By: Bob George/BosSports.net
April 29, 2008

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Now, if Bill Belichick can bring Louis Gossett Jr. to Foxborough in August and have him make with the "May-o-nnaise!" taunts, things will really be fun.

This was the year where draftniks could finally raise their glasses and brag about how right they were. Rather than drafting a slew of tight ends and guys who were the best guy on the board, the Patriots went purely for need in 2008. Coming off a year where the 2007 draft came off poorly (it didn't affect the team until the Super Bowl, you might guess), Belichick and Scott Pioli finally appeased their fan base and drafted plentifully in areas where they needed the most help, that being linebacker and defensive back.

Truthfully, it's Belichick and Pioli that need to be appeased, not the fans. They are the ones who have built this great football machine, and they are the ones who ought to know best as to what the team's needs are. It's just that instead of trying to set an over-under on tight ends drafted, the Patriots got younger at key defensive positions and did not wait until later to try and pick up free agents along the way.

The Patriots began on Saturday with a predictable move, that being trading down from the seven slot. New Orleans sent them a third round pick to move down to ten, and their man was there as predicted. The Patriots selected Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo, a speed guy who can play any of the linebacker positions (Sam, Mike, Will) in the 4-3 base. Mayo is a little on the small side at 6-1 and 242 pounds, but gives the Patriots a solid option immediately at inside backer, enabling Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas to stay outside (that takes on added import with the departure of Rosevelt Colvin).

After garnering a reputation for never drafting a linebacker early, or even at all, the Patriots took two more linebackers over the weekend. In the third round, with the pick they got from New Orleans, the Patriots took Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable, and then later took Nebraska linebacker Bo Ruud in the sixth round, their final pick of the weekend. Crable is ticketed for the outside and will pretty much be the replacement for Colvin, whereas Ruud will be gunning mostly for a backup role.

Three other picks were targeted to the secondary, though one of them will likely help out in kick returns. In the second round, the Patriots took Colorado cornerback Terrence Wheatley, and in the fourth round they selected Auburn cornerback Jonathan Wilhite. Wheatley is small (5-9), but Pioli remarked about how "smart" he is and downplayed the size factor. The key word is speed here, and the Patriots used many of these picks to get fast as well as young. Wheatley could also figure in kickoff returns. Wilhite is also fast (4.4 40) , but figures to crack the unit as a backup.

The other defensive back selected was UCLA safety Matt Slater, son of former Ram Jackie Slater. Slater is listed as a safety on some sites, and as a wide receiver on others. Slater is purely being ticketed for special teams, and kickoff returns in particular, more than Wheatley. Like Wilhite, he also runs a 4.4 40, and also ran back three kickoffs for touchdowns for UCLA in 2007.

The one pick that didn't go to defense was hailed as curious by some and ingenious by others. Belichick opted to go for some competition for Matt Cassel and selected San Diego State quarterback Kevin O'Connell with their second pick in the third round. Going for a quarterback this early might seem foolish for a team with a starter that may already be drafting his speech for Canton. But there is a logic in this pick, and it really may have nothing directly to do with Cassel, though that pick Cassel threw at Miami may have ensured his sooner-than-later departure from Foxborough.

Bob Kraft has said many times that his model for building the Patriots as we know them was the San Francisco 49ers of the Bill Walsh-Joe Montana era. During that time, Montana was the unquestioned leader of that team. But in 1987, Walsh acquired Steve Young from Tampa Bay, and Young, who starred for BYU in college and had three great seasons with the Los Angeles Express in the USFL, would spend the next five seasons sitting on the bench backing up Montana.

Finally, in 1992, Young got to play in all 16 games. In 1994, Montana was shipped off to Kansas City, and Young had this team all to himself. End result: A record-setting six-touchdown performance against San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX, and a 49-26 win. Young stepped right in when Montana left, and only the Dallas dynasty prevented Young from winning more titles.

Now, is O'Connell the Patriot version of Steve Young?

This could be nothing more than just some token competition for Cassel. But if O'Connell really projects out as the replacement for Tom Brady, who turns 31 on August 3, the five-year apprenticeship could make sense if management believes Brady cannot play at his astounding levels once he turns 36. This is farsightedness at its finest, but it's nothing you can bet the farm on. But not one NFL expert predicted what Brady was capable of when he was selected in the sixth round by the Patriots in 2000. O'Connell was a third rounder. You draw your own conclusions, but this could very well be what Pioli and Belichick are thinking and therefore justifies taking a quarterback early.

What at least Mayo and Wheatley need to do is to try and contend for starting jobs right off the bat. If this is it for Junior Seau, then Mayo could help spell Tedy Bruschi, who will be back for a 13th season. All the Patriots really have at cornerback at Ellis Hobbs, and everyone's last memory of this guy is an unqualified nightmare. Brandon Meriweather could play corner, but he may instead be groomed as Eugene Wilson's replacement at free safety if James Sanders isn't the long-term answer. Both Hobbs and Wheatley are fast, but Hobbs has proven that 108-yard kickoff returns mean nothing when you're trying to guard someone like Plaxico Burress with the season on the line. Wheatley will need to develop his cover skills and show that he can shut down top receivers effectively.

And if, say, Crable plays well enough to hold down the fort on the outside (his rap sheet says that he can rush well but doesn't defend the pass all that well), Thomas could come inside and form a duo with Mayo. Both Thomas and Mayo are versatility guys, and whichever scenario comes up, Belichick at least has more players he can tinker with to see which combination works best.

Belichick shored up the 2006 offensive shortcomings in 2007, and the result was wins in the first 18 games of the season. Yes, they needed 19, and maybe these defensive upgrades will do the trick, although guys like Hobbs, Bruschi, Seau, Thomas, Meriweather and Sanders had nothing to do with Brady getting killed by the Giant pass rush in the season's 19th game.

Just don't ever complain about Belichick never drafting linebackers.


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