THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Moving down

The lackluster 2006-08 drafts have left the Patriots with plenty of holes to fill

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 9, 2010

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Kareem Brown. Kevin O’Connell. Garrett Mills. David Thomas. Clint Oldenburg.

Chad Jackson.

All were drafted by the Patriots from 2006 to 2008, all in the first four rounds. None of them are with the Patriots today. Most are out of the NFL.

If you’re looking for a reason the Patriots will be counting on so many first- and second-year players to be major contributors this season, look no further than the above drafts.

It is no secret that drafting players is an inexact science, and no one expects the Patriots, or any team for that matter, to hit on every selection. But a team must have those young players who have been developing in the system for 3-5 years near the top of the depth chart.

Despite its uncertain nature, teams spend tremendous amounts of money and time preparing for the draft every year. Scouts are on the road attending numerous college practices, scouring film and writing reports trying to determine which players might fit their respective teams. There are personal interviews, background checks, and more film study for higher-level personnel types.

And still, for all the money invested and all the time devoted, teams sometimes don’t know what they have until two or three years after a player is drafted.

Which brings us to today.

From 2006-08, the Patriots drafted 26 players. But just eight (31 percent) are still with the team. Three are starters, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best in the business.

The draft is a touchy subject, particularly when things haven’t gone well. Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, now the general manager in Kansas City, and former director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff (who became general manager of the Falcons after the 2007 season) declined to comment on New England’s lack of success.

Super Bowl champion New Orleans drafted 21 players over those same three years, and 13 (62 percent) are still on the roster; 2008 second-round selection Tracy Porter intercepted the Colts’ Peyton Manning to seal the Saints’ first title.

The Colts, AFC champs last year and one of the favorites in the AFC this year, still have 13 of their 25 (52 percent) players drafted from that period, and Green Bay and Baltimore, the darlings of many league observers this season, have 56 percent and 61 percent of their picks, respectively, from that time.

Even looking to the Patriots’ past success shows how important drafting can be: in the 2003 and 2004 Super Bowls, four and five years into Belichick’s and Pioli’s tenure, there were numerous draft choices helping New England win back-to-back championships.

Many point to Jackson as the poster child for the Patriots’ draft ills. Seduced by his 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound frame and 4.3 speed coming out of Florida, the Patriots did something they have rarely done in the last half-decade: they traded up to get him. The Patriots sent the Packers their second-round pick, No. 52, and a third-round pick to move up to 36th to select Jackson in the second round in 2006.

A few days after the draft, another rare move: instead of just introducing first-round pick Laurence Maroney to the media, as had traditionally been done, Jackson also got the ceremonial jersey treatment from the Patriots. Reporters were awed when Jackson put on a clinic at spring practices.

But no sooner had the pomp faded did Jackson’s star fade as well. His best game in New England might have been his first: in Week 2 in the Meadowlands against the Jets, he had two catches for 42 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown. His Patriots career: 14 games, 13 receptions for 152 yards, and 3 touchdowns.

Adding to the problem: at No. 52, the Packers tabbed receiver Greg Jennings, who has averaged 61.5 receptions, 989 yards, and 7 touchdowns in his four seasons.

Among Jackson’s draft classmates who have departed are tight end Thomas, tackle Ryan O’Callaghan, and defensive lineman LeKevin Smith, a trio that combined to play 89 games before being traded during training camp last year. Willie Andrews had carved out a niche on special teams before legal troubles signaled the end for him in New England.

The Class of ’08 featured Jerod Mayo, the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year, second-round pick Terrence Wheatley, fourth-rounder Jonathan Wilhite, and fifth-rounder Matthew Slater. All will play roles this season.

Third-round picks Shawn Crable and Kevin O’Connell were disappointments, with O’Connell gone after one year. Crable was released on the eve of training camp, having spent his first two seasons injured or unprepared. He was signed to New England’s practice squad over the weekend, given one more chance to show he belongs.

The Patriots’ draft nadir, however, was 2007.

The team said that draft was successful because the Patriots flipped second-, fourth-, and seventh-round picks for Wes Welker and Randy Moss. But that speaks to savvy in pro scouting, not college. Brandon Meriweather was chosen 24th overall, but of the players that followed — Brown, Oldenburg, Justin Rogers, Mike Richardson, Justise Hairston, Corey Hilliard, Oscar Lua, and Mike Elgin — only Richardson suited up for the Patriots. And although those players were selected outside of the top 125 picks, New England has had many late-round draftees contribute in the last decade.

The Patriots were undefeated in the regular season that year, so maybe those draft picks weren’t needed at the time or maybe the team thought it was a weak draft. The 2007 roster was stocked with high-priced free agents, veteran acquisitions, and longtime contributors who had been through many a battle together — and won.

The Patriots could use a core group now, because the defense — generally the strength of a Belichick team — will be looking to a passel of untested players to make plays. They could use that core group now because Brady is on the back end of a brilliant career and the number of players who know what it takes to persevere and win big games is dwindling rapidly.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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