DRAFT REVIEW -- The Patriots did both the usual and the unusual Saturday in the early stages of the 2008 NFL Draft. The usual involved New England making a trade, dealing down from the No. 7 spot by sending that pick and a fifth-rounder (154) to the Saints in exchange for the No. 10 selection in the first round and a third-round pick (78).
A few minutes after the trade -- one of 28 draft-day deals during Bill Belichick's years overseeing New England's selection weekends -- the Patriots selected Tennessee junior linebacker Jerod Mayo. Mayo (6-1, 242) is the first linebacker selected by the Patriots in the first round, or even on the first day of the draft, since the selection of Andy Katzenmoyer in 1999.
The move brings instant youthful talent to a New England linebacking corps, something that's been sorely lacking throughout Belichick's entire reign in New England. With Belichick having avoided the linebacker spot in the draft for so long, never taking a player at the spot before the fifth round in his eight previous drafts in New England, one has to been intrigued by a prospect like Mayo.
It's easy to see what the Patriots liked about him.
Mayo played all three linebacker spots (Mike, Sam, Will) in his three seasons with the Volunteers, starting 26 of 32 games played. He moved to the middle last year for his junior season, earning All-SEC honors as the defensive co-captain registered 140 tackles, the most for a Tennessee defender in nearly two decades.
|Jerod Mayo & Dan Williams|
He's considered a student of the game and a film-room rat who also supposedly has a good natural feel for the game. While he's dealt with knee, ankle and hand injuries in his college career, Belichick said New England's doctors "feel fine" about him and that Mayo "is healthy and has been a very durable guy and a very productive player."
Mayo referred to his pre-draft visit to Gillette Stadium as a great one and that he felt like he'd clicked with the coaches in that meeting. Apparently he did. He projects as an inside linebacker in New England's 3-4 scheme, joining the likes of Tedy Bruschi and Victor Hobson on the depth chart although both Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas have position flexibility.
"I feel like I bring a winning nature. The Patriots already have a winning nature. I feel like I bring a work ethic. They already have that as well," Mayo said. "You can't really bring too much to a team that only lost one game in a season. I'm just excited to be in the position that I am and to be able to learn from some of the greats in the game."
Belichick raved about Mayo's position versatility, intelligence and production. He also called him "one of the better linebackers we have seen in awhile."
The latter statement set Mayo up for instant comparisons to 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowler Patrick Willis.
For the second straight year, the Patriots looked to the defensive side of the ball in the first round, adding Mayo to 2007 top selection Brandon Meriweather in an effort to infuse some youthful talent into an aging, slowing defense. Considering Belichick's impressive success hitting on first-round picks dating back to the selection of Richard Seymour in 2001, the addition of two young playmakers on defense in the last two years is an upswing for a team that returns the bulk of one of the greatest offenses in league history.
"We added a good player on defense and added one last year," Belichick said of Mayo. "Hopefully we can continue to get a little bit younger on the defensive end of the ball going forward."
New England did just that in the second round addressing the team's next most prominent need after linebacker with the mildly surprising selection of Colorado cornerback Terrence Wheatley with the 62nd overall pick. Wheatley (5-9, 183) earned All Big-12 honors last fall for the Buffalos by finishing out his career with 14 interceptions in 40 games with 28 starts. With elite speed, Wheatley is also a dangerous kick returner with a 24.7-yard average in his four seasons, a role he could very well be asked to fill in New England early in his career.
Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable and another undersized cornerback -- Auburn's Jonathan Wilhite -- highlighted the second day, when the Patriots also snagged a talented developmental quarterback in Kevin O'Connell.
BEST PICK: Top pick Jerod Mayo (No. 10 overall) should be an immediate impact player in New England's group of aging linebackers. He's versatile, tough, smart and productive -- all key traits for a Patriots-type linebacker. Look for him to get a shot to rotate with Victor Hobson and Tedy Bruschi inside from Day 1 and for his role to evolve throughout his rookie season. Many draft observers rave about Mayo's upside and some are projecting him as the early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, an award that's gone to inside linebackers Patrick Willis and DeMeco Ryans over the last two seasons and to a linebacker in seven of the last eight years.
COULD SURPRISE: QB Kevin O'Connell is easily the most talented developmental quarterback the Patriots have drafted since Tom Brady took over as the team's starter in 2001. O'Connell joins a depth chart with unproven young players Matt Cassell and Matt Gutierrez, and is likely the most talented of the backup trio. With Cassell's development having hit a disappointing plateau, O'Connell could very well be in the mix for the primary backup job. Should he develop he could be valuable as a trade commodity down the road.