I probably should have had my thoughts in order for this since it was the worst-kept secret in Foxborough this offseason, but Matt Light's hilarious and introspective retirement announcement Monday left me with some mixed feelings.
It would be weirdly selfish, particularly in light of recent events, to suggest a player should not walk away from the game on his own volition just because it's apparent that he can still play. Light is going to do extraordinarily well after football -- the NFL Network and ESPN should be wooing him right now, because he is articulate and witty and would be a star analyst immediately -- and he's one of the lucky ones in that he departs on his own terms and right of mind.
But from a less significant standpoint -- the football-related one -- his retirement is the first real blow to the Patriots in an offseason that has delivered almost entirely positive personnel news, from the drafting of Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower to the savvy signing of Jabar Gaffney and several other quality depth pieces.
With Light, who has protected Tom Brady's blind side from snorting, slobbering pass rushers for virtually every snap of his career, moving on, suddenly there's a second-year player at left tackle in Nate Solder, while right tackle is a question mark if Sebastian Vollmer's bad back continues to be a problem. Solder has a chance to be an excellent player. But I doubt he will be the immediate equal of Light, who leaves after one of the best seasons of his 11-year career.
Drafted in the second round in '01 out of Purdue, Light became such an essential player, handling his unglamorous but crucial role with distinction for five Super Bowl teams, that it got me wondering whether he was the best player ever selected by the Patriots in that particular round.
After letting it percolate for about two seconds, I realized the answer was a resounding no, but he is on the short-list of candidates to follow a certain Hall of Famer who has the top spot locked down.
Just for the fun of it, here's my top seven second-rounders in Patriots history, in order:
1. Andre Tippett '82: The Patriots had to be confident they were getting a future defensive superstar in the '82 draft. It just wasn't who they thought. While No. 1 overall pick Ken Sims, a defensive end from Texas, let his sluggishness supersede his talent in a mostly wasted career, the Patriots found the greatest defensive player in franchise history with the 41st overall pick. Tippett was the second-greatest pass rushing linebacker of his era (he was to Lawrence Taylor what Tim Raines was to Rickey Henderson as a leadoff hitter), finishing with 100 sacks in his 12-year career, and he should have been voted into the Hall of Fame long before he was.
2. Steve Nelson, '74: When I first began watching the Patriots in the late '70s, it seemed like the announcer (probably Don Criqui) informed us after every play, "Number 57, Steve Nelson with the tackle." I probably believed he made every one. In 1984, Nellie came about as close as possible to doing just that, finishing with an astounding 207 while making his second of three Pro Bowl appearances.
3. Julius Adams, '71: If you want to drop Adams, a very good pass-rushing defensive end who was also stout against the run, down to No. 5 on this list and move the next two guys up, I'm cool with that. I slotted him because of steadiness and durability more than anything else. He played 206 games from 1971-85 and '87.
4. Matt Light, '01: Light followed in the immediate footsteps of the consensus greatest left tackle in franchise history, Bruce Armstrong, whose 14-year Patriots career concluded in 2000. Light doesn't match Armstrong in longevity (a franchise-record 212 games, all starts) or accolades (six Pro Bowl appearances), but factors such as leadership are included, I think I'd go with the guy who just retired on my all-time Patriots team.
5. Kevin Faulk, '99: The Troy Brown of running backs, he's done everything the team has asked of him and just a little bit more. He also remains the only evidence Bobby Grier can point to and exclaim, "See? I got something right!"
6. Lawyer Milloy '96: In the first three rounds over a span of four years (1993-96), the Patriots drafted Drew Bledsoe, Curtis Martin, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Terry Glenn, Ted Johnson, and Milloy. That's how to build it, Tuna. Milloy and Law were the leaders of the defensive backfield that pummeled the delicate Rams receivers in Super Bowl XXXVI. One of the lasting images among many from that game is Bill Belichick hugging one of his children and Milloy in the immediate moments after Adam Vinatieri's field goal proved true.
7. Rob Gronkowski, '10: Yep, it's been just two years. But hell, it was tempting to rank him higher, and I doubt you guys would have objected. After all, in those two seasons, he has 132 receptions for 1,873 yards and 27 touchdowns. If he'd had two healthy ankles in February, the Patriots would have a fourth Super Bowl title. Provided he can stay healthy -- a big if given how overmatched would-be tacklers go for his legs -- he will be the greatest tight end of all-time.
One fine receiver and a bunch of busts: Deion Branch '02 has 312 regular-season receptions as a Patriot. That's 193 more than fellow second-round receivers Kevin Lee '94 (8 receptions), Darryal Wilson '83 (0 receptions), Tony Simmons '98 (58), Bethel Johnson '03 (39), and Chad Jackson '06 (14) combined for in their entire careers. Heck, Branch has more Super Bowl receptions (24) than Wilson, Lee and Jackson totaled during the regular season.
Other quality second-rounders of various levels of accomplishment: Patrick Chung '09, Sebastian Vollmer '09, Eugene Wilson '03, Ted Johnson '95, Vincent Brown '88, Garin Veris '85, Tony Collins '81, Larry McGrew '80, Horace Ivory '77, Rod Shoate '75, Brandon Spikes '10, Chris Slade, '93, and Lee Roy Jordan, '63 (never played for the Pats, who drafted him as a center, but starred at linebacker for the Cowboys for 14 years).
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.