Heading into Saturday's 2006 NFL Draft the general consensus was that the Patriots top needs included, in some order, running back, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back. By the time the 11-hour first day of draft weekend came to a close the defending AFC East champs seemingly solidified two of those four spots with the selection of running back Laurence Maroney with the 21st pick and trading up for wide receiver Chad Jackson at the 36th pick, while also adding tight end David Thomas with the 86th pick.
As the first round unfolded, New England went on the clock at 21 with its choice of the draft's top receivers, Jackson and Ohio State's Santonio Holmes, the best backs not named Reggie Bush in the likes of Maroney, Memphis' DeAngelo Williams and free-falling USC back LenDale White, as well as a variety of defenders. But when the 15 minutes closed out on the clock Minnesota's ultra productive Maroney was the team's top pick.
"The way the players came off the board this year I thought that we had good value with Laurence," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said shortly after the selection. "We obviously had high grades on him. He's been a very productive player. We started off scouting him kind of indirectly last year when we were watching [current Dallas running back] Marion Barber. He's been a very productive player for Minnesota, both running the ball and kickoff returns. I think that he brings an element of speed and certainly youth to the position."
As Belichick alluded to, the selection of the 6-0, 217 Golden Gopher who rushed for 3,933 yards in 36 games in three seasons at Minnesota, injects instant youth into an aging New England backfield.
"I like our backs," Belichick said. "I like the production that we've had from Kevin [Faulk], Patrick [Pass], and Corey [Dillon], but in terms of experience they are all up there, seven, eight-plus years and we really feel like it's good to have a young player to work with, but more importantly Laurence was the best value on the board at that point and so that's what we decided to do. As usual, there are always options at that pick, but in the end we felt like Laurence was the best addition to our team so that's why we selected him."
Beyond his 6.0 yards-per-carry-average in college Maroney also brings a bit of versatility, including a career-high 17 receptions for 170 yards in his final junior season. He also returned 28 kickoffs over three seasons for a 23.8-yard average with one touchdown. For now, though, Maroney is just exited to hear his name called on draft day, maybe even a little earlier than even he expected. In fact, funny story, the newest Patriot was actually in the bathroom when the call came in from New England.
"My sister had my phone and one of the little kids ran into the bathroom and said 'The phone is for you' and I picked up the phone and the guy was like, 'We're on the clock right now. We're thinking about drafting you. How do you feel about that?' It caught me off guard," Maroney said.
"It was just a blessing. It was a great feeling to see New England pick me. I didn't really know where I was going to go. I had no clue where I was going to end up. That's why I was excited, just to see where I was going to end up. This offense and this team, I feel like it was a perfect fit for me."
In order to address the need at wide receiver, the Patriots traded up into the early part of the second round. New England sent its second-round pick (52nd overall) and a third-rounder (75th overall) to Green Bay for the fourth selection in the second round (36th overall). Many projections had Jackson going in the first round, some as high as the 14th pick of the draft, making the 6-1, 213-pound wideout a seemingly tremendous value in the second round.
In three seasons at Florida Jackson caught 120 passes in 30 games for 1,586 yards with 16 touchdowns. His stock improved after a junior season in which he caught 88 passes for 900 yards with nine scores. He then continued to rocket up the prospect lists with a 4.32 40 at the Combine.
Though admittedly disappointed about slipping out of the first round of the draft, even thinking he might get the call from the Patriots with the 21st pick, Jackson is happy to be headed to New England.
"I was a little disappointed, but I've had a bad road sometimes," Jackson said via conference call. "I was happy to be picked high in the second round. That is pretty good also. I'm just happy to get picked."
Jackson could very well compete for the No. 2 wide receiver slot with the Patriots vacated by David Givens, battling fellow former Gator Reche Caldwell, and that's exactly what he's planning on doing.
"I know Givens left and the only real go-to receiver they have now is Deion Branch," Jackson said. "The Patriots feel that I can come in on the other side and help out.
"The challenge for me is adjusting to the next level. There are guys with the same speed as you and the same athletic ability as you or better than you. You have to have confidence to go out there and compete with those guys. I have the confidence to go out there and compete and help out the New England Patriots this upcoming season."
Jackson has obviously already taken steps to impress the coaching staff and earn the draft day call. Belichick and his assistants worked him out in Florida, leaving the star receiver parts of the New England offense to study. When Jackson visited Foxboro he was re-quizzed on his homework.
"They gave me the offense a little bit and I came back and broke down for them what they gave me," Jackson said. "I ran it back to them on the board and film. They were the only team that did that for me. I thought that they were pretty interested in me. I had at least four or five visits with the Patriots and I felt pretty good on all the visits."
For the final pick of the first day, No. 86 overall, New England looked to the defending national champion Texas Longhorns and Thomas. The 6-3, 246-pound Longhorn started for three of his four seasons in Texas catching 88 passes for 1,279 yards with 15 touchdowns in 50 games. He had his best season as a senior in 2005 with 40 catches for 525 yards with five scores.
"This is a blessing to have this opportunity and I couldn't think of a better place to go than New England," Thomas said of his selection.
New England's propensity for two tight-end sets makes Thomas an immediate candidate to contribute. With just two returning tight ends on the roster, Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, Thomas should fill the team's third tight end slot vacated by Christian Fauria. And with Graham headed toward 2007 free agency Thomas could be more than that in the future.
"They use the tight end a lot and they expect a lot out of them," Thomas said. "It's a situation where I'll be utilized."
Thomas could also be an immediate contributor on special teams, as he was for four years at Texas. In fact he believes that "tight ends should be on special teams."
As the Thomas pick suggests, combined with Maroney and Jackson, with the three picks the Patriots added youth, competition and depth to the offensive side of the football Saturday. And with seven picks set to make throughout the remainder of the draft on Sunday there's a good chance the team will turn its attention toward the defensive side of the ball to help check off even more of the needs the team had heading into draft weekend.
Belichick opened his afternoon press conference by addressing rumors that had tied the Patriots to then-Packers wide receiver Javon Walker. "We've had a lot of media inquiries about Javon Walker and I will just say one thing. I have not talked to or seen Javon Walker. Other than that, I really don't have anything else to say about it." Not long after Belichick's comments Walker was traded to the Denver Broncos. … Belichick also said that he had spoken with incumbent running back Corey Dillon about the possibilities of draft day, which included New England's selection of a running back in the first round. "I talked to Corey," Belichick said. "I've talked to him today and I think he understands and I explained to him what the situation was and all of that. We expect Corey to be ready to go. I'm sure that he will be. He's a professional. He's been a very productive player for us and we expect Corey to have major contributions for us this year as we do Kevin and Patrick. I think our backs are talented. I think they've been productive for us and I expect them to continue to be." … Day Two of the draft kicks off Sunday morning at 11 am EST. New England enters the fourth through seventh rounds with seven selections including two in the fourth and three in sixth.