Warning flags flying around Patriots
FOXBOROUGH — If the first day of the 2011 NFL draft left Patriots fans frustrated, they may also feel perplexed and possibly angry after the second and third rounds last night.
A team that had issues getting off the field on defense has drafted an offensive tackle, a cornerback, two running backs, and a quarterback so far.
And not just any quarterback.
The Patriots selected Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, who has first-round tools, perhaps the best in the draft outside of Cam Newton, but also the most red flags.
Besides a public intoxication charge in 2009 at Arkansas, Mallett was rumored to have used drugs in college. Two personnel executives with teams looking for a quarterback said that in predraft interviews Mallett admitted to only using marijuana.
“We didn’t believe him,’’ one of the executives said. The other hinted as much.
There are no concerns about Mallett’s love of football. When he’s in the building, at practice and on game day, the son of a high school coach is all in.
It’s the other hours that concerned teams.
“Things just aren’t right with him,’’ one NFL executive said. “Has the drugs and alcohol stuff. He can be a hothead. Carries himself like the 6-7 Eminem. He’s just a different dude. Maybe they can keep him in check. They can take that risk. We can’t.’’
That’s why Mallett lasted until the 74th pick, where the Patriots hope they struck gold.
Whatever Mallett may or may not have going on off the field, the Patriots got a top-flight talent at virtually no risk. If he pans out, they can either keep him to succeed a 34-year-old Tom Brady, or trade him to a team looking for a quar terback. There is never any shortage of those.
“Obviously we’re comfortable with him,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “We took him.’’
What’s ironic is that Mallett has the same physical profile as Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback Belichick quickly traded when Brady developed.
“Yeah, Drew II with issues,’’ an NFL executive said.
If Mallett does not work out, he can be cut at little or no cost.
Many teams might not be able to handle a possible distraction, but the Patriots’ locker has dealt with plenty of turmoil under Belichick. And it has kept on ticking.
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland passed on Mallett twice.
“I like the kid. I think he’s got a great, great future ahead of him,’’ Ireland said. “I just felt like it wasn’t the right fit for us at this time.’’
So while the Mallett pick will certainly be the talk of the NFL, what has Patriots fans ruffled is what the team didn’t do: address their average pass rush during the first three rounds.
Not going for defense in the first round was understandable.
The Patriots likely didn’t medically clear North Carolina linebacker Robert Quinn, who had a brain tumor in high school.
The Patriots, who had many conversations to move up in the first round, felt linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue) and end Cameron Jordan (California) did not fit their scheme.
And with a draft heavy in five-technique ends (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle), the Patriots felt they could trade out of the 28th pick (receiving a 2012 first-round pick from the Saints), and get their type of player later on.
But on Day 2, the Patriots didn’t take an end or a linebacker. The only defensive player they drafted was cornerback Ras-I Dowling of Virginia.
Dowling certainly won’t hurt a defense that was tied for 23d in the league with a 63.5 completion percentage by opposing quarterbacks and was last with a 47 percent third-down conversion rate.
Dowling has very good size and speed, and will be used against taller receivers. He could convert to safety at some point, but for now he gives the team more options behind Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden (returning from injury).
Dowling has had injury problems dating to high school, but none were major. He played only five games last season. If Dowling were healthy, he likely would have gone in the first round. He’s that talented.
As for the pass rush, the Patriots either are confident about the talent they have, or are targeting a free agent.
One thing that hurt the Patriots last year in getting to the quarterback was the health of linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who went from 10 sacks in ’09 to five. The truth of the matter was he was beat up most of the season and lacked his normal ability to turn the corner.
The Patriots are also hoping for a second-year leap from linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. But if the lockout lingers, it is sure to affect the younger players who benefit greatly from the offseason workouts and practices.
“We have some young players on our roster and I think that those players — in all the various positions, not just at that specifically — but I think younger players will still continue to develop,’’ Belichick said of the pass rush. “But there are good players up there on the board and we got the ones that we felt were best for us.’’
The Patriots solidified some positions on offense. Nate Solder brings a needed athletic body at tackle. Running back Shane Vereen has flown under the radar but is talented. He’ll also help on special teams, along with third-round back Stevan Ridley. And Mallett . . . well, we’ll see.
The Patriots could use a guard with Stephen Neal retired and Logan Mankins in contract limbo. But perhaps the team that went 14-2 last season views that position like its pass rush: the pieces are already in place.
There’s no use in getting upset. We won’t know if they’re right until the season starts.