By: Bob George/BosSports.net
April 23, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH -- What, you thought the Patriots would land Ndamukong Suh at two?

Bill Belichick, who probably loves high draft picks as much as he loves answering questions from the media, has mastered the art of stockpiling draft picks by trading down. In most cases, his strategy has been sound and has produced stunning results. It confounds fans, sometimes frustrates and angers them, but the Patriots are loath to choose a player who will command overpayment thanks to his position in the draft.

Belichick had his trade-down shoes on once again on Thursday night, the first prime time first round draft in history. With the draft stretched over three days for the purpose of trying to produce more suspense by putting the first round on its own night, with the second and third rounds to follow on Friday night, the Patriots made their mark on the first night by trading down not once, but twice. They came into the first round selecting 22nd, and wound up selecting 27th after deals with Denver and Dallas, respectively. The end result was the selection of Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty, a pick which has received mixed reactions from various factions of the media and NFL experts.

The Patriots did business with the Broncos first. Denver, who would shock everyone in the pro football world by selecting Florida quarterback Tim Tebow after trading up with Baltimore, dealt the Patriots the 24th selection (which they received from Philadelphia after trading away their original first round pick, the 13th) and the 113th selection (fourth round). Denver selected WR Demaryius Thomas from Georgia Tech with the 22nd pick.

Having traded down two slots, Belichick soon after did business with Bob Kraft's dear friend Jerry Jones of Dallas, trading down three more slots to 27. In return for the 24th pick, the Patriots received the 27th and the 90th (3rd round) selections. Dallas took Oklahoma State WR Dez Bryant, and the Cowboys also received the 119th selection (4th round) in the deal with New England.

With Suh gone to Detroit at two, and with Fresno State RB Ryan Matthews gone to San Diego at 12, Belichick could no longer be expected to trade up. Instead of going for a premium selection, Belichick instead opted for McCourty at 27, taking a cornerback in a draft loaded with cornerbacks and eschewing the team's greatest need, that being an outside pass rusher.


Belichick made an interesting decision in drafting former Rutgers Standout Devin McCourty (Photo Credit: Icon/SMI)
Not that the Patriots can't go wrong with secondary help. One of the reasons the Patriots fared poorly against the better teams in the league is that they have not been consistently able to shut down a passing game since the year they last won a Super Bowl, and that includes their near-perfect season of 2007. With the drafting of McCourty, the Patriots are addressing a need, but in addition are making fans remember the several failed tight end selections over the years, and leaving fans praying for some pass rush help on Friday.

McCourty, who is characterized by several accounts as a good but not a shutdown cornerback, may also project as a return specialist. As a cornerback, he may have been drafted for the purpose of either becoming a slot receiver cornerback or supplanting Darius Butler as the starting cornerback opposite Leigh Bodden and moving Butler to the slot. The return skills are more like gravy.

But some folks may look on this as a throwback to all those drafted tight ends of years ago. You had duds like Jabari Holloway, Arther Love and Dave Stachelski, but there were folks who thought that Daniel Graham, a former first round pick, was also a bust. Graham, who now toils for Denver, turned out to be a solid blocking tight end who was missed more than anyone around here realized when the Patriots allowed him to leave as a free agent. Another first round tight end draftee, Ben Watson, has finally flown the coop. Ironically, another forgotten tight end draft pick, David Thomas, is now a Super Bowl champ and may have been the best of this bunch. The Patriots now consider the tight end position almost worthless these days, but they wasted a ton of recent draft picks on the position.

Since the selection of Asante Samuel in 2003, here is who the Patriots have selected at the cornerback position: Christian Morton (7th, 2004), Ellis Hobbs (3rd, 2005), Mike Richardson (6th, 2007), Terrence Wheatley (2nd, 2008), Jonathan Wilhite (4th, 2008) and Darius Butler (2nd, 2009). This makes the assumption that Brandon Meriweather (1st, 2007) makes his living primarily as a safety, and ditto for Patrick Chung (2nd, 2009). Of the aforementioned cornerbacks, Hobbs is perhaps the best of the bunch, but that isn't saying much as he is better known for giving up the touchdown which lost Super Bowl XLII and hasn't done much with his new team (Philadelphia). The Patriots have by and large missed the mark at this position in the draft, though the jury is still out on Butler and perhaps Wilhite.

McCourty comes in as a player with a good work ethic and looks to be a good clubhouse guy. What McCourty needs to do is to become either the next Ty Law or the next Raymond Clayborn or the next Mike Haynes, and that may be asking a lot. By taking him in the first round, those expectations have to be placed on McCourty as Law, Clayborn and Haynes were all first rounders. Haynes was the fifth selection in 1976 and Clayborn 16th the following year, but Law was 23rd in 1995, more comparable to McCourty's position. Law and Clayborn became shutdown corners in New England, and both are tied for the most picks in team history with 36. Haynes, a Hall of Famer, did too, and was also a renowned return man (he returned the first punt for a touchdown in Patriot history in 1976), so McCourty does have good credentials to become at least similar in production to either Law or Clayborn or Haynes. If McCourty becomes productive only for his return skills and becomes merely a good nickel back for the Patriots, the Patriots did not get enough value for this pick.

The Patriots do need to get back to the days when they were able to lock down at the cornerback position. It was a major reason why the Patriots used to dominate Peyton Manning in earlier days, why they were able to bring Ben Roethlisberger's miracle rookie season to a disappointing end, why they were able to shut down the Greatest Show On Turf. If McCourty and Bodden form that kind of tandem, the lack of a killer pass rusher won't be quite as acute.

Not that the Patriots shouldn't try and remedy that position on Friday. The Patriots can start right in, with picks at 44, 47 and 53 in the second round. The Patriots will also perhaps try for a top wideout to replace the injured Wes Welker, unless they are convinced that new signee Torry Holt is the answer. If Belichick uses all three of those picks, at least one of them has to address either outside linebacker or defensive end. They also have the 90th pick, in the third round, making it four selections on Friday.

Much will be expected of McCourty, and given how high he was taken, the Patriots will be hurt very deeply if this pick turns out to be a bust. Hobbs was disappointing, but this one will be worse if it doesn't work out.


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