Patriots Mailbag: First-Round Pick Nate Solder’s High Potential Made Him the Right Choice


Patriots Mailbag: First-Round Pick Nate Solder's High Potential Made Him the Right Choice FOXBORO, Mass. — As always, it's never dull when the Patriots are on the clock. Bill Belichick proved it again during the three-day draft, selecting tackle Nate Solder in the first round, keeping the first pick of the second round to select cornerback Ras-I Dowling, using back-to-back picks on running backs, shocking the world by picking quarterback Ryan Mallett in the third round, jumping on the value of offensive lineman Marcus Cannon in the fifth round and pulling off two trades to get him into the first and second rounds of next year's draft.

There's no shortage of topics to discuss, so let's kick it off with a special Sunday edition of the Patriots mailbag. Thanks for your questions, and if you've got more, stop by later in the week to participate in Friday's mailbag.

With Nate Solder's athletic ability and his past as a tight end, can you see him bringing something more than line play to the red-zone offense? Do you see him lining up as an eligible receiver and becoming the Mike Vrabel of the goal line? Also, has Da'Quan Bowers played with this knee problem his whole career? To go from the possible No. 1 pick to out of the first round without character issues is rare. Go UMass.

With Solder's 6-foot-8 frame, he could definitely be an asset in that fashion, and that's something Belichick obviously likes to do at the goal line. However, tight end Rob Gronkowski is already a huge asset in the red zone, evidenced by his 10 touchdowns as a rookie, so the Patriots don't need to get overly gimmicky with Solder.

Bowers is believed to have a degenerative condition that will only continue to worsen through the rigors of an NFL lifestyle. If teams think he'll be useless after a certain point in his career — whether it's one year or four years down the road — they'd prefer to develop a player who could reach his potential by his third or fourth season and continue improving from there. Plus, Bowers could be more likely to get nicked up, and one bad knee injury could conceivably end his career at any point.

Like every good Pats fan should, I've learned not to question the draft guru that is Bill Belichick, but passing on Mark Ingram was a bit of a surprise. Let's not forget, he holds the 2009 Heisman Trophy. That being said, what potential do you think BenJarvus Green-Ellis has as the feature back of the Pats in seasons to come? Had a great season last year. No denying that, but you need consistency. Your thoughts?
–Pats fan in NY

Green-Ellis' teammates think he's got the potential to reach 1,200-1,400 yards as a primary back, and he has steadily improved each season with an obvious spike in 2010. They know what they've got in Green Ellis — a strong worker, hard runner and dependable ball carrier whose last (and only) fumble came in high school.

I understand the interest in Ingram, but it's not like he was head and shoulders above the other backs in the class. If that was the case, he would have been a top-ten pick. He'll be a good back with 1,000-yard potential, but that doesn't mean he warrants a first-round pick, as proven by the undrafted Green-Ellis.

Seventeen players surpassed 1,000 rushing yards in 2010. Three of them — league leader Arian Foster, Green-Ellis and LeGarrette Blount — went undrafted, and another (Peyton Hillis) was drafted as a fullback. Six of the 1,000-yard rushers were first-round picks.

The Patriots drafted two good backs who will complement each other well. Shane Vereen is the elusive runner who can excel in open space and the passing game, and Stevan Ridley is the power back who will spell Green-Ellis in those situations.

Belichick doesn't like to put a lot of responsibility on one running back due to the injury risk at the position, and that had to have been part of the reason he passed on Ingram, who has knee concerns. Since the Patriots held a private workout with Ingram, they were obviously comfortable with letting him go to another team.

Why not Anthony Castonzo instead of Solder? Most analysts feel he is NFL ready, and Solder is a work in progress.

It's a good question, and the consensus is Castonzo was definitely more NFL-ready than Solder. My belief is the Patriots believe Solder has a higher ceiling than Castonzo. I also believe Matt Light will be back for another season, and that will afford the Patriots the luxury of developing Solder before thrusting him onto the field. I like the Solder pick, especially if they retain Light.

Is there any word about why Mark Herzlich went drafted? He seems like a Belichick type of guy in the linebacker position. Also, is there a chance the Pats may pick him up as an undrafted free agent and give him a shot?
–Dave E

The thinking is teams just don't believe Herzlich has gotten all the way back to his Defensive Player of the Year level. As a potential bottom-of-the-roster player, he'd also need to be more valuable on special teams, and I don't think he's got the necessary special teams ability at this point.

Since Herzlich will be a long-term project, I also wonder about one important thing. Since he might be best suited to play with a team's practice squad as a rookie, teams might be worried about bringing him all the way through camp, waiving him and losing him to a team that claims him. Just a thought anyway.

The Patriots could still sign Herzlich, but two things lead me to believe it won't happen.

First, he's with agent Tom Condon and CAA, and the Patriots have stopped negotiating with Condon. It will probably be a little more difficult to negotiate a contract through this process than it would have if they drafted him.

Second, the Patriots spent a seventh-round pick on TCU special teamer Malcolm Williams, who admitted he didn't expect to get drafted. Williams played very little defense in college. So, the Patriots' decision to take Williams should tell you everything you need to know about their view on Herzlich.

