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Don't rush to judge Patriots' draft

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 2, 2011 08:25 AM

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Those of us familiar with the weekly saga of the 2010 Patriots require no reminder that they lacked an outside pass rush last season. At best, it was more like a pass meander, the path of most resistance. Tully Banta-Cain, who made a play just often enough to remind you that he was indeed active, led their outside linebackers and ends with five sacks. Willie McGinest, whose legacy grows with each passing year his old job remains essentially unfilled, once finished a half-sack shy of that number in a single playoff game. Those were some times.

It is not coincidental that the Patriots failed to get off the field on third down a staggering 47 percent of the time last season. A defensive backfield of four Mike Hayneses with Ronnie Lott as the nickel back couldn't consistently stop a decent passing game without the assistance of a competent pass rush. The Darius Butlers and Jonathan Wilhites of the world had no chance.

Such a cold truth considered, it comes as little surprise that fans and media alike were puzzled, to put it mildly, that Bill Belichick selected two more running backs in the first three rounds (2) than he did outside pass rushers (that would be zero). Who knew that the only pass rusher to be associated with the Patriots during the draft would be Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, who announced their second-round pick? Now that you mention it, he is a rather young-looking 51. Think he could give them 10-12 plays a game next season, a couple of key third-downs here and there? If Seau could do it two years ago at age 62 . . .

I know, no one wants to be facetious about this. Many fans are frustrated that the teams apparent greatest need remains unfulfilled. That was evident by the insta-howling on Twitter beginning Thursday and carrying through the weekend after the Patriots progressively . . .

1) chose Colorado offensive lineman Nate Solder with the No. 17 pick . . .

2) traded out of the No. 28 spot with Alabama running back Mark Ingram on the board . . .

and . . .

3) took Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling with the first pick of the second round when pass rushers Brooks Reed (Arizona) and Jabaal Sheard (Pitt) were still available.

finntippett510-1.jpg The gripes are understandable, at least upon casual consideration. The Patriots need a pass rusher. Belichick said in the days leading up to the draft that there were some talented players in this year's group. Then he goes out and drafts, in the first three rounds, an offensive lineman who used to be a tight end (Solder), a cornerback with injury problems (Dowling), two smallish running backs (Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley), and a quarterback with Drew Bledsoe's arm and, if you believe the most TMZish gossip, young Drew Barrymore's lifestyle (Ryan Mallett).

Brief digression: I love the symmetry of choosing Mallett with the pick they acquired from the Vikings for Randy Moss, especially since both of the teams the wide receiver played for after leaving New England spent first-round picks on quarterbacks. Given that Mallett has the biggest and possibly the most accurate arm in the draft, wowed Belichick (and Jon Gruden) with his chalkboard acumen, and is in the ideal situation to grow the hell up, ditch his personal baggage, would you bet against him being a superior quarterback to Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, and even Cam Newton five seasons down the road? I wouldn't.

But that's all it is right now: informed bets at various levels of education and knowledge. Pardon me while I step into the usually filled role of scold around here, but it seems that some among us require a reminder than none of us knows a damn thing, including those who get paid to provide "draft grades" before any one of the 254 players selected plays a single down of professional football. Could Ryan Mallett be a steal? Yup. Could he wash out of the league in three years? Well, sure, stranger things have happened. I suspect that on draft day 2000, Giovanni Carmazzi never suspected his job description would be "fledgling goat farmer/yoga novice/punch line" barely a decade later, you know?

As for not drafting a pass rusher, maybe it's just this simple. Maybe there just wasn't one he liked, at least at the spot where the player was available. Belichick's dastardly attempts at cloning the likes of McGinest or Mike Vrabel or Roman Phifer in the bowels of Gillette Stadium have thus far been fruitless, and we know it's hard to find the big, fast, smart, versatile prototypes for his system. (Belichick must consider Vrabel, who was all of those things, one of the best free-agent heists in league history.) Given that he prefers veterans fill the complex, crucial role with veterans rather than young players, it's fair to presume his strategy all along was to find a dependable candidate or two in free agency (LBs here, DEs here) once matters of the lockout are settled.

