Football Notes

If Light goes out, bright talent steps in

By Greg A. Bedard
July 17, 2011

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The National Football League’s labor strife is expected to end this week, with an eye on training camps starting around the end of the month.

In fact, the players’ antitrust lawsuit against the owners is one of the last hurdles to clear to end the lockout, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

Since offseason workouts and minicamps were wiped out, rookies will be well behind previous draft classes. Therefore, most teams have adjusted their expectations, especially for positions such as quarterback and wide receiver, which require the most adjustment to the pro level.

For the most part, the Patriots don’t need much help from their nine-man group. The roster is full of young, ascending players.

But the Patriots could be counting on first-round pick Nate Solder to start immediately at left tackle.

Matt Light, an unrestricted free agent who has been Tom Brady’s blindside protector for 10 years, may not be back. His future will likely be addressed as soon as teams can make transactions.

According to a source close to the negotiations, the Patriots made what they deemed to be a fair offer to Light before the lockout started. It was rejected. The Patriots may not be willing to budge much off that number, and the team certainly won’t be looking to set the market for the 33-year-old.

Light will certainly have plenty of options. Both the Falcons and Chiefs, two contending teams, have question marks at left tackle. And both personnel departments are headed by former Patriots front office executives: Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli.

In Atlanta, the subpar play of left tackle Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, could be the least of Dimitroff’s worries. His top three offensive linemen - right tackle Tyson Clabo, right guard Harvey Dahl, and left guard Justin Blalock - are all unrestricted free agents.

By trading up in the draft to get receiver Julio Jones, Dimitroff signaled he is dead-set on winning now. Locking up Dahl and Blalock will likely be his top priorities. If the Falcons lose Clabo, they could switch Baker to the right side. That would open a spot for Light, who Dimitroff knows would settle the line.

It’s no secret that the Chiefs haven’t been thrilled with left tackle Branden Albert, a 2008 first-round pick. Asked at the NFL Combine whether Albert would be the left tackle in 2011, coach Todd Haley said, “He will be as long as he’s the best one.’’

Like Atlanta, the Chiefs did not take a tackle in the draft, and Albert could be switched to right tackle if a player such as Light is deemed a better option.

The Patriots know Light has value, and he definitely could return. But what if he doesn’t? Where does that leave the Patriots?

Better off than one might think. Four NFL scouting executives said they have little doubt Solder can come in and start for the Patriots, even after enduring the lockout.

“He’s the most ready lineman there was in the draft this year as far as being able to handle the athletic ability,’’ said an AFC scouting director. “As far as athletes go on the left side, he’s as good as you’re going to find anywhere.’’

Three of the four executives named Solder as the Patriots’ pick most likely to contribute this season.

“Solder can play if they don’t re-sign Light, absolutely,’’ an AFC executive said. “Solder’s biggest issue is sometimes his leverage isn’t right and he looks a little light in the butt. That’s just technique work. He just needs to play with a wider base. [Offensive line coach] Dante Scarnecchia will have him ready, no doubt.’’

Lowdown on Patriots’ picks Here are selected comments from the four NFL scouting executives on each of the Patriots’ nine draft picks:

■Tackle Nate Solder, Colorado (first round): “He’s long, he’s athletic. He’ll be a solid starter. He’s very talented. He’s going to need to get a little bit stronger so he won’t get outmanned like he did in some games. But he’s got the feet to play left tackle.’’ . . . “I think he’ll be a 10-year pro, make the Pro Bowl. He’s a great kid. He’s 6-8, 315 and he looks like he’s 6-8, 260. He’ll easily be 335 and he has great feet. He’s like a dancing bear. The sky is the limit for him.’’ . . . “Worry a little about the height because guys can get the corner on him from time to time. Nothing that can’t be fixed.’’

■Cornerback Ras-I Dowling, Virginia (second round): “An interesting commodity only because he didn’t play much this year [because of injury]. He was probably more of a late second-rounder. He’s got a chance to be a corner and a starter.’’ . . . “He has the size and all the testing stuff but when you saw him on film, we were just disappointed with his play. He did battle the injuries. But it didn’t match the hype. There’s a lot of unknowns.’’ . . . “Good athlete, not elite. Very good size, physical player. Injury concerns will be there. Real solid player. Nothing flashy.’’

■Running back Shane Vereen, California (second round): “With Kevin Faulk at 35 and coming off ACL surgery, it’s probably time for him to move on and this Shane Vereen can move in there. He carried the ball a lot but when he’s most effective he’ll be playing the Kevin Faulk role.’’ . . . “Track guy but he’s not a track guy playing football. He’s a football guy that’s just fast. He’s more straight-ahead than fluid. He’s a one-cut-and-upfield guy.’’ . . . “He’s small. He’s a breakaway threat with home run speed. Has good hands. Would be good on third downs but he needs to improve as a pass protector. Great kid. Has the intangibles that the Patriots love.’’

■Running back Stevan Ridley, LSU (third round): “I thought they reached a little bit too high for him. He’s effective. Tries to win with size. He has a little bit of work ahead of him, though.’’ . . . “He’s a big back and productive. Good feet, good hips and vision. The thing I liked about him was the offensive line he played behind was horrible and he still was able to produce.’’ . . . “Good hands, good pass protector.’’ . . . “Gets stronger as the game goes on. Big back, not real nifty, but he’s a downhill, bruising-type back. He wears on defenses.’’

