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Rookies no longer

Heading into their second season, the members of last year's rookie class are now prepared to take on a bigger role in 2006.

When asked to talk about Nick Kaczur's first season at one of his final press conferences of the 2005 season, 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.

Now entering their second season, many of last year's rookies are prepared to take on an even bigger role in 2006. Here's how last year's impressive class looks going into this season.

Logan Mankins -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 the 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 last year 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 of the Bengals and cornerback Corey Webster of the Giants – two players some thought would end up in New England – had strong rookie seasons as well but it's hard to argue with the Patriots pick. If the Patriots had to do it all over again, they would most likely still make Mankins their first round selection.

Ellis Hobbs -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 ended up being one of the 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 did 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 immediately 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 did a redraft at the end of the year reviewing where players were originally drafted and projected where they would go if the draft were held again after the season. 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 early on in his career. 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 corner to compete with Hobbs for the starting job, at the very least he'll be one heck of a nickelback for New England in 2006.

Nick Kaczur -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 a veteran offensive tackle, so it's no wonder Patriots fans feared for Brady's life. But once the season ended, a case could have been made that Kaczur was the Patriots most important selection in last 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 this 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 side note regarding this pick: Kaczur was the 100th player taken in last year's draft. The 101st player selected? Maurice Clarett.

James Sanders -The jury is still out on Sanders. It would be unfair to call the Patriots fourth-round draft pick a bust because he hasn't been on the field enough to judge his play. Sanders saw action in 10 games, starting two at safety, but he was also injured for most of his rookie season with an ankle injury.

Sanders is a vicious hitter who flashed his big play ability when he intercepted a pass against the Bills and returned it 39-yards for a touchdown. He finished his rookie season with 14 tackles and the one interception.

Sanders has yet to show he's the future at the safety position in New England even though he does have potential. Rodney Harrison gave Sanders a vote of confidence last year saying he's smart and plays well beyond his years. Harrison knows a thing or two about playing safety in the NFL, so that bodes well for Sanders' future. Look for the hard-hitting Sanders to push for playing time this year at safety and on special teams.

Ryan Claridge -Claridge was selected by the Patriots in the fifth round because of his versatility to play either middle or outside linebacker in the 3-4. As a senior at UNLV, he ranked ninth in the nation with nine sacks. Unfortunately for New England, they were never able to see what Claridge could do on the field. He was inactive for the Patriots first preseason game and placed on injured reserve two days later.

With the loss of Willie McGinest, the Patriots are looking for some able bodies at the linebacker position. Claridge has a good chance to make the team if he has a good training camp but without having any NFL experience, it's hard to imagine he'll have a big role for the Patriots this year. His best chance to make his mark is to replace Matt Chatham as a backup linebacker and special teams contributor.

Matt Cassel -When Matt Leinart decided to stay at USC for his senior season, not too many people expected to see a Trojan quarterback selected in the 2005 draft. The Patriots made their fans do a double take when ESPN flashed on the screen they had selected Leinart's backup with one of their two seventh round picks.

At first glance, the selection seemed peculiar. However, after looking deeper into Cassel's background, the pick made more sense. Cassel was barely beaten out by Leinart for the starting job at USC after Carson Palmer left for the NFL. Cassel has a cannon for an arm and he showed some potential when he played most of the season finale against Miami and threw for 168 yards and two touchdowns. The rookie also showed some leadership by directing a scoring drive in the final minute of the game. Cassel was shaky at times but he performed very well for a guy who hasn't started a football game since high school.

The Patriots may still bring in a veteran quarterback for insurance in 2006 but Cassel should have an opportunity to win the backup job in training camp either way. Not bad for the 230th pick in the draft.

Overall – This was a very strong draft for the Patriots. Despite not having a second round pick, they were able to acquire three players – Mankins, Hobbs and Kaczur – who made big contributions in their first year. All three should only get better this season now that they have a year of playing in the NFL under their belt.

Sanders and Cassel are two other players who could have bright futures. Sanders is a big hitter who has a knack for always being around the ball. He plays a position where the Patriots lack depth, so Sanders will have an opportunity to see more action at safety in 2006.

Cassel appears to have all the physical tools to be a solid backup quarterback at the NFL level. Now all he needs is playing time, something he hasn't had a lot of in the past five years. At worst, the Patriots got a third string quarterback with upside in the seventh round of the draft. You can't ask for anything more than that from a guy who barely played in college.

Claridge didn't have an opportunity to show what he could do because of injuries, so the Patriots don't know what they have in him quite yet. He'll see plenty of action this preseason but probably won't make a big splash at linebacker for another year or two in the Patriots complicated system.

This is the kind of successful draft that will help the Patriots remain Super Bowl contenders in 2006 and beyond. Throw in this year's rookie class and the future looks bright for Patriots fans.

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