Obviously, it'll probably be a couple of years before Ryan Mallet is NFL-ready. But with him drafted, is Brian Hoyer's future as Tom Brady's backup quarterback in danger?

Hoyer is entering the last year of his contract, and I think he'll be solidified as the No. 2 guy in 2011. While the Patriots have enjoyed the extra roster space with just two quarterbacks in the last two seasons, it would be a huge gamble to go into the season with Mallett as the only backup. A month and a half of training camp (if the lockout permits a full camp) won't be enough for the Patriots to know what they're getting in Mallett.

Jeff, I've always been a Patriots fan but have still liked the Saints and watched some of their games, and I think that Pierre Thomas would be a fantastic fit for our system. Even though the Pats drafted two more running backs, is there any chance we could target him in free agency? Also, do you see the possibility of Tom Brady one day taking over as our head coach when Belichick retires?

Thomas was linked as one of the Patriots' potential targets when the offseason began, but he signed a four-year deal with the Saints before the lockout.

As for Brady, well, I've got to give credit for the unique question. When he's done playing, though, he's got a $20 million mansion and a supermodel wife waiting in southern California. I don't think coaching will be all that tempting of an option, considering his other alternative.

I was wondering if you could tell me why New England passed on Cameron Jordan? In my opinion, we could have traded down for Jordan and still drafted one of the top three offensive tackles. Your thoughts on our complete disregard for Belichick thinking our pass rush needed zero attention? Thanks.
–Ben Ludwig

I can't imagine the Patriots found any fault with Jordan, and it's probably as simple as they thought Solder would be the better player over the course of his career. Sure, Jordan might fill a more immediate need (if Light returns to start at left tackle), but Belichick doesn't always think year to year, instead preferring to project over the life of their contracts.

It's also possible that Belichick views Ron Brace as the guy who could be that starter if he can stay healthy and remain on pace to keep improving the way he did last season. With Mike Wright and Marcus Stroud (and maybe Gerard Warren, too) providing depth on the defensive line, Belichick might not have viewed the position to need as much of an upgrade.

The outside linebackers who went in the second and third round in the draft were a little overrated, at least in terms of draft position. I don't think there was as much value there, and I'm really not surprised he stayed away from that crop of players at that point. It might not be the popular choice, but I'm at least trying to rationalize Belichick's approach over the weekend.

OK, Jeff, appreciate your work. I believe that this will be the year (if we have a season) Jermaine Cunningham will break through as the pass rusher for our team. We can go to free agency also, but I believe that Cunningham is our guy. After all, Belichick said that he already has good talent on the roster. But then again, this just my thought. Your thoughts?

Thanks, Kyle, and I do agree that Cunningham will have a big year in 2011. He really emerged throughout his rookie season once he overcame the injury that wiped out the majority of training camp. I wouldn't expect him to be the third linebacker to reach double-digit sacks of Belichick's New England tenure, but Cunningham should continue to be excellent against the run.

If you're looking for a breakout pass rusher, don't forget about Eric Moore, a late-season addition who recorded two sacks and 13 tackles in limited reps. Belichick likes him and expressed as much Saturday after the draft.

Jeff, when the Patriots decided to draft Ras-I Dowling, did Bill Belichick think Leigh Bodden would not come through after the injury? That being said, would you think that the Patriots will have the one of the best secondaries in the NFL?

Bodden said in March he was still recovering from shoulder surgery, but he expected to be fully ready for training camp. Even still, it was a pretty serious injury, and athletes do tend to have a difficult time recovering from a torn labrum, especially if Bodden leads with his shoulder to tackle.

More than anything, Dowling should be a pretty good player, and he probably represents the future at cornerback with Devin McCourty. He's physical, a good tackler and has good ball skills like McCourty, and Patriots fans should eventually like that pick.

I don't want to rank the Patriots' secondary until later in the summer because there will be plenty of roster movement throughout the league. But with McCourty, Bodden, Patrick Chung, Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, there's definitely a very good core of defensive backs.

The NFL Draft was the last item under contract, right? Now, there is officially no football, as of now, right? So how does free agency work if there is no program, no workouts, no nothing for that matter? Please explain this a little to me. You would think they are bound to come to an agreement soon, right? I mean, aren't they technically losing money already by not having a plan?
–Tom Bouchard

The NFL lockout is in effect until the Eighth Circuit rules on a permanent stay, and that ruling will come early this week. If the stay is granted, the lockout will run through the owners' appeal of the preliminary injunction, which could run another month or two. And if the owners win that appeal, the lockout will remain until the two sides agree upon a CBA.

If the permanent stay is not granted this week, the NFL will reopen its doors like it did Friday before the temporary stay was put in place. That means players can work out at team facilities, and coaches can set up schedules for organized team activities and offseason camps.

The NFL will then decide when to start the league year to allow free agency and trading. This will be in place through the owners' appeal of the preliminary injunction. If the owners win that appeal (as said above), the lockout will be in place until a CBA is reached. If the players win the appeal, the 2011 season will happen in full, and the two sides can negotiate a CBA on the side.

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