The Patriots' 2009 draft class was their deepest in at least four years, but the 2010 crop of picks has a chance to match that production. It looks like the Patriots could receive instant production from seven players in 2010, which makes this next question a tricky one: Who will be the Patriots' most valuable draft pick this season?
The seven impact players include cornerback Devin McCourty, tight end Rob Gronkowski, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, wide receiver Taylor Price, tight end Aaron Hernandez and punter Zoltan Mesko (he's got to be better than Chris Hanson, thus, the impact).
Head coach Bill Belichick can only hope the 2010 draft class doesn’t resemble the one from 2006, when fourth-round kicker Stephen Gostkowski turned into New England's best pick, so let's start by eliminating Mesko. It's also unlikely that McCourty will make a huge difference this season because he's already behind Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite on the depth chart.
Gronkowski and Hernandez each have a chance to become heavily involved in the offense. Gronkowski is a more traditional tight end who can block and catch equally well, and there's a good chance he winds up as the team's starter ahead of veteran Alge Crumpler. Hernandez, on the other hand, is more athletic and might be too light to be relied upon in tight-to-the-line blocking situations. In that regard, he'll have more of an opportunity to rack up some flashier statistics.
With both rookie tight ends, though, their production will be dictated by the offensive game plan. Last season, New England's tight ends were an afterthought, as Ben Watson and Chris Baker combined for 43 catches (11.0 percent of the team's total production), 546 yards (12.0 percent) and seven touchdowns (25.0 percent of receiving touchdowns). If de facto offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien utilizes the tight ends more in 2010, Gronkowski and Hernandez have the tools to excel in this offense.
Price has shown some strong receiving skills during his limited work, and he'll jockey for playing time as an outside receiver opposite of Randy Moss. But it's pretty unrealistic to set high expectations for a rookie receiver, especially when Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and maybe even Torry Holt command more passes. In all fairness, a good year for Price would involve 30-35 receptions for 300-400 yards and a couple of touchdowns. By comparison, Edelman had 37 catches for 359 yards and one touchdown in his rookie season, plus six catches for 44 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff game against Baltimore.
That leaves Cunningham and Spikes. Cunningham was a defensive end at Florida, but he's making the transition to outside linebacker, which isn’t an overly difficult process. He worked on a lot of fundamentals while standing up in camp — as opposed to the three-point stance of a down lineman — and his key to staying on the field will be his recognition and coverage ability on passing plays. More importantly, Cunningham needs to get to the quarterback to make a real impact, an area the Patriots have starved for in recent seasons.
Spikes is a rock-solid linebacker who should have a chance to win some good playing time. Providing the Patriots play a lot of 3-4, Spikes, Gary Guyton and Tyrone McKenzie will get their chances alongside Jerod Mayo. The ultimate importance for an inside linebacker is tackling, and if Spikes continues to display his tackling prowess, he could lock up a spot on the inside and push Guyton to the outside — which really could be the Patriots' best linebacker combination anyway.
A lot of things have to shake out for this question to get answered. Immediately, it appears as though Gronkowski could see the most playing time out of the group, but Spikes, Cunningham, Hernandez and Price will get their chances to perform, too.
Don’t look for a Mayo-like rookie season out of any of these guys, but if the 2010 rookies contribute like their immediate predecessors, the Patriots will be off to a good start with another draft class.
NESN.com will be answering one Patriots question every day until July 24.
Thursday, July 8: How will Randy Moss perform in his contract year?
Saturday, July 10: Should the Patriots bring back the screen game?