The original plan for this series was to feature the Patriots’ four most recent drafts, but the people have spoken. And when the people speak, we’ll keep the good times coming. Let’s take a look at the Patriots’ 2005 draft class, which is the next stop on a train that will explore all of Bill Belichick’s drafts as the New England head coach.
The drafting of quarterback Matt Cassel was a storyline that came and went in waves. Remember, this was months after the Patriots’ third Super Bowl title and on the heels of a string of brilliant drafts by Belichick. So the rest of the league kept a studious eye on Belichick’s draft maneuvers, and when he selected a quarterback who hadn’t started a game since high school, you could hear the sound of 31 other general managers slapping themselves in the forehead.
Cassel, who was taken in the seventh round (No. 230), was in a no-pressure situation, brought in to learn behind Tom Brady. Yet, over the course of a few poor showings in the preseason and an awkward benching in a 2007 regular-season game, it appeared as though Cassel wore out his welcome with the coaching staff. Almost everyone who covered the Patriots believed Cassel would get cut prior to the 2008 regular season due to another shaky preseason.
Obviously, that didn’t happen, and Cassel blossomed in 2008 after Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury. Cassel passed for 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and he led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. The Pats eventually traded Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs for the 34th pick in the 2009 draft, which turned into safety Pat Chung.
After backing up a pair of USC Heisman Trophy winners in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, along with three-time Super Bowl champion Brady, Cassel got his chance and turned it into a six-year, $63 million contract.
Belichick found a rock at No. 32, where he selected Fresno State offensive lineman Logan Mankins. The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder has started at left guard for every single game of his Patriots career and he is a two-time Pro Bowler. Mankins is a good locker room guy and fits in perfectly with the team’s laid-back set of offensive linemen. He is a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s a near certainty the Patriots will ink him long term.
There weren’t any truly bad picks — misses in the fifth and seventh rounds don’t count, as you’ll see later — but the Patriots pulled the trigger on a trade that didn’t turn out so hot. The Pats sent a third-rounder (No. 95 overall) and fifth-rounder (No. 168) to the Arizona Cardinals for cornerback Duane Starks and a fifth-round pick (No. 145). Starks played seven games, making six starts, and was placed on injured reserve midway through 2005. He was released after the season.
The rest of the picks
Cornerback Ellis Hobbs, third round, No. 84 overall: The Iowa State product performed well when placed on the opposite side of the field as Asante Samuel, and the two were a pretty good tandem. But after Samuel’s departure, Hobbs was forced into the role of a No. 1 cornerback, and he was exposed because he was asked to play above his head. It also doesn’t help Hobbs’ cause that his lasting image features him helplessly chasing down Plaxico Burress during the wideout’s Super Bowl-deciding touchdown grab. In four seasons in New England, Hobbs recorded nine interceptions, five fumble recoveries and scored four touchdowns (three kickoff returns, one fumble return). He was reliable in the kick return game, but the Patriots traded him to the Eagles during the 2009 draft.
Right tackle Nick Kaczur, third round, No. 100 overall: Kaczur, who went to Toledo, has been steady throughout his Pats career. He has definitely struggled against better edge rushers, and he eventually lost his job to rookie Sebastian Vollmer in 2009. If right guard Stephen Neal opts for retirement, it’s possible Kaczur could take his spot next season.
Safety James Sanders, fourth round, No. 133 overall: The Fresno State product played mostly in a reserve role in his first two seasons, but he showed some potential while filling in for an injured Rodney Harrison in 2006. Sanders eventually became the team’s starter in 2007 and 2008, but he temporarily lost his job to Brandon McGowan in 2009. After Sanders reclaimed his perch, Belichick and other members of the defense said the team played a smarter, more disciplined brand of defense, and they also did a better job of communicating. Sanders has five interceptions and three fumble recoveries in his Pats career.
Linebacker Ryan Claridge, fifth round, No. 170 overall: Claridge lost his rookie year due to a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve, and the UNLV product was released after the season. He never signed with another team.
Tight end Andy Stokes, seventh round, No. 255 overall: The last pick in the draft, Stokes was cut during training camp and wound up on the Cardinals’ practice squad. He was released in 2006 and is now out of the NFL.
Who they missed
Had the Patriots held on to the 95th pick, they would have had a chance to take running backs Marion Barber (No. 109), Brandon Jacobs (No. 110) or Darren Sproles (No. 130). The Pats didn’t end up using the 145th selection, either, which would have put them in the running to take pass-rushing force Trent Cole (No. 146).
There wasn’t a whole lot going on after Claridge at No. 170, except for Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who was taken 54 picks later. And Stokes was Mr. Irrelevant, so they could look at someone like return specialist Josh Cribbs, who was an undrafted free agent.
This ranked among Belichick’s best drafts, as he snagged two-fifths of his starting offensive line, along with a reliable starting safety, an above-average cornerback and a quarterback who turned into one of the best stories of the 2008 NFL season. It’s tough to actually rank Belichick’s drafts from 1-10 — there are so many opinions on what exactly dictates a successful draft class — but this one belongs in the conversation.