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The future can't wait for the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  April 29, 2011 10:23 AM

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Wait 'til next year used to be the slogan attached to the Red Sox; now it's the Patriot Way on draft day. When it comes to the NFL Draft and cashing in on their yearly cache of draft picks, the war room in Foxborough becomes a waiting room.

You wonder if Patriots coach Bill Belichick pushes his calendar a year ahead on New Year's Day each year, or if he has ever pushed the up button in an elevator.

After staying put at No. 17 and selecting left tackle Nate Solder -- a solid pick at a position of need -- with the first of their two first-round picks, Belichick created a down draft again. The Patriots shipped their second first-round pick (No. 28 overall) to the New Orleans Saints for a second-round pick, one of three second-rounders they have today, and a 2012 first-rounder, which if Drew Brees stay healthy should be in the same vicinity as the pick they sent away. The Saints used the pick to draft running back Mark Ingram, a player that many Patriots fans coveted.

The New Orleans trade marked the second time in three years that the Patriots traded out of the first round, and was the 12th time under Belichick they pulled off a draft day swap in which they moved down. Twelve is fitting because for the Patriots it's all about No. 12, Tom Brady.

While you have the golden gift of TB12 on your roster you have to do everything in your power to surround him with a Super Bowl team. Once he is gone so is your championship window in all likelihood, and then you're grasping at any one who can throw a football like the Minnesota Vikings.

In that regard the continuing trend of flipping picks forward might be flawed at this point, not because it's not good value -- it can be -- but because you're decreasing the value of Brady with each passing season that you do it. You'll never get those seasons back. There have already been too many years where Brady has had to play without a Deion Branch or a Richard Seymour.

Brady will be 34 this August. He's under contract for four more seasons. That is the championship window the Patriots are working with because even Belichick will be hard-pressed to pull another Brady out of his hoodie. It's possible that by the time the Patriots finally find an elusive pass-rusher, which has replaced the puck-moving defenseman as the Loch Ness monster of Boston sports, that Brady is merely a very good talent and not a transcendent one.

Due to paucity of pass rush, the Patriots were last in the NFL in third-down defense and ranked 30th in pass defense, despite the presence of two Pro Bowlers in the secondary, rookie cornerback Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather (stop snickering, Patriots fans).

It was apparent the Patriots didn't think their pass-rusher was in this draft. They had a chance to move up, as North Carolina's Robert Quinn fell all the way to No. 14, where the Rams snapped him up. Another pass rusher, Ryan Kerrigan, went one pick ahead of them to Washington.

"It’s great to say 'OK, we needed this position, so now we have a card to put up there in that spot,' but if that player isn’t able to really fulfill that area or that position then you’re coming back here the next year looking for the same thing again," said Belichick.

Fair enough.

Still, it was interesting to see the Atlanta Falcons, with former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff, at the helm make a bold, un-Belichick-like move up the board. The Falcons sacrificed five picks overall and two 2012 draft picks (including next year's first-rounder) to move from No. 27 to No. 6 and take wide receiver Julio Jones. Only time will tell if Dimitroff's go-for-broke gambit pays off, but it's worth noting that the Falcons have been one of the league's best drafting teams under his watch.

Dimitroff's thinking was that he has a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and he needs to maximize that valuable resource while he has it.

That should be the Patriots' line of thinking as well.

It's great to accumulate draft picks each year, but those picks are only as good as what you do with them. Despite all the flip-flopping, it still fundamentally comes down to who you choose with them. If you trade a pick a year ahead and use it to get in position to draft Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo the following year, then it's great value. If you use it to get in position to draft Ron Brace, as the Patriots did with a 2008 third-rounder they turned into a 2009 second-rounder, then not so much.

Solder's selection makes sense because it is tied to maximizing Brady. In recent years the players who have given incumbent left tackle Matt Light, who is a free agent, the most trouble are speed rushers. San Diego's Antwan Barnes gave Light fits last year. Solder, taken with the pick the Patriots got from Oakland in 2009 for Seymour, is the most athletic tackle in the draft and on paper should be able to match-up with speed rushers like Miami's Cameron Wake, Indianapolis's Dwight Freeney and noted Brady antagonist Terrell Suggs of the Ravens.

The Patriots have nine picks overall this year, including Solder. They drafted 12 players in each of the last two drafts, doing a tremendous job of restocking the roster to build a 14-2 team. But there comes a point where quality should trump quantity.

Surprisingly, the Patriots have actually traded up more often -- 15 times under Belichick -- than they have moved down. But they haven't moved up in the first round since 2003, when they popped up one spot to get Ty Warren. The play clock on Brady's greatness is ticking.

You can't keep putting the future off forever. If you do, it ends up becoming the past.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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