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10 Questions: Which rookie will have the most impact?

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  July 17, 2011 08:00 AM

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Part 4 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots' training camp...

The question: Which draft pick will have the most impact this season?

Three factors: The lockout; future of veterans Matt Light, Kevin Faulk and Alge Crumpler; staying healthy in camp.

Finding the answer: When we posed this question a few days ago, it was almost a no-brainer to me that one of the running backs, Shane Vereen or Stevan Ridley, would have the biggest impact for the Patriots. After all, Kevin Faulk is 35 and coming off ACL surgery, and Sammy Morris saw his opportunities cut way back last season. Both are unrestricted free agents.

But for today’s Sunday NFL notes, I decided to do a more in-depth review of the Patriots’ draft picks by calling four NFL college scouting directors who I respect very much.

And to my surprise, each of them said first-round left tackle Nate Solder could start right away, even with the lockout. Three of them expected Solder to have the biggest impact because they did not think the Patriots would re-sign veteran Matt Light once the lockout is lifted.

Personally, I’m not so sure of that. Whether or not Light returns largely resides with him because the Patriots will make him another offer – he rejected one contract before the lockout, which was likely on the low side – and if Light wants to stay here bad enough with the only team he has known, his quarterback buddy Tom Brady and on a Super Bowl contending team, then Light can stay. But it will be at the Patriots’ price, not Light’s.

But it did shock me that those executives thought so highly of Solder. He’s still relatively new at the position since he entered college as a tight end, and he does need to get stronger. But everyone raves about his feet, and his length is obviously off the charts.

In the end, the guess here is that the Patriots will move on from Light and go with Solder. I don’t see why they wouldn’t. Solder has all the tools and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is as good as they come. Even if Solder gets hurt or fails, the Patriots can still put Sebastian Vollmer over there and make due with someone else at right tackle. In short, I don’t see a huge downside of letting Light sign elsewhere. Patriots have never been shy about moving on from people, and they’d get a compensatory pick in return.

But if Light wants to return, he will. In that case, I’m going to go with Ridley as having the biggest impact. The Patriots have an opening for a short-yardage back, and he can pass block (as opposed to Vereen). Both skills are of value to this team.

A darkhorse is blocking tight end Lee Smith. Everyone loves Alge Crumpler. He was very versatile and his obvious leadership skills led to him being named a captain in short order once Randy Moss was traded. But Smith has the reputation for being a run blocker without peer. If he is so good at that – perhaps better than Crumpler, who in his own right is outstanding – why not go with Smith since releasing Crumpler would save cap money? I doubt it will happen but I wouldn’t count it out.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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