Friday, May 6, 2011

NFL Draft 2011: New England Patriots' Plan All About Flexibility

AP Photo/Winslow Townson

When the New England Patriots entered the 2011 NFL Draft the team held six picks in the first three rounds. The fans and the media expected the team to really cash in.

The most publicized need for New England was a pass rush. Lucky for them, with so many top picks, this year was a deep class of defensive ends and outside linebackers. Names like Ryan Kerrigan, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Heyward and Cameron Jordan filled the Big Board.

When all was said and done the Patriots didn’t draft any of those names. In fact, they didn’t select someone that plays in the front seven until they selected OLB Markell Carter out of Central Arkansas in the sixth round.

It’s not to say the players they drafted won’t be any good or that they don’t fill needs or depth. But why ignore a supposed glaring hole? It’s become the theme of the draft, possibly the theme of the Patriots, was not, in fact, address need but rather flexibility.

Flexibility and the mantra of the New England Patriots explain what happened during the draft. The Patriots are notorious for “putting the team first” and not overpaying for talent are ways the ownership manages the team, and has also helped make them as successful as they have been in this century. Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Willie McGinest all experienced it. It’s the business.

So the first round selection of OT Nate Solder puts Matt Light on notice. Light has started at the left tackle position when he was drafted in 2001 and is looking for a new contract. But history and the draft tell us that if Light wants to be a Patriot he should temper his demands.

Solder may not be ready in Year 1, but he’s a promising prospect. Give Light one more year, develop Solder, and if Light’s contract demands are too steep to merit giving to the 32-year-old, let him walk and you have a capable player ready to step in.

Depth along the offensive line was something that needed to be addressed and Solder gives them flexibility at this position currently and moving forward.

Skip down to when the Patriots select running backs with their second pick in the second round and their first in the third round. Again, current starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis is coming upon free agency. Maybe his productive 2010 priced him out of the Patriots range.

People speculated the Pats would take one running back at some point because they like having a lot of depth at that position. But two back to back? Green-Ellis may be on his way out of Foxborough.

So if they were planning on going running back, why trade down in the first round and let the Saints select former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram?

While it’s no certainty he’ll be a successful player, he does have a higher profile. As a first-round pick his salary would be much higher than backs drafted in later rounds. So why pay him more for backs that, while they may not have the hardware Ingram does, could be successful in the system?

With the trade, the Patriots also picked up an extra first-rounder next year. Will they trade down like in most of the drafts in recent years? Possibly. But having two picks gives New England flexibility in making decisions. They can package the two to move up, or trade down again, gaining more picks and more future flexibility in potential trades.

As for the pass rush? The front office must be confident that last year’s draft picks Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes will continue to develop and free agent signings Eric Moore and Gerard Warren will step up. As we’ve seen before, the Patriots aren’t afraid to take a chance on an older free agent.

So while many fans were left scratching their heads, there is a plan in place. And flexibility is a vital part to it.


  1. I hope that you are right. I think that they will look to pull in a quality pass rusher through free agency.

  2. @Anonymous I do think they'll go after a free agent, when free agency finally opens up. Just don't expect them to make a signing like when they inked Adalius Thomas, who at the time was a high-profile free agent.