Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Patriots 2010 Draft Analysis

I sincerely hope you skipped sports talk radio the day after the first round of the draft.  Please tell me you did... please!!  The blathering heads were out in force, calling the Patriots arrogant and incompetent for drafting a defensive back in the first round.


"Where's the tight end for Brady to throw to?!" they cried.  "Why no pass rusher?!?!" they bleated.  "Where is the linebacker to play next to Jerod Mayo?!?!?!" they pleaded.  If they're still wondering, those players were picked up the next day, in the second round.  I *hope* they realized there's more than one round in the draft -- but there wasn't much evidence of that on 4/24.


Radio personalities never miss a chance to prove themselves overreactionary idiots.  That's why you need me, to help set the record straight and give you thoughtful analysis where they give you instant-non-analysis and trumped-up controversies.  Just about everyone agrees that you can't really judge a draft until three years later, so it's asinine to judge it the next day -- let alone after just one pick.


After the first round of the draft, the media sounded like Tom Jackson, who in 2003 famously declared that Patriots players "hate[d] their coach" after a 31-0 loss to the Bills.  And the media might end up being just as wrong as Jackson was -- the Patriots won the Super Bowl that year.


Now that all the trades have been made and the picks and rookie free agents are in, most observers think the Patriots had a solid draft.  I would put it at a bit better than good, but certainly not spectacular.  They traded seven times (most of any team), moving down to load up on picks and moving up twice to get players they really wanted.  And they left themselves in a great position in next years draft, with two first- and two second-round picks.


In all, the Pats drafted 12 players, same as last year.  And if they hit at the same rate as last year, it will be a good draft.  In 2009 they drafted two impact players (Sebastian Vollmer and Julian Edelman), one other starter (Darius Butler), and two potential starters (Pat Chung and Myron Pryor).  The rest either looked lost or were injured, so they will be part of that "three year" judgment I mentioned earlier.


As for 2010, the Patriots clearly drafted for need first and then talent and character/intangibles.  Here are my thoughts on how their draft shaped up.


The Offense


They had only one tight end on the roster, so they grabbed 2 of the top 7 rated TEs on the board, trading up to get Rob Gronkowski (before Baltimore could snag him) and stealing highly rated Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round.


Tight end will be a pivotal position this year.  Wes Welker won't return until the middle of 2010, so they need tight ends to do the grunt work over the middle.  The Pats are not a running team, and they will have to complete short passes to the tight ends until Welker returns to form.


Gronkowski has great hands, and runs very precise routes, and has the size to block (6' 6", 264 pounds) -- so he could be a three-down starter. He also showed deceptive speed in the open field.  I would advise him to get to camp early and learn from free agent signee Alge Crumpler, who knows how to create separation and read zone defenses.


Hernandez is a bit undersized to block, but has excellent hands and could slide out to slot receiver in some sets.  If Gronkowski can start and be productive it will take a lot of pressure off the wide receivers and the rest of the offense.


They also added wide receiver Taylor Price, who has the size to fend off jams at the line and the speed to burn cornerbacks deep.  His strength and speed will be welcome opposite Randy Moss as the Patriots looks to stretch the field with their wideouts to open things up for the underneath throws and draw-play running game.  But don't expect Price to run a lot of timing routes or complex routes until he learns the offense.


Beyond that it was two offensive linemen, which certainly addresses an area of need, and a quarterback, which does not.  But I can barely keep up with the top-rated picks, so I can't really give you much on the sixth- and seventh-rounders.  Please refer to the hundreds of draft-geek sites around the internet if you just have to know more about those late picks.


The Defense


You probably heard they chose cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round, and the pick makes sense from a couple of perspectives.  He was a special teams demon, and the Pats haven't had a kickoff return threat since Ellis Hobbs left for Philly.  Also, the AFC East is loading up with good receivers, so to counter those moves, the Patriots need guys who can cover.


The Pats are set at safety for a while, with three legit starters (Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, and Brandon McGowan) and Pat Chung competing for playing time.  At corner, Darius Butler made great strides last year, veteran Leigh Bodden will likely be better with another year learning the defense, and after that it was a lot of guys with marginal ability.  So adding more talent at corner was crucial, and a the end of the first round, the Patriots got a guy rated an 8.0 out of 10.


Their other serious need on defense was at outside linebacker, where they cut Adalius Thomas and on the roster, only Tully Banta-Cain showed any ability to play there.  They must think that defensive end Jermaine Cunningham can make the transition.  Though he played on the line in college, his size (6' 3" and 266 pounds) gives him the ability to hold the edge against the run and he absolutely will get after the passer.


Questions remain about his speed.  But remember, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel were both defensive ends in college who became stars in Belichick's 3-4.  So it is probably smarter to draft and convert a DE.


The Patriots also got sub-par play at inside linebacker, from the injured Jerod Mayo and a rotating cast of wannabes.  So next up the Pats drafted a running mate for Mayo, Brandon Spikes (the third "Brandon" on the team).  Along with a re-signed Vince Wilfork, Spikes could solidify a interior defense that was weak against the run and the short pass.


You can pretty much count on Cunningham and Spikes starting by October, by default.  And if McCourty doesn't start, he will contribute on special teams and has a lot more upside potential than the rest of the nickel-back crew.


The Specialist


The Patriots drafted punter Zolton Mesco in the fifth round, and here is all you need to know about why.  There are 32 teams in the NFL, and last year, punter Chris Hanson ranked 36th in net punting average and 37th in gross punting average.  Mesco had higher gross and net averages in college than Hanson did last year, and he is used to kicking in bad weather (Michigan), so the Foxboro wind tunnel won't affect him.


They simply had to get a punter who could change field position, and Hanson wasn't the answer.  Maybe Zolton will be.


Summary


The Patriots got immediate help on offense, with a new starting tight end and a wide receiver who is both tough and fast enough to stretch the field.  On defense, they will depend on Cunningham and Spikes to start, and will put up with their growing pains.  They simply don't have a lot of great options there, and are probably hoping that any mistakes the rookies make can be covered up by veterans.


Cornerback McCourty can't help but help in a secondary with lots of nickel-backs and no true #1 corner.  And between him and the new punter, the Patriots special teams will be much improved.  And they better be -- they started 2009 very well but were below average in the second half of the season.


That is all for now.  Keep an eye out for a breakdown of the Patriots in free agency and a look at how the division has fared since the end of last year.  Should be sending those out by next week.


Keep the faith,


- Scott


PS.  0-0!

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