Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What could have been: The Patriots' 2006 draft

EDIT, May 23: This post has been linked on some message boards, so it's worth revisiting and pointing out that the idea was never to say, "How could the Patriots not draft Greg Jennings and Leon Washington and Elvis Dumervil and Marques Colston? What morons!" The idea was to point out that if the Patriots hit on just one or two more of their picks in the 2006 draft, they could have radically changed the complexion of their franchise -- particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The examples of Jennings and Washington and everyone else is just a means of pointing out that there was talent out there. Yes, every team missed some of that talent -- and more than once -- but it was there.

So far, Gostkowski is the only Patriots pick out of this draft that has panned out in any kind of significant way. (If you want to count Thomas, go ahead, but you're setting the bar awfully low.) That was the point. You can't repeatedly whiff the way the Patriots repeatedly whiffed in 2006. You can't take a year off when it comes to the draft. When you do that, you end up placing your hopes and dreams in the hands of Deltha O'Neal.

Bill Belichick's Patriots come off as a great drafting team. In part, it's because they're so eager to trade picks -- sometimes to stockpile for future years, and sometimes to move up three spots to get just the guy he wants. In part, it's because they drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round. In part, it's because so many of their first-round picks -- Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriweather, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Daniel Graham, Richard Seymour -- have turned into solid NFL players, if not Pro Bowl-caliber players. If you avoid big-time busts in the first round, after all, you normally do OK as a franchise. No one hits a home run with every fourth-round pick he makes.

But a closer look at the last few years reveals that the Patriots have not, in fact, had much success in the draft. In fact, one of the reasons the team found itself so shorthanded last season was because so few of its draftees have panned out. Last season's draft appears to have included a few hits -- Jerod Mayo is a rising star, of course, but Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite appear to be keepers in the secondary, too. The team still has high hopes for wide receiver/kick returner Matthew Slater even though he let a kickoff bounce off his face this season.

The year before that, the Patriots drafted defensive back Brandon Meriweather in the first round but got almost nothing out of the next six rounds. That's thanks in part to trades for Wes Welker and Randy Moss, trades that almost delivered a 19-0 season. But it's also thanks in part to drafting players like defensive linemen Kareem Brown (inactive for 11 games and released) and offensive tackle Clint Oldenburg (placed on the practice squad and released two weeks later) in the fourth and fifth rounds and just one player (Mike Richardson) in six tries in the sixth and seventh rounds who even remains on the roster.

Three years ago, though, they had a real shot to add some quality depth to an already talented team -- and all they got out of it was a backup tight end (David Thomas) and a kicker (Stephen Gostkowski). Here's what could have been:

Round 1, No. 21 overall: Laurence Maroney, running back. In part thanks to injuries, Maroney appears to be a bust. He rushed for 745 yards as a rookie and 835 yards in his second season, but injuries ruined his third season and appear to have landed him permanently in Belichick's doghouse.

What could have been: DeAngelo Williams (Carolina) came off the board at No. 27; Joseph Addai (Indianapolis) came off the board at No. 30. Williams rushed for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns last season; Addai rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons -- and even made the Pro Bowl last season -- before injuries caught up with him this season.

Round 2, No. 52 overall: Chad Jackson, wide receiver. The Patriots actually traded a third-round pick and a second-round pick to Green Bay to go get Jackson, who turned out to be an even worse bust than Maroney. The Patriots cut him after two lackluster seasons; he appeared in two games and caught one pass for the Denver Broncos this season.

What could have been: Had they still gone through with the trade, the best fit might have been defensive back Cedric Griffin, has three interceptions and eight forced fumbles since going No. 48 overall to the Minnesota Vikings. Griffin would have been a nice fit for a team that would see Artrell Hawkins and Chad Scott make 12 and nine starts, respectively, in its defensive backfield. And had they stayed put at No. 52, they could have taken the player the Packers picked in that spot -- wide receiver Greg Jennings, who caught 80 passes for 1,292 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Round 3, No. 75 overall: Traded to Green Bay in the aforementioned deal for Jackson.

What could have been: The Packers drafted offensive lineman Jason Spitz, who can play center or either guard position (though not at an especially high level). The Patriots, however, might have been more interested in linebacker Clint Ingram, who went at No. 80 overall to Jacksonville and finished last season with 38 tackles, including two sacks.

Round 3, No. 86 overall: David Thomas, tight end. Thomas certainly has been a useful player, both as a run-blocker and a pass-catcher. His most memorable moment of last season, unfortunately, might have been a late-hit penalty that cost the Patriots a chance at a critical field goal at Indianapolis.

What could have been: Linebacker Freddie Keiaho went No. 94 overall to the Colts; he had 78 tackles and a fumble recovery last season. It's tough to gripe too much about the selection of Thomas, though, given how much money it would have taken to retain Daniel Graham.

Round 4, No. 106 overall: Garrett Mills, fullback. Mills spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve and was released just before his second season began.

What could have been: Defensive back and kick returner Will Blackmon went 115th overall to the Green Bay Packers. Blackmon, a Boston College product, had two punt-return touchdowns last season as well as two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries on defense. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who had 60 tackles and two fumble recoveries this season, went 116th overall to the Tennessee Titans. And multipurpose weapon Leon Washington, a first-team All-Pro this season after amassing 2,337 total yards, went 117th overall to the Jets.

Round 4, No. 118 overall: Stephen Gostkowski, kicker. Gostkowski set a team record for field goals in a season and earned his first Pro Bowl nod this year. On the other hand, some would argue that kickers are a dime a dozen and normally can be found in the last two rounds of the draft or on the unemployment line.

What could have been: Wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who went 119th overall to the Denver Broncos, has at least 1,200 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. And if you believe the Patriots have plenty of weapons on defense, defensive end Elvis Dumervil (126th overall) had 12 1/2 sacks for the Broncos in 2007 and defensive end Ray Edwards (127th overall) has five sacks in each of the last two seasons for the Vikings.

Round 5, No. 136 overall: Ryan O'Callaghan, offensive tackle. O'Callaghan spent the entire season on injured reserve; he appeared in 15 games in 2007 and 11 games in 2006.

What could have been: Baltimore safety Dawan Landry (146th overall) also missed most of last season thanks to injury, but he had five interceptions and three sacks as a rookie in 2006.

Round 6, Nos. 191, 205 and 206 overall: Jeremy Mincey, linebacker; Dan Stevenson, guard; Le Kevin Smith, defensive lineman. Smith was a useful backup on the defensive line last season, but Mincey and Stevenson both were released before their rookie seasons even began.

What could have been: Any one of those picks could have been Colts defensive back Antoine Bethea (207th overall), who went to the Pro Bowl a year ago after intercepting four passes and breaking up eight more. Tennessee defensive back Cortland Finnegan (215th overall) will make his first trip to the Pro Bowl this season thanks to his five interceptions and 17 pass break-ups.

Round 7, No. 229 overall: Willie Andrews, defensive back. Andrews was released in July after two seasons in which he had 24 tackles, mostly on special teams.

What could have been: Two seasons' worth of adequate special-teams play is about all you can really expect from a seventh-round pick. Then again, wide receiver Marques Colston lasted until the Saints called his name at No. 252 overall -- and he had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career.

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