Measuring N.E. draft starts with Dowling

Reaction to the New England Patriots' 2011 NFL draft is across the board, but there is one common thread.

Whether emailers like the draft or not, they are passionate about it, and that's one of the things I appreciate about the weekly Patriots mailbag.

To me, one of the intriguing parts of the Patriots' draft was how varied opinions were among analysts. Few teams, it seems, had such divided opinion.

My thought is pretty straightforward: The key to the Patriots' draft ultimately will be what happens with cornerback Ras-I Dowling and how that situation compares to those of pass-rushers Brooks Reed (Texans) and Jabaal Sheard (Browns).

In selecting Dowling at No. 33 over one of those two top pass-rushers, Bill Belichick showed faith in his returning outside linebackers and a belief that he might have another Devin McCourty in Dowling. If that happens, Belichick will be proved correct. On the flip side, if Reed and Sheard make Clay Matthews-type impacts, that will be the big second-guess as to why the pass-rushers were passed over.
That will be fun to follow in the seasons to come, and that's also where this week's mailbag begins.

Q: Mike, I appreciate the Patriots' need for a pass rusher from the OLB position but I think in all fairness we should at least examine what the possible outcomes would be if they pursued that position in the first or second round, as you suggested they should pointing towards Jabaal Sheard and Brooks Reed. In the past five years, 39 OLBs have been chosen in the first two rounds of the draft (2006-2010). Of those selections, only Lamarr Woodley, Tamba Hali and Clay Matthews have been significantly more productive than the player the Patriots are trying to replace (Tully Banta-Cain). That represents a 7 percent success rate, in my view. Of course not all play the same system, but a quick look of previous drafts find a graveyard of Jerry Hughes, Clint Sintim, Larry English, Bobby Carpenter, Robert Ayers, Everette Brown, Jarvis Moss, Aaron Maybin, etc. I think they may pursue Mathias Kiwanuka (4 sacks per season) when free agency opens or try to work a trade with Oakland for Kamerion Wimbley. Thoughts? -- Digger (Massachusetts)

A: Digger, I appreciate your thoroughness in looking at players drafted at that position. There is definitely some volatility, but I don't think that reason alone is why a team should avoid the pick. At some point, as the Patriots did in 2010 with Jermaine Cunningham, I think you have to make an attempt to add some high-quality youth there. In this case, I think cornerback Ras-I Dowling has a lot of good things going for him, and I can see why the Patriots like him as much as they do. There is a something to be said for better coverage helping the pass rush, but it was just surprising to me because the team has invested so much in the cornerback position over the previous three years -- one first-round pick, two second-rounders and a four-year, $22 million contract for Leigh Bodden. That's a lot of darts thrown at the board at cornerback. I haven't seen as many darts thrown at the board at outside linebacker/pass-rusher.

Q: Mike, do you think the lucrative investment in (and subsequent failure of) Adalius Thomas has Bill Belichick reluctant to expend high picks/high contracts on a pass rusher? That signing is the decision I consider most costly, and a huge reason these defenses have been well below average the past few years. Also, given the Pats' draft, I believe Jermaine Cunningham's "year two leap" will be one of the top stories to watch in this (hopefully) 2011-12 season. Thoughts on where Cunningham, when healthy, needs to improve? -- Clark (Washington, D.C.)

A: Clark, I don't think the Thomas signing has anything to do with Belichick's draft-day decision-making when it comes to outside linebackers/pass-rushers. It might have more of an impact on how the team approaches free agency in terms of taking an extra-close look at which players the team is breaking the bank for. As for Cunningham, I think you're right on the money in how his improvement becomes one of the top stories to watch on defense. I thought he tailed off a bit down the stretch last season, so I'd start with more consistency from Game 1 to Game 16. I think he can continue to develop more pass-rush skills.

Q: Mike, I don't understand why BB emphasizes picking for value so much -- there are plenty of teams that have picked for need and won Super Bowls, so why can't BB do the same? It is disheartening for a fan to see minimal improvement on D unless there's some big trade coming up. -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)

A: Alex, I think Bill Belichick does pick for need as well, such as last year with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez or this year with running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Those were both big needs. On the defense this year, I do agree with you. I said before the draft that it would be hard to call it a success if they don't come away with pass-rush help, and I thought they had a great opportunity to add it at the top of the second round. Obviously, the Patriots didn't think as highly of Brooks Reed and Jabaal Sheard as top pass-rushers when compared to cornerback Ras-I Dowling, and considering the amount of money and time they put into the scouting process, I'm sure they have good reason for that. I'm interested to see what those players do -- I thought that Dowling over Reed/Sheard was the defining choice of their draft -- and we'll circle back and see how it turns out.

