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Assessing the 2012 NFL Draft: A Patriots Perspective

Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

It’s a joke that websites publish NFL Draft grades the day or even the year after the actual NFL draft. Draft “experts” like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay say they evaluate team’s drafts based on whether they fulfilled their needs and received draft “value” with their picks. There is nothing wrong with those evaluations. Just don’t tell me you can assign a letter grade to them without actually seeing these players on the field in a regular season NFL game.

You can find a Tom Brady in the 6th round or a Peyton Manning with the 1st overall pick. You can grab Troy Brown in a round that doesn’t even exist today or you can bring an undrafted player like James Harrison who can be a perennial Pro-Bowler and Super Bowl hero. Draft success can be good scouting, strong due diligence or just plain luck.

When it comes to the Patriots drafts or others, I like to evaluate using a simple criterion.

#1 Did they draft to fill needs?

In 2010, after a first round playoff  loss to the Ravens, Bill Belichick chose to bring in more targets for Tom Brady. As described in “Bill Belichick: A Football Life,” the Patriots offense had become nothing more than deep passes to Randy Moss and slant passes to Wes Welker. Teams that were able to take that away from the Patriots offense were able to keep them in check. The Patriots stole Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2nd and 4th rounds respectively and those picks gave them a tight end combination that no one in the league can match. The pass defense had also shown cracks that season so Belichick drafted cornerback Devin McCourty to help improve in that area.

Last year, the Patriots lost to the Jets because they had trouble keeping Tom Brady comfortable in the pocket and because they still could not clamp down on defense. So despite a draft deep in defensive lineman, the Patriots decided to draft offensive tackle Nate Solder, a big corner in Ras-I Dowling and a pair of running backs (Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley). This year the Patriots spent almost all their draft currency on defense, their true Achilles heel in 2011 and the primary reason they lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

#2 Did they pick the right player at the right position?

Translation: When the Patriots evaluated a position, whether it was two different tackles, guards, linebackers, wide receivers, etc., did they pick the right one? For instance, in the 2009 draft, they did not. In the 3rd round of that draft, the Patriots selected Brandon Tate, a wide receiver from North Carolina. With the next pick in the draft, the Steelers selected another wide receiver, Mike Wallace from Mississippi. Now, the criticism isn’t just that Wallace has become a star and Tate hasn’t. Both players were inconsistent performers in college and therefore, they slipped to 3rd round.

Tate however, had missed most of his Senior year with a torn ACL. In his rookie year, he tore another ACL, and aside from a couple of kickoff returns for touchdowns, he was never a factor in the Patriot offense. Wallace has become one of the premier deep threats in the league.

In the 2011 draft, the Patriots hit a home run on Rob Gronkowski when they selected the tight end in the second round. Gronkowski had missed his senior season with a back injury and many thought the Patriots might target heralded Brigham Young tight end Dennis Pitta with their second round pick. So, you will have hits and misses. But if the misses continue to occur, then the questioning can begin.

Recent Misses

  • WR Chad Jackson instead of WR Greg Jennings in 2006
  • S Patrick Chung instead of CB Vontae Davis in 2009
  • Florida LB Jermaine Cunningham instead of Florida LB Carlos Dunlap in 2010
  • RB Shane Vereen instead of RB DeMarco Murray in 2011

Recent Hits

  • LB Jerod Mayo instead of LB Keith Rivers in 2008
  • CB Devin McCourty instead of CB Kyle Wilson in 2011
  • TE Rob Gronkowski and TE Aaron Hernandez instead of TE Dennis Pitta in 2011

Over the next few years, I will monitor closely the production of Patriots first round pick Chandler Jones vs. the production of Whitney Mercilus of the Bears and Nick Perry of the Packers, both taken in the first round behind Jones, and both defensive ends. I don’t take “the system” into consideration, as you can tell a great player from a bad player regardless of system.

The Patriots second first round pick, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, will be compared with Alabama Crimson Tide teammate Courtney Upshaw, now with the Ravens. If Hightower performs as some think, he might be the best linebacker taken in the draft.

I will be interested to see how Tavon Wilson, a pick ridiculed by the draft experts, performs against fellow defensive backs taken in the 2nd round behind Wilson. So, keep an eye on the production of Casey Hayward (Vanderbilt #62 overall) with Green Bay, Brandon Taylor (LSU #73 overall) with San Diego and Trumaine Johnson (Montana #65 overall) with the Rams.

