- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Last Tuesday, New England Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was anticipating what might unfold in the NFL draft, embracing the one time of year when he can morph into a fan.
He thought this one was pretty straight-forward.
"We need somebody that can come in and help us right away," Wilfork said. "There are a couple things that I think can help us as a ballclub, especially as a defense, a couple positions I think we can go attack and try to get in the draft."
Turns out Bill Belichick called off the attack, instead focusing on offense, where six of the team's selections were ultimately made.
Quarterback Ryan Mallett might have been the top didn't-see-this-one-coming pick for the team, but the third-rounder's arrival doesn't trump Belichick's vote of confidence for his returning defenders as the most unexpected aspect of the Patriots' draft.
In essence, Belichick was telling those coming back how much he believes in them, which few saw coming because of how the defense struggled at times in 2010. It was a unit that was particularly porous on third down, with opponents converting 47 percent of the time.
One figured Belichick would strike with urgency to help fix those woes. This was a deep defensive line class, and the Patriots, for once, were also in position to invest in a potential stud outside linebacker, specifically at the top of the second round.
But Belichick ultimately pulled back, projecting the development of younger players such as Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich at outside linebacker, and Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick and others along the line.
Thus, one of the big assessments of the Patriots' 2011 draft will be tied to Belichick's analysis of the young defenders already on the roster. If the Patriots struggle again on defense in 2011, this will be the big second-guess: Why didn't Belichick target any linemen or outside linebackers to help improve the pressure on opposing quarterbacks?
This ended up being an offensive draft for the Patriots, which was something Belichick said he couldn't project. Things could have potentially been different had there not been an early run on defensive linemen.
"When you see a lot of players get taken at a certain position in a draft, I think naturally, value-wise, it gives more value to another spot," he said.
True, although that can actually work both ways. In 2006, for example, the Patriots drafted running back Laurence Maroney at No. 21, but only after nine straight defenders were picked. Maroney's value was shining through on the team's board when it came time to pick at 21; he was just the sixth offensive player selected that year.
But that early run on defense didn't stop the Texans from selecting linebacker DeMeco Ryans 33rd overall. Ryans was the 20th defensive player selected in 2006, and he still went on to win Rookie of the Year honors.
So value is in the eye of the beholder, and when it comes to positions Belichick values, cornerback jumps to the top of the list over the past four drafts. No other team in the NFL has used a first- or second-round pick in each of the past four years on the position, as the Patriots have -- Terrence Wheatley (2008, second round), Darius Butler (2009, second round), Devin McCourty (2010, first round) and Ras-I Dowling (2011, second round).
That's a lot of investment at the position, not to mention the four-year, $22 million contract the team signed veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden to last year.
The Patriots haven't invested as heavily in pass-rushers, and it's shown. Their lone pass-rush pick this year was sixth-rounder Markell Carter of Central Arkansas, and unless he surprisingly emerges in 2011, the Patriots won't get any additional boost from the draft, which was their best opportunity to do so.
One wonders if, looking back, this could be Belichick's biggest regret with the 2011 draft.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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