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Patriots 2005 draft at the head of the class

When asked to talk about Nick Kaczur's first season at one of his press conferences recently, Bill Belichick pointed out that after 20 preseason and regular season games, no player is a rookie any longer. "I think his rookie year is over with," Belichick said. Every year teams draft college players and are given grades by so-called experts on how they did but it's difficult to evaluate guys who have yet to play a down in the NFL. Now that the regular season has come to end, we're able to look back on the Patriots 2005 rookie class and see which players were draft day gems and which ones didn't make the grade.

Logan Mankins, guard – Many draft experts shook their heads when the Patriots selected Mankins at the end of the first round. The former college tackle, who projected to guard in the NFL, wasn't considered a first round talent by some who cover they draft. Well, it appears those people were wrong. Belichick and Scott Pioli proved once again they know what they're doing by selecting Mankins. The rookie started all 16 games at left guard and looks to be a mainstay on the Patriots offensive line for years to come. Mankins was one of four offensive linemen selected in the first round and it can be argued that he had the best rookie season out of the bunch. Mankins had a reputation of being a tough, hard-nosed player coming out of Fresno State and he did nothing in his first season to dispel that. The former Bulldog wasn't a sexy pick but he's on his way to becoming a Pro Bowl player at guard in the near future. Linebacker Odell Thurman and cornerback Corey Webster – two players some thought would end up in New England – are having strong rookie seasons as well but it's hard to argue with the Mankins pick. If the Patriots had to do it all over again, they would most likely still make Mankins their first round selection.

Ellis Hobbs, cornerback – The Patriots didn't have a second round pick in last year's draft but Hobbs turned out to be worth the wait. The physical corner out of Iowa State turned out to be one of this year's biggest draft-day steals. Some of the defensive backs selected ahead of Hobbs were Stanford Routt, Ronald Bartell, Nick Collins, Stanley Wilson, Eric Green and Dustin Fox. Those guys may still turn out to be solid players in the NFL but none of them came close to making the impact Hobbs made in his rookie season. The Patriots pass defense was struggling badly early in the year but when Duane Starks was lost for the season after the Buffalo Bills game on October 30, Hobbs was inserted into the starting lineup and he helped the secondary improve over the final two months of the season. Hobbs is a confident, aggressive player who brought some much-needed attitude to the Patriots defensive backfield. CNN/SI's Don Banks recently did a redraft where he looked over where players were originally drafted and projected where they would go now. In his redraft, Banks had Hobbs going to Kansas City with the 15th overall selection. Whether that's true or not, it shows how much respect the young corner has earned as a rookie. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions and there's no question Hobbs' best days are ahead of him. Even if the Patriots sign a veteran defensive back in the offseason to compete with Hobbs for the starting job, at the very least he will be one heck of a nickel corner for New England in 2006.

Nick Kaczur, tackle – When Matt Light went down in Pittsburgh and was lost for the season, a little-known offensive tackle from Toledo was asked to come in and take over one of the most important jobs in all of sports: protect Tom Brady's blind side. All Kaczur had to do over the next 13 weeks was face the likes of Dwight Freeney, Jason Taylor, Aaron Schobel, John Abraham, Patrick Kerney, Trevor Pryce and Simeon Rice. That would be a tall order for an offensive tackle selected in the top ten from USC so it's no wonder Patriots fans feared for Brady's life. Now that the season is over a case can be made that Kaczur was the Patriots most important selection in this year's draft. Sure, he received help from the tight ends against some of the better defensive ends but the Patriots usually give Light the same help. To be honest, there really wasn't much of a drop-off when Kaczur was in the lineup and that's saying a lot for a third-round selection from Toledo. Kaczur started 11 games while five linemen drafted ahead of him – Marcus Johnson, Adam Terry, Evan Mathis, Chris Colmer and Adam Snyder – started 16 games combined. It's not clear what's going to happen when Light returns next season. Kaczur may stay at left tackle or move over to the right side but either way, he and Mankins are two players selected in the same draft who should help anchor the Patriots offensive line for the next several years. Just one note on how the draft is such a crapshoot. Kaczur was the 100th player taken in last year's draft. The 101st player selected? Maurice Clarett.

To read about all the rookies in this year's class, check out the latest edition of Patriots Football Weekly on newsstands this Tuesday. To subscribe to Patriots Football Weekly, go to *www.pfwonline.com.*

Bruschi wins awards
Tedy Bruschi was awarded the Ed Block Courage Award on Thursday. Bruschi was an obvious choice for the award after returning to the football field on Oct. 30, just eight months after suffering a stroke. The Ed Block Courage Award Foundation gives the award to one player from each NFL team – selected by his teammates – who exemplifies sportsmanship and courage.

Bruschi is the only NFL player to ever return to the field after suffering a stroke and despite only playing in nine games, he recorded 72 tackles and two sacks. Recipients of the award will be honored on Tuesday, March 7 at a ceremony in Baltimore.

It was also announced today that Bruschi and Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith shared the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award.

"It's been a long road for Steve and I to get back to doing what we love to do," Bruschi said. "To be recognized for it is an honor."

Bruschi said he's just happy to be back doing what he loves: playing football.

"I'm back to doing what I love. Sometimes, you've just got to pick yourself off the ground and get back to living your life. That's all I was trying to do."

Notes
Belichick compared Jaguars third down back Alvin Pearman to Kevin Faulk at his Thursday press conference saying the two are "similar" in the roles they play for their teams. Pearman plays a lot on passing downs and has 32 receptions for 240 yards on the season…The Patriots have won nine consecutive playoff games since losing to the Jaguars 25-10 on Jan. 3, 1999…After ranking 21st in the NFL in rush defense earlier in the year, the Patriots finished 4th in the league after allowing only 31.3 rushing yards per game in the month of December.

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