The generally negative reaction to Belichick's approach to the draft among fans is disheartening. He trades around too much! Pick some players, will ya! Well, sure . . . except that he chose nine players this year, 12 last year -- six of whom were significant contributors -- and a dozen as well in 2009. Last year, he traded down from No. 22 to 24 and then 27, ending up with Devin McCourty in the first round and adding third-rounder Taylor Price and fourth-rounder Aaron Hernandez with the two picks acquired in moving down five total spots. I presume you're OK with the McCourty pick now that he proved something more than a nickelback/special-teams gunner? Or do you still covet pass-rushers Sergio Kindle or Jerry Hughes? (Since we're being honest here, I thought Hughes should have been the pick. But I know now to keep my yap shut when Belichick does something I don't expect.)

Sure, it would be nice if the Patriots had a monster playmaker like Clay Matthews, whether or not the former Southern Cal walk-on was an ideal fit for their system when they passed him up in 2009. But again, in trading out of that spot, they ended up with an array of picks that yielded Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Darius Butler. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I'm not ready to put that one in the loss column.

I'm not saying he's always right. I'm saying that loading up on picks in a business in which even the most expensive can't-miss prospects often miss seems like a pretty shrewd policy. He deserves the benefit of the doubt, particularly when he makes a deal like the one with the Saints with the No. 28 pick. Getting a first-rounder next year as well as the No. 56 pick in this year's draft (used on Vereen) is an offer that cannot be refused.

We all get caught up in the pre-draft hype. Imagining your favorite team reloading is irresistible fun. The draft is probably my favorite day on the sports calendar that doesn't actually involve the playing of a game. I'm one of those people who talks himself into believing that, say, Cameron Jordan is exactly the player the Patriots need . . . even though I've never seen him play, first heard of him, oh, maybe three months ago, and have no honest clue about how he would fit within Belichick schemes. He looked the part in the highlights, but who doesn't? They're highlights.

We all like to think we know what we don't know. It's why some of us were upset Belichick passed up a shot at Ingram. He was familiar, having won the Heisman Trophy two years ago, which makes it easy to dismiss the knee issues that plagued him last year, which is why he was available at 28. I suspect one main reason some Patriots fans coveted Reed is because with his long, blond hair he looks like Matthews if you squint. It's ridiculous. But it's what we do.

phiferfinn5111.jpgIt's not that I want that to change. My wish is that the decibel level on the immediate overreaction when Belichick leaves you, me, and Mel Kiper scratching our heads can be turned down. Let me ask you this: What was the one draft in the past six or seven years that seemed immediately gratifying? I doubt it was 2005, when the Logan Mankins selection in the first round left Kiper scrunching his face and muttering that he had him as third-round value. I doubt it was 2008, when the consensus was the Jets got a better linebacker at No. 5 than the Patriots did at 10 with Jerrod Mayo. Wonder if Vernon Gholston will be in the league next season.

Speaking of abbreviated careers, the most immediately gratifying draft for me was the Lawrence Maroney-Chad Jackson-David Thomas trio in 2006. Now that was a flashy draft with name recognition. Finally, Tom Brady had some weapons! Turns out they were weapons of self-destruction. Five years later, Thomas is a contributor in New Orleans, but Jackson and Maroney will be lucky to take their talents to the UFL. Maybe they can play on an all-busts team with Gholston.

Belichick's worst draft was arguably the one most of us liked the best. That's pretty telling, I'd say, and hopefully reason enough to keep the howling to a minimum next year when he ruins everyone's mock draft yet again. Hopefully we will learn, one of these Aprils. Because this won't be the last time he drafts another class of promising players we've barely heard of over a player or three whose name recognition and position are enough to foolishly convince us he's just the elixir the Patriots need.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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