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Patriots come out on top in divisional battle

FOXBOROUGH -- The draft is just another way divisional rivals compete in the NFL. It is not the Super Bowl, but it is the foundation of any team intent on making a run at the Lombardi Trophy. Other than game days, there may not be a more important 48 hours on the pro football calendar.

So, after two days of sifting through scouting reports, perusing medical reports, studying 40-yard times, and making selections, the preliminary results are in and the New England Patriots seem to have won the divisional battle.

It appears the Buffalo Bills helped themselves, although it's unclear whether it's in the short term or the long term, and the Miami Dolphins got their first priority filled in a big way by eluding the Patriots' efforts to subvert them, but the big winner in the AFC East seemed to be the defending Super Bowl champions.

Not only were they fortunate that highly rated defensive tackle Vince Wilfork slipped to them at No. 21 in the first round, but you have to factor in that they got six-time 1,000-yard rusher Corey Dillon for a second-round choice. That is off-the-chart value if they had to make that pick Saturday.

If you stopped right there, this draft would be a success because Wilfork was widely projected to be a top-15 selection. Any draft that nets as highly rated a player as Wilfork -- plus a guy almost guaranteed to rush for 1,000 yards -- has to be considered a smashing success.

After that, there were some strange moves, like selecting tight end Ben Watson with their other first-round pick despite having moved up to take Daniel Graham in the first round two years ago. But it could be argued that Christian Fauria is getting older so it was a chance to gain some youth at the position.

Taking another defensive line project in Marquise Hill in the second round seemed odd, but Bill Belichick said his goal was to get younger and quicker on defense -- and he certainly accomplished that along his defensive line. Add young free agent Rodney Bailey and he has Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Bailey, Wilfork, and Hill -- plus Jarvis Green and Dan Klecko -- which is a youthful base.

The Patriots then went after two safeties -- Guss Scott and Dexter Reid -- in hopes one can play well enough to allow Eugene Wilson to move to corner. And then they made perhaps their best pick when they got wide receiver P.K. Sam in the fifth round. Sam needs work, but he was on the top-100 list of many teams, yet New England got him with the 164th pick.

Even if the selections of Wilfork, Watson, and Hill were makeup calls for possible mistakes at the top of some previous drafts, so what? As long as some of these guys pan out, the defending Super Bowl champions got stronger over the weekend.

Not everyone liked the Bills' draft, but it seemed solid because they got deep speed at receiver in the first round with Lee Evans, who can be teamed with Eric Moulds the way Peerless Price was two years ago when Buffalo's offense was clicking. His arrival allows Josh Reed to move back to a slot receiver, where he is far more effective.

Their other first-round choice of quarterback J.P. Losman puts pressure on Drew Bledsoe and gives the Bills their QB of the future without having to throw him right to the wolves. Losman can have a year to sit, watch Bledsoe, and learn about the pro game. If Bledsoe is released at the end of the year for financial or other reasons, Losman will have had a season to mature. If Bledsoe stays, Losman can compete with him and may the best arm win.

After that, Buffalo did some reaching and hoping, although Ohio State defensive tackle Tim Anderson was rated in the top 60 on at least one team's board, so he's a value with the 74th pick. Then again, he was 159th on another. So it goes in the draft.

Miami hoped to come out of this draft with offensive line help and it got it by trading up one spot to grab Vernon Carey, a mauling blocker with quick feet who should step right in at one of the guard slots. The Dolphins also added more offensive line recruits with Rex Hadnot and Tony Pape on the second day.

Sixth- and seventh-round picks don't often pan out, but if one of them does, this was a strong weekend for the Dolphins.

But the key to the success of their draft, assuming Carey pans out, is cornerback Will Poole. Poole entered the offseason highly rated but he slipped and ended up in the fourth round. Had he been taken earlier, as some projected, he might have been overvalued, but going to Miami with the 102d pick means the Dolphins got a lot for their money, since even after slipping he was among the top 100 players in the opinion of most teams.

And then there are the Jets. If there is strength in numbers, the Jets helped themselves with 10 picks. But did they?

With no second-round choice, New York went to shore up a linebacker crew depleted by the exile of Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis and got an undersized middle linebacker in Jonathan Vilma, who flunked several physicals because of a knee problem that may require surgery. If he's healthy, he's a solid pick and a productive player, but if his knee doesn't hold up, this was a disaster and they can't afford those kinds of gambles.

Getting Oklahoma cornerback Derrick Strait in the third round was good value, although how much help he'll be immediately is questionable. Same holds true for fourth-round pick Jerricho Cotchery, a wide receiver who is another top-100 list player the Jets were able to grab at 108.

After that, New York drafted two offensive linemen, two safeties, another linebacker, a defensive end, and a running back, with four of those picks coming in the seventh round.

So in the AFC East, the rich got richer, the middle class didn't improve their lot much, and the poor . . . well, it's the same old story for them. They gambled and have to hope they hit if their lot is going to improve next fall. 

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