in-line blocker.
Patriots fans shouldn't be too disappointed, though. While they won't be able to see early returns on this year's picks like they did last season, once again, New England is stockpiling. They have two first-round picks and two picks in the second round in 2012, and one of these days Belichick will use those picks to move up and take an elite prospect who can start right away.
But for now, the Patriots probably have more first-round picks in ’12 than 2011 draftees who will start in their rookie season.
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