When it comes to identifying players and knowing when to draft them, the New England Patriots are the head of the class in the National Football League. The Patriots have an impressive eye for defensive talent, and it’s shown over the years and in the top ten prospects in their organization. There are nine defenders in the top-ten and just one offensive player.
A true test of their ability to scout prospects and have the confidence to select a player, despite what pick they use to draft him, occurred in the 2008 NFL Draft when they selected linebacker Jerod Mayo with the 10th pick overall. Mayo had an outstanding showing at the Scouting Combine leading up to the ’08 draft, but he was expected to be selected in the 15 – 25 range in the first round; not in the top ten. The Patriots had a need at linebacker and they ended up with a star in the making. Mayo went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award after a stellar first impression which resulted in 128 tackles and steady, aggressive play.
Entering his third year with the Patriots, safety Brandon Meriweather started his career in New England as a situational defender and a special teams standout. It didn’t come until Week 7 of ’08 that he finally got his opportunity to start full-time when Rodney Harrison suffered a season-ending injury that opened the door for Meriweather. In Harrison’s absence, Meriweather started the final 11 games and displayed the promise the Patriots envisioned. He finished his second year with 83 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions. He will be the starting strong safety this year, and look for Meriweather to become the next great safety from Miami.
When you talk about potential and a player who has the intangibles to become a great player, it’s second-year quarterback Kevin O’Connell. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, O’Connell has prototypical size, a strong arm and is an outstanding athlete. The biggest concern with O’Connell is his accuracy and footwork. He has to improve his mechanics overall and go through his progressions consistently. On a team that features one of the best quarterbacks off all-time in Tom Brady, O’Connell has the luxury of learning from the best and won’t be rushed into action before he’s ready. But, when Brady went down with a season-ending injury last year in Week 1, O’Connell instantly became the team’s second-string quarterback behind untested veteran Matt Cassel. O’Connell played in two games last year and completed 66.7-percent of his passes (4-of-6) for 23 yards. Entering his sophomore year in the NFL, O’Connell remains the Patriots backup, and if something unfortunate were to happen to Brady again, the coaching staff has faith in O’Connell’s ability to take command.
When you draft a player in the second round, you’re hoping that he can contribute in some fashion as a rookie. But Darius Butler isn’t your ordinary second round pick; he’s as talented as any other ’09 corner taken in the first round, and in the Patriots system he will have a huge opportunity to be successful. At 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, Butler has a nice frame, but has to get stronger and play more physical. But he possesses excellent ball skills and anticipates the action very well. He will contend for a starting job this season, but will likely play in nickel and dime situations, as well as on special teams.
Rounding out the top five is cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, who many probably never heard of when the Patriots selected him in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. In 2003, the Patriots drafted cornerback Asante Samuel in the fourth round, and he was also an unknown, but he turned out to be one of the better playmakers in the league. Wilhite was a consistent performer as a rookie and he used his size and playmaking ability to his advantage. In situational play last year, which included four starts, Wilhite contributed 28 tackles and an interception to the Patriots defense. This season, Wilhite is currently listed as one of the team’s starting cornerbacks, and with his anticipation skills, look for him to have a big year.Five defenders (linebackers Shawn Crable and Gary Guyton, safety Patrick Chung, defensive tackle Ron Brace and cornerback Terrence Wheatley) complete the top-ten. Crable was placed on IR for the entire ’08 season, but has great size and athleticism that make him a prime prospect. Guyton, an undrafted free agent in ’08, had a solid year and his success shows just how good the Patriots front office is. Wheatley has a lot of ability and was a second round pick in ’08, but his size will hurt him playing on the island against bigger receivers. He may end up being nothing more than a nickel corner. Chung and Brace were second round picks in ’09 and both are expected to contribute as rookies.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.