Q: Is it possible Belichick was perfectly willing to draft an OLB but simply found value elsewhere? Perhaps he has Nate Solder targeted as a top prospect in a very important position with great uncertainty with Matt Light as a free agent. Then with 28, they got an offer that was very good and moved picks into next year, so they took it. With 33, Mel Kiper acknowledged Ras-I Dowling was a top-20 pick, tremendous value at 33, whereas the OLBs available were right around the 2nd round grade, so there was more value in Dowling. Sure, I'm a shameless BB apologist, but the guy seems to kind of know what he's doing, and every time we think "he's finally made his critical mistake THIS time" he proves us all wrong. So, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt? -- Belichick Apologist (College Park, Md.)

A: Fair points all around. Belichick's track record is solid. Like others, he's had some drafts that I'm sure he'd like to have back (e.g. 2006, 2008) and has made some debatable personnel decisions of late -- I have to believe he has second thoughts about cutting 2010 sixth-round pick Ted Larsen as well as banking on Derrick Burgess at outside linebacker last year. But when you look at the complete body of work, it compares favorably to those he competes against. No one is perfect, including those doing the critiquing.

Q: Mike, I might be in the minority here, but I really like this draft class for a variety of reasons. First and foremost they strike me as a high-character bunch who love the game. Breaking it down individually, I like the Nate Solder pick. Even if Matt Light is the better opening day starter, that will change over a relatively short amount of time. While I'm glad Leigh Bodden is returning I still felt our depth was pretty suspect at the CB position (Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite) -- you really need three starting caliber corners in today's NFL. I really like the implications that the Pats are going to further develop their ground game and get more physical. I like the power combination of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley offset by the speed and elusiveness brought by Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen. Lastly, considering he was first round talent who fell due to character issues, how big a piece of trade-bait is Ryan Mallett going to be after 2-3 years of being a good citizen for Bill? Yes, an OLB/DE would be the sexier pick from a fan perspective, but I think we brought in a strong group of players. Thoughts? -- Jon (Fairhaven, Mass.)

A: Jon, I was extremely impressed with what I saw from the Patriots' draft picks from a character perspective. Acknowledging that it's difficult to get a true read on players in such a short time, the first impression was strong that the Patriots have added a good group of players to the locker room. On Mallett, I could see him elevating to No. 2 if there is genuine trade interest in Brian Hoyer next offseason. So I don't necessarily view him as trade bait at this point as much as Hoyer, who shows a lot of promise. Overall, I agree that the Patriots brought in a strong group of players. I think the draft ultimately will be defined by how it turns out when analyzing Ras-I Dowling versus Brooks Reed/Jabaal Sheard, because once the Patriots passed on those pass-rushers at No. 33, it ensured they'd be out of the mix for the draft's top rushers. The cupboard was pretty bare after that.

Q: I like the move toward a balanced offensive attack (pounding runners with solid blockers), but I too was disappointed at the lack of draft picks on defense, particularly for a woeful pass rush. I trust Belichick's smarts, I like the 2012 picks, yet while I agree that drafts are best evaluated a few years down the road, this still seems like a missed opportunity. My question: How much do you think Belichick's draft strategy stemmed from his bend-but-don't break defensive plan (allowing opponents to gain yards but hopefully not touchdowns), and how much do you think it's because he and the rest of the staff have faith that the defensive front and linebackers will be back stronger, healthier, and more experienced than ever, and thus able to improve substantially on last year's pass rush with no new rookies in the mix? -- Alex (Hampden-Sydney, Va.)

A: Alex, I feel the same way you do on "missed opportunity" when it comes to the pass rush. At the same time, it's not as if the Patriots didn't get a good player in Ras-I Dowling, if he is healthy. In the end, when it comes to pass-rushers, I think the answer is less about a bend-but-don't-break mindset and more about Bill Belichick's belief that the younger players like Jermaine Cunningham will improve. One point I do wonder about is whether Belichick -- when it's time to make the final decision on draft day -- gets any passionate push-back from his scouting staff on decisions like these. I think those differing opinions are healthy.

Q: Mike, I guess I'm not shocked that they didn't draft a pass-rushing OLB, since no one seems to measure up, however I am surprised that they didn't draft an end to replace either Richard Seymour or eventually Ty Warren. While I don't have a problem with the Dowling pick, I wonder if Bill was surprised by the Steelers' pick at 31, figuring either Muhammad Wilkerson or Cameron Heyward would fall to them at 33. To oversimplify the trades, Vereen is the net gain for that trade down at 28. If Vereen doesn't turn into Kevin Faulk, and the guys they passed on pan out, Belichick may get a lot of criticism for this draft. -- Don (Boston)

A: Don, I think you're on to something here, although it's probably not as black-and-white as it seems. When trading out of 28, the Patriots knew they had their next pick at 33. So the way I envision it unfolding is that they'd look at the board and see a cluster of four or five players they'd feel good about at the next spot. I would imagine Heyward/Wilkerson were in that group -- or at least one of them -- as well as Dowling. I liked both Heyward/Wilkerson for the Patriots, but with 3-4 teams like the Jets, Steelers and Packers picking at 30, 31, and 32, it seemed obvious to me they'd be going right there. It will be interesting to me to follow the careers of these players to see which team was ultimately right.

