On football: Patriots are draft masters

Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Matt Cassel threw a total of 33 passes in four years as the backup to Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at Southern Cal. Yet he still got drafted — in the seventh round by the New England Patriots, who five years ago found a guy named Tom Brady in the sixth.

So if Cassel can play, he landed in the right place.

While it's impossible to judge a draft instantly — anyone who says they can is a fool — you can assume the Patriots know what they're doing. Any team that has won three Super Bowls in four years is doing things right, especially in an era where no one can stockpile players because of the salary cap.

''He really hasn't had the opportunity under fire but has shown a lot of talent and has been behind two of the very best quarterbacks in college football,'' New England coach Bill Belichick said of Cassel, who came close to winning the job from Leinart after Palmer left.

Tracking late-round unknowns like Cassel can be fun — as one of his teammates remarked, he could have been the second-best quarterback in the country the past few years but no one would know.

It's also why instant judgment is so silly — think of Ryan Leaf, taken second overall after Peyton Manning in 1998 and the poster boy for failure.

In fact, Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick this year, cited Leaf as the example NOT to follow.

''I learned a lot of what not to do,'' said Smith, who was in high school in San Diego when Leaf was chosen by the Chargers. ''Especially in him, you see how the money, I think, got to his head. He took himself a little too seriously, it appears.''

Some other snapshots of the 2005 draft:

PATRIOTS PICKS: Anyone who wonders about what the champs think of as weaknesses should note that Belichick and personnel director Scott Pioli took two offensive linemen and two defensive backs with their first four picks. The DBs were obvious: because of injuries, the Pats played the second half of last season with a safety at one corner, an undrafted rookie at the other and wide receiver Troy Brown as the nickel back. Then they released injured veteran Ty Law in the offseason.

The assumption was that because of the uncertainly over Tedy Bruschi's future, the Patriots would pick a linebacker high. They finally took one in the fifth round — Ryan Claridge of Nevada-Las Vegas, who true to the New England mold is versatile enough to play inside and out.

But there weren't a lot of linebackers rated very high. Nor was New England's first pick, offensive lineman Logan Mankins of Fresno State, considered a first-rounder.

He did, however, fit the Patriots demand for versatility by playing tackle and guard in college. Until proven otherwise, never doubt Pioli and Belichick.

STRANGE PICKS?

1. MIKE WILLIAMS, WR, to Detroit (10th overall). The question is not Williams, although he's never been fast for his position. Still, as Buddy Ryan once said of Cris Carter: ''all he can do is catch touchdown passes.'' But he was the third straight wide receiver chosen No. 1 by the Lions, who desperately needed defense. It raises the question of whether the 2003 pick, Charles Rogers, will ever fully come back from two seasons missed with broken collarbones.

2. JASON CAMPBELL, QB, to Washington (25) after the Redskins, who have botched a lot of things since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, traded up. Campbell had a great senior year after a mediocre three seasons for Auburn and looks like a good prospect. But he probably would have been there at 40, the pick the Skins traded, and a lot of people think Charlie Frye of Akron, taken by Cleveland with the third pick of the third round (67), is as good or better. The choice demonstrated clearly that the Redskins have little faith in incumbent Patrick Ramsey, their first-rounder in 2002, but Joe Gibbs may be retired by the time Campbell is ready.

3. CHRIS SPENCER, C, to Seattle (26). By all accounts, he's very good. But centers don't go this high and there were a lot of good defensive players around at this spot for the Seahawks, who badly need defense and lost cornerback Ken Lucas to free agency. This was a trade down from 23, where the Raiders took CB Fabian Washington.

4. LUIS CASTILLO, DT, to San Diego (28). Castillo was moving up quickly until he acknowledged that he had used steroids as painkillers before the scouting combine. The question isn't whether he will continue to use them but whether they helped him wow people at the combine.

5. FRANK GORE, RB, to San Francisco (65). As a freshman at Miami, Gore was ahead of Willis McGahee. But he's had two devastating knee injuries and isn't fully back. He may never be and at least three guys who went later — Vernand Morency to Houston, Marion Barber III to Dallas, and Ciatrick Fason to Minnesota were safer picks. Even Maurice Clarett, who Denver took with the last pick of the third round, is a better bet.

PLUS ...

AARON RODGERS, QB, to Green Bay (24). By dropping from the high first round, he lost at least $10 million. But he can make some of that back if he performs at the level that was expected when he was supposed to be under consideration as the No. 1 pick. There will be huge pressure on him as Brett Favre's presumed successor, but at least he won't take a beating as the immediate ''savior'' of a bad team, which is what might have happened had he gone in the top 10.



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