During the night of the 2011 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots again surprised most fans and analysts with their moves. However, now that some of the shock stemming from those picks (and non-picks) has worn off since draft night, the roles for players that the Patriots selected can start to be projected.
Round 1, Pick 17 (17 Overall) – Nate Solder, OL, Colorado
With the 17th overall pick, the Patriots selected the massive tackle from Colorado, Nate Solder. Standing just above 6'8" and weighing 320 lbs, Solder proved to be one of the most gifted physical specimens in the 2011 NFL Draft.
He showed these gifts by running a sub five-second 40 yard dash and measuring a 32-inch vertical leap, but also showed room for improvement by only benching 225 lbs 21 times, which was the lowest among the top-tier tackles that entered the draft. Solder was rated second amongst tackles by the majority of teams in the draft to Tyron Smith, who was taken at pick No. 9 by the Dallas Cowboys.
In regard to what the Patriots look for in their draft picks, Solder fit the description perfectly. He scored 20 out of 25 on the Wonderlic test, had absolutely no character issues, and has the ability to play both the left and right tackle positions until he matures enough to become a full-time left tackle.
Prior to the draft, the Patriots already had two tackles on the roster, Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer. Light, who has been entrenched as the Patriots left tackle starter for the past decade, enters unrestricted free agency, making his future with the team uncertain. He turns 33 next season, and he is certainly past the prime of his career.
However, with Solder projected as a raw talent, he may be resigned as to provide Solder with a mentor, and also time to develop into starter material.
Projection: Solder’s role with the Patriots depends almost entirely on what the team decides to do with Light. If Light returns for another season, Solder can either play in the right tackle position over Vollmer, or he can spend the season developing physically and mentally to eventually become the full-time starting left tackle for years to come.
I, personally, believe that the Patriots would not have spent such a high draft pick on Solder if they did not believe that he could step into the starting lineup and be an adequate, if not spectacular player at the left tackle position.
Round 2, Pick 1 (33 Overall) – Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia
With the pick that they acquired from the Carolina Panthers in the 2010 NFL Draft, which ended up being the first pick of the second round, the Patriots added to their depth at cornerback by drafting Ras-I Dowling.
Dowling stands out for his size and athleticism—he stands 6’1’’ and weighs just under 200 lbs. He ran a 4.40 40-yard dash and benched 225 lbs 19 times at the NFL Combine. Prior to his senior year of college at Virginia, Dowling was seen to be a lock as a first-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. However, he played only five games because of injuries, including a season-ending ankle fracture—a red flag for most teams on draft night.
However, Dowling fits what the Patriots look for in defensive players. He is a big-bodied cornerback and a sure tackler (see also: Devin McCourty). Because of his combination of size and speed, he can play both inside and outside, and possibly play the role of a safety. Coach Bill Belichick has shown in the past to love versatile defenders, and Dowling fits that description.
One of the main weaknesses for the Patriots during last year’s season was depth at the cornerback position. Beyond Pro Bowl selection Devin McCourty, the Patriots struggled to find another player who excelled—Leigh Bodden did not play a regular season game because of injury, Darius Butler took a step back in his development and Kyle Arrington performed only adequately as his replacement.
Projection: With Bodden’s return to the lineup this upcoming season and Dowling more equipped to handle an outside cornerback role rather than covering a slot receiver, he projects to be a top backup in the Patriots' cornerback core. Because of his size and athletic ability, he can also have an immediate impact on special teams. With time to develop as a backup next year, he can also claim a starting cornerback role by the 2012 season.
Round 2, Pick 24 (56 Overall) – Shane Vereen, RB, Cal
Round 3, Pick 9 (73 Overall) – Stevan Ridley, RB, LSU
Coming into the draft, the Patriots were expected by most to take a running back early in the draft, perhaps in the first round. Mark Ingram, the former Heisman Trophy winner, was available at numerous points in the first round. However, the Patriots chose to pass on Ingram and eventually take two running backs later in the draft—Shane Vereen of Cal and Stevan Ridley of LSU.
Vereen, at 5'10", 210 lbs, projects as more of an all-around running back than Ridley (5'11", 225 lbs).
While Ridley, because of his massive size, projects more as a between the tackles runner and possible short yardage specialist, Vereen possesses the smarts, hands and pass protection skills to eventually become an every-down back in the New England system. Vereen also benched 31 reps of 225 lbs, making him the strongest running back at the combine. Once again, Bill Belichick was able to nab a versatile running back in Vareen.