Q: Mike in retrospect, was this draft as deep as we thought it was? I thought the fact that more players declared for the draft than ever before meant it HAD to be deeper/more talented. Now I'm starting to see reports trickling out that maybe it wasn't ... moving picks to next year, in that case, seems a lot smarter. Do you have a sense for how talented this class really was compared to other years? -- Khyzak (Washington, D.C.)

A: I think parts of this class were quite talented -- defensive line, offensive line, running back. The midround receivers might be put in there, too. On the flip side, the tight ends, safeties and middle linebackers were as thin as I can remember in recent memory. Overall, the class seemed a bit weaker than 2010.

Q: Hi Mike, I noticed in this year's draft and last year's draft that a lot of picks were co-captains in college. Is this a trend or something the Patriots have done since Bill has been coach? Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, Bill Belichick mentioned this in his wrap-up news conference from the draft on Saturday. He said, "We don't go into the draft saying, 'We want to get four team captains.' Certainly we value leadership and we value some of the characteristics that normally are associated with that type of position -- respect, hard work, unselfishness, things like that."

Q: Mike, couldn't we all agree that the horrible third-down defense will likely improve at least somewhat just by virtue of getting Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden back this year? On top of that Devin McCourty and Jermaine Cunningham should be a bit further along on their learning curve, which should help as well. If I recall correctly, too, Tully Banta-Cain was supposedly playing hurt for a long stretch of last season as well, so getting him back to full strength should help as well. I mean you've never even produced any sort of half season split for that 3rd down defense stat you frequently cite and my guess is that it would not help you make your point. I realize that the sky-is-falling approach fits perfectly with our immediate gratification culture, but wouldn't a more balanced analysis be a bit more reflective of reality? -- Gennady (Rochester, N.Y.)

A: Gennady, I think Ty Warren is more of a wild card at this point. It's a bit risky to bank on him returning to his preinjury form. Also, is he still hungry and is he all in after missing a full season at this point in his career? Even if he is, he has not been a big presence on third down. Bodden's return should help, although there's also some risk, as he's coming back from a significant shoulder injury that cost him the 2010 season. I think it's fair to analyze things in different ways, and your point is well taken. For example, although the Patriots were last in third-down defense, they were eighth in fewest points allowed. So all is not bad, even though it can sometimes seem that way based on what is written.

Q: Mike, will BenJarvus Green-Ellis be an unrestricted free agent after this season (assuming we have a season)? If so, then perhaps the Pats drafted two RBs with that thought in mind. -- AnneMarie (Arlington, Mass.)

A: AnneMarie, Green-Ellis' contract expires after the 2011 season. Depending on the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, he will be either a restricted free agent or an unrestricted free agent. I think that was a factor in the drafting of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley but not the primary factor. More than anything, I think Bill Belichick knew he had at least two openings on his 53-man roster for running backs and this draft had some good depth at the position. It was a situation where need met opportunity.

Q: Most reports on Stevan Ridley have him as a power back, like a Peyton Hillis/Brandon Jacobs kind of player. My impression of Ridley isn't more so a back who can run through people, but a Ray Rice kind of back; a guy you want on your team because of the kind of player he is. He's a closer and I think BB really liked him because he can envision a scenario where the Pats are up by say a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Ridley keeps churning out yards because he gets better as the game goes on. I think BB spilled out the Mallett reports early to get a team to trade up to 74. While listening to reports, they had their pick down for 73 all along, and it was Ridley. Ultimately, no offers were good enough so they took Mallett themselves. Thoughts? -- Steven (North Carolina)

A: Steven, I see what you're saying on Rice, although when I think of Rice, the speed/quickness is one of the first things that come to mind. Ridley ran a 4.67-second time in the 40, which is considered slow for a back. I like your thought on him being a closer, similar to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and I'd also mention that both Ridley and Shane Vereen were two of the better pass-blocking backs in the draft. As for Mallett at 74, that scenario sounds plausible. My hunch is that the Patriots would have liked to trade a few other picks as well, but there just weren't any takers.

