The New England Patriots and Bill Belichick never cease to amaze me when it comes to the NFL draft. Whether it’s moving up or down, or into the future, this is a team that is always accumulating draft picks, and rarely staying in the same slot they were originally given. That trend continued in 2011, as the Patriots moved current picks for future picks, and added some top of the line selections along the way.
While I wasn’t a huge fan of the Pats’ draft overall, I typically like what they do, and I respect their eye for talent. So how did the Patriots fare in 2011?
1. First Round, 17th overall: Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
I definitely didn’t think Solder was the best lineman available at this juncture, but the Patriots see a dominant left tackle of the future, and on paper, this selection looks really great. Solder will pair with Sebastian Vollmer as the Patriots’ bookends of the future, and Solder theoretically will block for Tom Brady’s blind side as the left tackle of the future. This selection was acquired from the Raiders for Richard Seymour, and the Patriots had clear needs on the defensive front seven that could have been addressed here as well. Still, protecting Tom Brady’s blind side is the most important investment this team could make, so I think the Patriots made a good choice here. A risky choice, but a solid one.
Pick Grade: B
2. Second Round, 33rd overall: Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia
Dowling was one of the top cornerback prospects in the country heading into the year before injuries plagued his season. He’s still a very good prospect with great size and athletic ability, and paired with Devin McCourty, he could be a real asset for the Patriots’ secondary. Still, New England has focused so much on building the secondary, that it appears they have neglected the front seven. Can Dowling and the gang mask their front seven deficiencies, particularly in the pass rush department?
Pick Grade: B
3. Second Round, 56th overall: Shane Vereen, RB, California
I think the Pats may have over-drafted Vereen here, but there’s no denying he has some skills. He is a big play running back with speed and size, and he is a good receiver out of a backfield. With the emergence of Danny Woodhead last year, this Patriots backfield is shaping up to have depth and serious athletic ability. The Patriots now have three legitimate home-run hitters at the running back position.
Pick Grade: B+
4. Third Round, 73rd overall: Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU
Ridley had a huge season as the LSU featured running back, hitting the thousand yard mark for the first time in his career. At 5’11” 225, he has speed and athletic ability, and will be a bruiser at the running back position for the Patriots. He ran the ball 249 times for 1,147 yards and a whopping 15 touchdowns. He can also contribute on special teams, but he has potential to be the featured back in the Patriots’ running back by committee offense.
Pick Grade: B
5. Third Round, 74th overall: Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
This pick was a major head-scratcher to me, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. If Ryan Mallett is going to succeed in the NFL, he’s going to need a good mentor (someone similarly unathletic), and he’s going to need a good, hard-nosed coach and supporting cast to keep him out of trouble. There’s no doubt that Mallett is going to be able to pick up an NFL offense and know his progressions, but will his arrogance get the best of him? Not in New England. That’s why I like this pick more and more when I think about it. Mallett to New England in the third round is good value for them, and it’s a great fit for him.
Pick Grade: A
6. Fifth Round, 138th overall: Marcus Cannon, OL, TCU
Mike Mayock called Cannon a “dancing bear” leading up to the draft, and I thought he could have gone as high as the 2nd round. He’s very talented and athletic for his size, but he’s also very powerful and will be a perfect fit for the Patriots’ scheme. If they lose Logan Mankins, I think Cannon could probably step in and start this year. He will need some time to grow, and he fell in the draft due to health concerns, but this was another good risk by the Patriots.
Pick Grade: B+
7. Fifth Round, 159th overall: Lee Smith, TE, Marshall
It just wouldn’t be a Patriots draft without drafting a tight end, and it just wouldn’t be a Patriots draft review without pointing out what I just did. Lee Smith is arguably the best blocking tight end in the draft, and will replace Alge Crumpler as the team’s primary blocking tight end while Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez continue to blossom as receivers.
Pick Grade: C+
8. Sixth Round, 194th overall: Markell Carter, LB, Central Arkansas
Carter doesn’t blow you away athletically, and he didn’t have huge numbers at a small school either. The Patriots obviously saw something in Cater, a 2nd team All American that they can develop at the NFL level. He will be a special teams player and situational pass rusher at best.
Pick Grade: C-
9. Seventh Round, 219th overall: Malcolm Williams, DB, TCU
Former junior college transfer and special teams ace will help the Patriots in exactly that area. He’s got good size and speed and can play either safety or cornerback. The Patriots have really done a good job of bringing in a bunch of young bodies for their defensive backfield, but not a lot have worked out for them. Hopefully Williams comes in and works hard and earns a spot on the team as a key special teams contributor.
Pick Grade: C