02-23-2007, 06:55 AM
Join Date: Dec 2006
There’s talent in trenches: Pats may find some gems along O-line
By John Tomase
No one expected the Patriots [team stats] to select Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney [stats] in the first round of the draft last year, because they supposedly had more pressing needs at cornerback and linebacker.
Those problems haven’t disappeared, but part of the Patriots’ success is that they’ve never drafted for “need,” a term head coach Bill Belichick hates. Recognizing that roster turnover makes today’s backup tomorrow’s starter, the Patriots have excelled at drafting talents regardless of position and worrying about playing time later.
That means selecting tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson in the first round two years apart, or using their top pick on little-known guard Logan Mankins in 2005.
If the Pats have taught us anything since 2000, it’s to expect the unexpected. And the unexpected this year may come in the form of an offensive lineman.
The Patriots own two first-round picks (Nos. 24 and 28) thanks to the Deion Branch trade with Seattle. This draft is considered an especially deep one along the offensive line. Though the Patriots have a young unit under contract, led by center Dan Koppen and Mankins, competition in the NFL is never a bad thing, and San Diego left tackle Marcus McNeill proved last year that a second-rounder can not only earn a starting spot, but dominate.
While potential franchise left tackles like Wisconsin’s Joe Thomas typically don’t last beyond the top five picks, other linemen have been known to slip while teams gobble up wide receivers and other skill-position players in a misguided attempt to make a splash with a sexy pick (see the Lions for proof).
That could leave a team like the Patriots looking at a steal late in the first round.
“It looks like a very deep spot in the draft,” said Texans coach Gary Kubiak. “And it looks like offensive tackles, from an offensive perspective, it looks like there’s a good group.
“Of course you have a couple of players that are going to go at the top of the round, but after that there are going to be some players to sort out, and a lot of guys within that group are going to make football teams and be starters. That’s a key in our business. When you can find that guy who ends up being a contributor later on, that gives your franchise an excellent chance.”
The task for the Patriots will be identifying that player. If they decide to use one of their top two picks on a guard or tackle, they’ll have no shortage of options, like Texas behemoth Justin Blalock (6-3, 331) or quicker Central Michigan tackle Joe Staley (6-5, 296).
If they really want to roll the dice, they could go with Virginia Tech tackle Brandon Frye, a 6-4, 305-pound project who began college as a defensive lineman and didn’t become a full-time starter until his senior year, when he was hampered by an elbow injury.
McNeill demonstrated that a lineman needn’t be drafted in the top 10 to make an impact.
“There are a lot of talented guys here,” Blalock said. “I’ve been around the guys for two days. Some of them I met before in bowl games, on the bowl circuit and whatnot. There are a lot of special players out here, and there’s definitely a chance to make a same sort of impact next year.”
It wouldn’t be a shock if one of them made an impact with the Patriots