Q: Mike, I really like the two RBs the Pats picked. I understand that besides BJGE and Woody, we needed some backup. My question is if you think these RB picks were simply to add depth, or if this foursome will literally divide and conquer? If the latter, how would you foresee the responsibilities being divvied up? Ridley and BJGE look really similar don't they? Do either of the rookies have a solid shot at starting? -- David (Phoenix)

A: David, I think it's a divide and conquer. I could envision all four being part of the 45-man game-day roster. Part of what intrigues me on the running backs is how they complement each other, and I also think Vereen is quicker and more explosive than he's getting credit for. As for how it's divided up, I think it will be tailored to that week's game plan, as the Patriots vary it from week to week based on an opponent's strength. Competition in training camp also will dictate.

Q: Mike, I see the possible trade value for Ryan Mallett (74) down the road. But do you think it would have been smarter to either use that pick on the offensive line (Moffitt-75, Rackley-76 or Boling-101), or DL (Bailey-86), or even tried trading into next year for a second-rounder and possible an extra fifth or sixth- rounder this year? The idea of an OL with Solder, Moffitt/Rackley, Koppen (or early pick next year), Cannon & Vollmer sounds pretty great especially in a year or two. -- Noah (Jacksonville, Fla.)

A: Noah, if a team was willing to offer a 2012 second-rounder for that pick, I think the Patriots would have jumped at it. As for the offensive line, I think the best scenario is to have Logan Mankins back in there at left guard, and perhaps that was the team's mindset as well. The main thing with the picks in the first three rounds is to make sure you pick a player who is going to make your roster. I'm assuming when the Patriots looked at John Moffitt, Will Rackley and Clint Boling, they didn't see a major difference against the Dan Connollys, Ryan Wendells and Rich Ohrnbergers already on their roster.

Q: In their three Super Bowl wins, the Patriots had great pass protection, allowing a total of four sacks. In their three recent playoff losses, they've allowed 13 sacks. Can Nate Solder and the new running backs help them keep Brady standing? -- Bob (Nashville, Tenn.)

A: Bob, I think it's a step in the right direction. Solder has a lot of potential, but is far from a finished product. At 6-foot-8, 319 pounds, you don't find talents like him who can bend and move so well. I also like the idea of what both backs will bring to the offense and special teams. Those picks, as well as offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, had a little "attitude" to them.

Q: Now that the Pats have a new left tackle in Nate Solder and with Sebastian Vollmer returning at RT, who do you think will start on the offensive line this year? Does Logan Mankins come back and if he doesn't, could Matt Light possibly move into that left guard spot with Dan Connolly staying at right guard? -- Joseph (Maine)

A: Joseph, I think the left tackle job will go to Solder, although the lockout could affect that. But let's assume it's business as usual by training camp, I think we'll see a Solder/Mankins/Koppen/Connolly/Vollmer line, and that projects Marcus Cannon opening the season on the non-football injury list, which would save a roster spot on the initial 53-man roster.

Q: Hey Mike, could you do a quick re-set of what trades were made by the Pats and what picks they have for 2012? -- Ben (Massachusetts)

A: Ben, the Patriots have the following 2012 picks:

  • First round (original)

  • First round (Saints)

  • Second round (original)

  • Second round (Raiders)

  • Third round (original)

  • Fourth round (original)

  • Fifth round (original)

As for the trades, the Patriots made four of them on draft day.

  • Patriots trade first-round pick (28) to Saints for second-round pick (56) and 2012 first-round pick.

  • Patriots trade second-round pick (60) to Texans for third-round pick (73) and fifth-round pick (138).

  • Patriots trade third-round pick (92) and fourth-round pick (125) for seventh-round pick (219) and 2012 second-round pick.

  • Patriots trade sixth-round pick (193) to Eagles for sixth-round pick (194).

Q: Hey Mike, so as a BC fan I was disappointed to see Mark Herzlich go undrafted and I don't understand it. What are the chances that the Pats could pick him up? He was projected in the top 10 last year so he definitely has potential and I would love to keep watching him grow. Could this happen? -- Connor (Medway, Mass.)

A: Connor, no teams can sign rookie free agents until the CBA is resolved. But when that happens, I agree with you. I think Herzlich would be worthy of signing here -- I envision a nice fit both footballwise and in the locker room.

Q: Mike, the Patriots draft spawned a theory I have about how Bill Belichick has been thinking since the playoff loss in January. He doesn't see a pass rush helping against the quick release of a Peyton Manning, and we sacked Ben Roethlisberger plenty in our meeting with him. On offense, he saw the Jets' 6 DBs and thinks "if I had a power running game, I would have held the ball for 40 minutes and pounded them into submission". Could it be that Bill Belichick sees how the game WILL be played, not how it was played? -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)

A: David, this is entirely possible. I had this same discussion on Monday, and it was a good debate. The person I was talking to said, "That sounds great, but you tell me, when the game is on the line, do you really think they'll be handing it off instead of having Tom Brady throwing it? I'll believe it when I see it."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.