Seven draft picks and three undrafted players made an impact for New England, which improved throughout the regular season and entered the playoffs with the best record in the NFL. Because of the youth movement, 2010 rookies such as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham helped provide optimism that the Patriots can continue contending with a new generation of players.
Now, on the eve of a new collective bargaining agreement, how many Patriots rookies should be expected to contribute in the 2011 season?
On the surface, the Patriots' most recent draft class looks to be full of promise, even if it will take years to sort out its body of success. For example, after the 2000 season, there was little reason for New England to be excited about its most recent rookie class. And then Tom Brady happened. After the 2006 season, running back Laurence Maroney and wide receiver Chad Jackson still looked like they could highlight an explosive class. Eventually, Maroney's rookie year turned into an aberration and Jackson's hype was an abomination.
At any rate, New England's 2011 rookie class had a different feel from the group in 2010. While tackle Nate Solder, cornerback Ras-I Dowling, running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, quarterback Ryan Mallett and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon are all heralded prospects, it might take them longer to develop into their true potential.
Solder's immediate fate hinges on the unknown status of free agent Matt Light. Dowling likely won't start over Devin McCourty or Leigh Bodden, and it's even more unclear where he'll fit on the depth chart among cornerbacks Kyle Arrington, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite.
Vereen and Ridley will get their touches, but they'll still split carries with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and maybe even Kevin Faulk. Cannon is recovering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, so it's uncertain if he'll be ready for 2011. If he is able to play, he'll still be fighting for playing time behind Logan Mankins (possibly), Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell. And then there's Mallett, who will be a third-stringer if he makes the roster.
Outside linebacker Markell Carter is an unknown who could add a boost to the pass rush, while tight end Lee Smith and special teamer Malcolm Williams will hope to make the practice squad. Then, at the outset of free agency, expect the Patriots to sign as many as two dozen undrafted rookies.
Obviously, injuries will play a major role in playing time, but let's remove that variable from the equation for now. If everything stays true, it's really difficult to forecast each player's time on the field due to the unique circumstances at each position throughout the depth chart.
Solder could have the greatest impact among New England's rookies, or he might not play a single snap. Dowling could be an integral cornerback in sub packages, or he might be relegated to special teams. Vereen and Ridley could have some big moments, but they might also go weeks at a time with very limited touches.
There are reasons to like a chunk of the Patriots' rookie class, but they might not contribute too heavily in 2011 — definitely not in the way that the 2010 rookies produced, anyway.
Jeff Howe will answer one Patriots-related question every day through Aug. 1.
Wednesday, July 20: Can Tom Brady repeat his performance from 2010?
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