Projection: Because of his hands and pass-blocking abilities, Vereen could be one of the leading candidates to fill the third-down back role, while sharing early-down carries with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, with the raw talent to eventually develop into a full-time starter.
Ridley, because of his size, could fill the role that Sammy Morris played for the Patriots last year—a short yardage specialist and possible fullback. He could also play a part in the special teams unit.
Round 3, Pick 10 (74 Overall) – Ryan Mallet, QB, Arkansas
Ability has never been an issue with Ryan Mallet. Standing a mammoth 6'7" and weighing 253 lbs, Mallet was perhaps the most physically gifted NFL quarterback prospect in the 2011 draft and certainly possessed the best arm.
However, he slid down the ranks during draft night because of major character issues, especially his attitude and maturity. With that said, if there is a team with a coach and locker room that can handle character issues, the New England Patriots are that team.
Mallet is full of potential, and holds one of the highest ceilings for quarterback prospects in the 2011 draft class. Obviously, Mallet is not expected to start for the foreseeable future because of the hold that Tom Brady has on the quarterback position in New England.
However, the same could have been said about Brady when he was drafted, and the hold that Drew Bledsoe had on the position at that point. After the selection, Bill Belichick was quoted as saying, “I don’t think you can have too much depth at that position…you put your whole team at risk if you don’t have a quarterback that can run the offense. It’s good to have depth at that position.” Amen.
Projection: With Brian Hoyer entering the last year of his contract in 2011, Mallet’s selection could indicate that the Patriots are ready to cash in on the potential that Hoyer has shown as Brady’s backup, making Mallet the second string quarterback in New England. Mallet also has very ample time to develop under perhaps the best role model in the league and achieve his massive potential.
Round 5, Pick 7 (138 Overall) Marcus Cannon, OL, TCU
Most know Marcus Cannon because he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma prior to the draft, which made him a very risky selection. He has been given a success rate of more than 90 percent to beat this cancer, but that did not stop many teams from taking him off their boards.
Cannon has the strength and skills of an early-round pick and eventual starter. By taking him in the fifth round, the Patriots made a low-risk, high-reward selection. He clearly projects as a future contributor, and could spend this year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, recovering from his chemotherapy treatments and learning from the current Patriots offensive lineman and coaches. However, with his skills, he projects as a right guard or right tackle after this year.
Projection: PUP list in 2011, starting right guard in 2012 if healthy.
Round 5, Pick 28 (159 Overall) Lee Smith, TE, Marshall
Lee Smith, a massive tight end (6'5", 266 lbs), was considered by many to be one of the strongest blocking tight ends in the draft. However, with three starting tight ends already on the roster, Smith may have to wait his turn. Alge Crumpler, who turns 33 next season, seems like the logical candidate to mentor Smith. Crumpler and Smith are comparable blockers, with Crumpler having better pass-catching abilities.
Projection: Practice squad or special teams in 2011, possible starter as a blocking tight end in 2012/2013.
Round 6, Pick 29 (194 Overall) Markell Carter, LB, Central Arkansas
Markell Carter, a 6'4", 252lb linebacker was selected by the Patriots with the intent of helping in the special teams unit and developing as a pass-rusher. Carter is definitely very raw at this point, and cannot be expected to contribute this season, except possibly on special teams.
He possesses the size, speed, and strength that the Patriots look for in a pass-rushing linebacker, but does not yet possess the knowledge to fill any starting position.
Projection: Project pass-rusher, possible special teams contributor.
Round 7, Pick 16 (219 Overall) Malcolm Williams, DB, TCU
The selection of Malcolm Williams often has been compared to the Patriots’ 2008 selection of Matthew Slater—a special teams contributor. If Williams makes the team, it will be in that department.
Projection: Possible special teams contributor.
Prior to the draft, the Patriots were expected to address concerns with their defensive front seven. However, it looks like coach Bill Belichick has decided that bracing for the future was a greater concern than the defensive front. Perhaps Belichick believes that those needs could be met during free agency and with the development of names like Jermaine Cunningham and Ron Brace as well as Ty Warren after spending last season on injured reserve.
With the selections of Solder and Cannon, the Patriots add 13 feet and almost 700 pounds to their offensive line for the next decade.
Vareen and Ridley give the Patriots incredible depth at the running back position, while also providing them with a combo that could start together in the future.
If Ras-I Dowling can stay healthy, I believe that he could be the steal of the draft. He possesses a large frame with great athleticism, and could start opposite Devin McCourty for years to come.