Pats Need Muscle Not Flash in 2011 NFL Draft

The NFL draft is a mere four days away and with the Patriots holding 9 total selections, including 6 in the first 92, Patriots nation is abuzz with draft day speculation.  Three of the Patriots picks in particular-- numbers 17, 28, and 33 offer the tantalizing potential to produce top tier talents (that is if Bill Belichick doesn’t trade them away first) and make a major splash on April 28th

And while it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of drafting a playmaking WR (Say Julio Jones) or a (potentially) legitimate number one RB (Read Mark Ingram), if the Patriots want to get back to their winning ways they need to set aside flash and focus on muscle. 

Much of the chatter among Pats fans over the past few years and certainly during this off-season has focused on the need to acquire a legitimate RB to take some of the pressure off of Tom Brady and the passing game.  It would be dishonest to say that the Patriots wouldn’t benefit from establishing the kind of run game that could see consistent success even in obvious rushing downs and situations, and in having a back capable of carrying the majority of snaps in a majority of the formations and packages that the Patriots trot out on a given Sunday.  Belichick has more than proven his worth in creating mismatches for his backs and in developing schemes and situations where a plethora of unknowns have seen great success.  You don’t have to look any further than BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead’s success this past season.  But for some reason, it always seems to feel that the Pats ground game is lacking something.

Looking back to 2004 and the Corey Dillon led Superbowl Champions – and certainly anyone looking to make an argument in favor of grabbing a top-tier back in the draft will do so- has become a favorite pastime for Pats fans looking to make sense of the teams recent playoff struggles and the apparent lack of crunch time production from the Patriots running game.  But the numbers suggest otherwise.  In 2004 Dillon had a career year rushing for 1635 yards (a franchise record) and 12 touchdowns and the Patriots as a team rushed for 2134 yards and 15 TDs.  However, if you look at the stats from 2010, the Patriots rushed for 1973 yards and 19 TDs.  So we’re looking at a difference of 161 yards in the negative, but 4 more touchdowns.  You could speculate on how many of the 161 yards were crucial first down runs or back breaking drive savers at the end of a game, and you might come up with some telling statistics. But seriously I don’t have time to go back and research that.  4 touchdowns is nothing to scoff at, either way you look at it, and the yardage differential is not extreme.

Also, that 161 yards came on 70 more carries (454 in 2010, 524 in 2004) so the Patriots actually had a higher yards per carry total in 2010: 4.3 ypc to 4.1 ypc in 2004.  So statistically we’re not looking at huge disparities and in fact, you can make the legitimate argument that in some ways the Patriots rushing game was more efficient and more productive last year than in 2004.  No one is going to tell you with a straight face that Corey Dillon and BJGE are equals on the field, given the choice I would take Dillon every time.  What the numbers tell us is that the 2010 Patriots were able to produce team rushing statistics that placed them in the top 10 rushing attacks in the NFL without a top-tier back shouldering 20-30 carries a game.

The real issue at hand when it comes to the Patriots balance on offense is the offensive line, and at least on the offensive side of the ball, this position should draw their focus come draft day.  Matt Light played inconsistently last season, and it is clear to me that his days as a legitimate number one left tackle in the NFL are limited (if not over).  Additionally, he and Logan Mankins are both looking for deals right now, and need to be re-signed or released.  I would let Light walk, re-sign Mankins, move Sebastian Vollmer to LT and grab the best available lineman with at least one of their first three picks, if not two of those three. Steven Neal retired this off-season and Dan Koppen is getting up there in age as well, so drafting a C or G would also make a lot of sense and fill a very real need for this team in 2011 and going forward.  Nothing will be more crucial to extending Tom Brady’s career and keeping the passing game flying high than making sure that Brady is well protected. The biggest factor in rushing production is the offensive line play, no offense to the Mark Ingrams of the world.  Locking up a flashy running back is exciting in April but come December when its 3rd and 2 and the Patriots need a first down to seal a victory you’re going to want the better line, not the better ball carrier.

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