Finally, comparing the Eagles selection of defensive end Vinny Curry (Marshall #59 overall) vs the Patriots selection of defensive end Jake Bequette (Arkansas, #90 overall) will be interesting. This comparison is noteworthy because of the teams and coaches involved. The Patriots and the Eagles are two of the most successful teams of the decade and their coaches, Andy Reid and Bill Belichick, are two of the most successful coaches of the decade. They are highly regarded for their ability to move up and down the draft board to find value.

The Patriots could have taken either Bequette or Curry with one of their two second round picks. They traded it for a 3rd and 5th and eventually that 5th round pick for a 6th round and two 7th round picks. So, if Alfonzo Dennard (Nebraska #224) can shake off his considerable baggage and be the player many expect then the combo of Bequette and Dennard could make the Patriots once again look like draft day geniuses. However, if Curry lives up to the first round status that some people felt he deserved and Bequette and Dennard are busts then that trade will be added to the list of recent draft misses.

#3 Did they find a star, and a few starters?

The media has been trying to pigeonhole Belichick’s draft strategy for years. The truth is Belichick’s has never shown a consistent strategy throughout his tenure. They have had drafts where they traded up: 2003 to select tight end Daniel Graham and this year twice to select Jones and Hightower.

They have also had drafts where they have traded back: 2008 for Jerrod Mayo, 2009 for Patrick Chung, and 2011 for Devin McCourty.

My take is that when Belichick says, “he did what he thought would best improve the team,” he’s being sincere. He has a belief in his system and he selects players that will best fit in. He takes that belief and applies a different strategy to it every year. Like every team, he has hits and misses.

In general, with the draft and the signing of undrafted free agents, if you can find a star, which I define as a Pro-Bowl player, and a few solid starters whether it be offense, defense or special teams, you have succeeded.

The Patriots have had good results the last five years in finding three contributors in the draft.

2007 – I would consider safety Brandon Meriweather selected #24 overall a solid starter in his Patriot tenure. The acquisitions of Randy Moss and Wes Welker for 4th and 2nd round draft picks was akin to adding two Pro Bowlers. This draft was a home run.

2008 – The Patriots had the #7 overall pick after a trade the previous season. They lost their own #1 pick as a result of the “Spygate” punishment. They traded back a few spots and selected Jerod Mayo, who has been a pro-bowler. Mayo was the brightest spot in a class comprised mostly of failures. Terence Wheatley, Shawn Crable, Kevin O’Connell, Jonathan Wilhite and Bo Ruud are all either with other teams or out of the league altogether. Matthew Slater, taken in the 5th round, has been a solid contributor on special teams. This draft was not an abject failure but not a huge success, as the Patriots came out of it with just two players who were consistent contributors. The 2008 draft in general was weak throughout the league.

2009 – The Clay Matthews Draft. The Patriots are often criticized for passing on linebacker Clay Matthews in the 2009 draft. They also passed on offensive tackle Michael Oher, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and cornerback Vontae Davis late in the first round. The Patriots first four selections that year were safety Patrick Chung, cornerback Darius Butler, defensive tackle Ron Brace and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Vollmer has been a second team All-Pro, Chung a solid starter and 7th round pick Julian Edelman has been a terrific role player. This was the draft where the Patriots chose Tate over Wallace but despite that miss, it was still it was a successful draft.

2010 – The Patriots drafted cornerback Devin McCourty, tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebacker Brandon Spikes and tight end Aaron Hernandez in the first four rounds. They hit on a franchise player with Gronkowski, a borderline Pro Bowler in Aaron Hernandez and solid starters with McCourty and Spikes. In rounds 5 through 7, the Patriots drafted punter Zoltan Mesko and defensive end Brandon Deaderick, and both have been successful in their roles. Even 6th round pick Ted Larsen, who did not make the team out of training camp, has become a starter, albeit in Tampa Bay. Despite a miss on wide receiver Taylor Price and linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, this draft was a home run.

2011 – It’s too early to gauge the success of this draft. First round pick Nate Solder filled in admirably last year at right and left tackle for Sebastian Vollmer and Matt Light. This year with Light’s retirement, he will be put to the real test, covering Tom Brady’s blind side. Later round picks Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Ras-I Dowling go into the 2012 season with high expectations.

2012 – So with 2012 draft class, the Patriots organization and fans would be more than overjoyed if Dont’a Hightower became their Pro Bowler, Chandler Jones their feared edge rusher and who would not want to see Tashon Wilson overcome his 6th round draft value? Just getting drafted is quite a remarkable accomplishment by Wilson, considering he lost both his parents by the age of 10.

So, bring on the 2012 season and let’s see if the kids can play because that means a lot more than whether Mel Kiper gave their draft an A – the Tuesday after the draft.

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