Aaron Hernandez leads Pats rookies


It's been over a month since New England traded WR Randy Moss and a 2012 seventh-round pick to Minnesota for a 2011 third-round pick, and the trade has only served to highlight the impressive draft record of coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots' front office.

Many questioned trading one of the most talented receivers in the league, but others realized the Patriots didn't need a negative influence on their young roster. That roster features four receivers -- Taylor Price, Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Matt Slater -- who were selected in the past three drafts, and two rookie tight ends who are making big contributions this season.

It's hard to believe former Florida TE Aaron Hernandez lasted until the 15th pick of the fourth round given his physical talent. But reports of failed drug tests in college hurt his stock in our eyes and the eyes of many others, and since he was just 20 years old on draft day, it was clear he needed to be in a strong locker room full of veteran leaders.

Moss didn't fit that mold, and shipping him to the Vikings sent a clear message to Hernandez and everyone else that no player is bigger than the team, regardless of how talented he is.

Hernandez has blossomed and is the Patriots' second-leading receiver (34 catches, 436 yards, 2 TDs), an H-back type who can hurt defenses that don't account for him. New England can line him up wide, where he has used his quick feet to separate from corners, and he has been a great threat after the catch.

The stock of TE Rob Gronkowski had dipped heading into the 2010 draft because of a back injury that required surgery and cost him the entire 2009 season, but he still earned a fringe second-round grade base on his upside and 2008 film. The Patriots snatched him up with the 10th pick in the second round and the risk has paid off handsomely.

Gronkowski has great size (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) and is also versatile enough to line up wide. Just ask Pittsburgh Steelers nickelback William Gay, who struggled with Gronkowski's blend of size and athletic ability and was beaten by the rookie for a pair of touchdowns on Sunday night. And because Gronkowski has the frame to develop into an effective inline blocker, his contributions should only increase.

The frenzy surrounding the Moss trade also overshadowed several other concerns that could have derailed the season if New England had not been so astute in recent drafts. DE Ty Warren, RB Kevin Faulk and CB Leigh Bodden were all expected to be important cogs, but all have been lost to season-ending injuries, and backup RB Fred Taylor has also missed extensive time.

However, in each case, young players have stepped up to help fill the void. The Patriots selected DE Brandon Deaderick with the 247th pick in the 2010 draft -- a compensatory pick tacked on to the end of the seventh round -- and he has started four of the past five games, including the Week 10 win at Pittsburgh. Deaderick isn't a great athlete, but he is stout against the run and has been a perfect fit in New England's 3-4 system.

The Patriots signed RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a rookie free agent in 2008, and while he won't be confused with Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson anytime soon, Green-Ellis is a no-nonsense runner who has made the most of his blocking.

Devin McCourty was a first-rounder in 2010, so his ability to step in and replace Bodden is not as much of a surprise. But in addition to flashing the skills to become a very good cover corner, McCourty is a key contributor on special-teams coverage; he had 11 total tackles against the Steelers.

Speaking of special teams, 2010 fifth-rounder Zoltan Mesko has been an effective punter, and 2009 third-round pick Brandon Tate is one of the most dangerous kickoff return men in the league. He has returned two for touchdowns already, and his considerable top-end speed makes him a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.

Yes, New England has missed at times in recent drafts. First-round RB Laurence Maroney (2006) was traded to Denver earlier this season after four disappointing seasons with the Patriots, and 2009 second-round CB Darius Butler has been underwhelming so far.

And let's not forget the 2007 draft, which brought starting S Brandon Meriweather to town but also saw the Patriots draft seven other players who are no longer on active NFL rosters. Aside from Meriweather, only OT Corey Hilliard, now a backup with the Lions, has managed to remain in the league.

However, that makes New England's draft record even more impressive, if you ask me. They have been able to overcome draft misses and seemingly disastrous injuries more easily than most other teams because Belichick and his staff know how to find players who fit their system. Of the 50 players currently listed on the Patriots' depth chart, 37 were drafted or signed as rookie free agents by the Patriots.

It doesn't get much better than that -- and with two picks in each of the first four rounds of the 2011 draft, expect a team that is rolling into the 2010 stretch run to get even better in April.