■Quarterback Ryan Mallett, Arkansas (third round): “I thought it was a great pick. Any time you can get a first-round talent in the third round over some immature social issues, I think that can be cleaned up.’’ . . . “He doesn’t have the feet [right now]. He’s going to have to transform his body. He’s got a little baby fat around him. I don’t think he’s a bad kid myself. I just think he needs some direction. He’s always been the big man and I think that’s soon to be coming to an end. I think he’s mature enough to get it. I think it could be the guy [who replaces Tom Brady].’’ . . . “The talent is there, obviously. We thought of him as the best pure passer in the draft above everybody else. But he really rubbed our coaches the wrong way. We can’t afford to deal with guys like that, but the Patriots can.’’ . . . “I think it’s a great fit for the Patriots because that locker room is so strong. With Brady in that room, Mallett has no choice but to do the right things, show up on time, learn.’’ . . . “Great arm skills. Decision-making is suspect. Demeanor will be the biggest thing with him and his mental makeup, being a leader. He can make all the throws. Delivery is a little long. Gets a little quick with everything and makes bad decisions when he has pressure.’’

■Guard Marcus Cannon, TCU (fifth round): “Played both guard and tackle. Very athletic. Extremely powerful. He needs to work on technique, and that will come in the NFL. He’s 360 pounds and moves pretty darn well. It’s hard to compare him to smaller guys, who are going to look prettier. More of a developmental guy. Comes in as a top backup and develops into a starter. Definitely worth taking a shot on.’’ . . . “Big guy, strong. Good athlete for his size but not a tackle. Just needs to work on being more fundamentally sound in the run game because he’s coming from the spread offense.’’

■Tight end Lee Smith, Marshall (fifth round): “He’s a blocking tight end, that’s all he is. He’s a banger. You’ve got the two receivers [in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez], now this is your banger.’’ . . . “Like having an extra tackle on the field. Can’t run. Can’t create separation as a route runner.’’ . . . “Lee is one of the most overpowering run blockers I have seen as a tight end. But that’s all you’re really going to get from him.’’ . . . “As a run blocker you’d constantly see him driving guys out of bounds. He had a couple personal fouls because he was going to the whistle and maybe a little bit beyond. So you love the way he plays.’’

■Linebacker Markell Carter, Central Arkansas (sixth round): “He’ll be on the practice squad. He needs a lot of development.’’ . . . “Wasn’t on our radar. Interesting athlete but extremely raw.’’ . . . “Thought he was real stiff. Not a very good athlete. Marginal speed. Didn’t think he dominated at the Division 2 level.’’

■Cornerback Malcolm Williams, TCU (seventh round): “His coaches didn’t think much of him, said he couldn’t play for them. Really good kid. Had a good workout, that’s it.’’ . . . “He’s not a very good player, he did have a good workout and sometimes that’s all it takes.’’

Not surprisingly, Williams got the most votes from the scouting executives for the player most likely to have the shortest Patriots career.

Mallett won handily as the best value pick. Ridley got one vote.

“He can contribute early on,’’ an NFC executive said of Ridley. “Would replace Sammy Morris. Same type of player.’’

Valuable lessons Several area youngsters got some top-notch instruction as Football University held one of its 40 three-day minicamps at Westwood High last weekend.

Dale Hellestrae, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Cowboys, showed film of the Jets to demonstrate offensive line play. Former CFL lineman Dave Hack showed new techniques being used in the NFL and then had the players apply it on the field.

The roster of coaches was full of former NFL personnel: quarterback Glenn Foley, running back Robert Edwards, running back Alonzo Highsmith, wide receiver Wes Chandler, linebacker Gary Cobb, defensive line coach Thurmond Moore, and cornerbacks coach Jerome Henderson. Longtime defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson were there as well.

“It’s been fun to actually have somebody to coach,’’ said Jerome Henderson, a former Patriot. “I feel a little off-kilter this offseason not going through my usual progression. Any time you can help some kids and give them some tools that they can use, you always enjoy doing that. For me, it’s a chance to hone my skills and to get back into that mind-set.

“It’s refreshing with kids because for them, they look at an NFL coach and say, ‘That’s the Holy Grail.’ They’re so zoned in and you see them absorbing it like a sponge and you enjoy that.’’

Donnie Henderson was outstanding teaching the students all the coverages the pros use, and the necessary footwork.

“This is the same instruction I give my draft picks,’’ he said. “They have no clue coming from college. You’d be shocked. They all have to be taught over again. These kids are getting a big jump on that.’’

The camp isn’t cheap; most students pay $579 for the three days. But camp president Rich McGuinness, who played in college, said that he wanted to have the finest technical coaches.

“There’s no training for the best young football players in this country,’’ McGuinness said. “What we said was, ‘Let’s go find the best NFL coaches and let’s go find America’s best kids and match them up over three days in this academy-style training to give them their best chance at being successful.’ ’’

Short yardage Jerome Henderson was the only defensive coach retained by Pat Shurmur when he replaced Eric Mangini as Browns coach. Henderson coached the Jets’ Darrelle Revis for three years, and is still in awe of the All-Pro cornerback. “Having played and having coached, he’s a special, special guy,’’ Henderson said. “His intensity, his focus, his determination, and then you wrap that around his special ability, it’s scary how good the kid is and how good he is going to continue to get. A player in his fifth year is still really just finding himself, and that’s scary for the rest of the receivers in the league to understand it. I don’t think I’ll ever coach a player like that again. He moves all over the field and can match up against anybody. He’s outstanding and will get better.’’ . . . Hard not to notice that two other native New Englanders have joined Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the forefront of the labor negotiations. Whatever benefits the retirees reap in the new deal will have been gained with input of Pete Kendall and Sean Morey. Kendall, who was born in Quincy and attended Archbishop Williams before starring at Boston College, and Morey, the Marshfield native who set Ivy League receiving records at Brown, have played integral roles in the negotiations.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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