So what did you think of the New England Patriots’ draft?

Depending on who you read nationally, Bill Belichick & Co., missed completely or scored some major coups.

They didn’t grab the pass rusher or deep receiving threat everyone said they sorely needed, and they passed on running back Mark Ingram of Alabama, a former Heisman Trophy winner.

They took some players with potential medical issues (cornerback Ras-I Dowling of Virginia and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon of Texas Christian) and one with some off-field questions (quarterback Ryan Mallett of Arkansas).

For Belichick, it always comes down to one simple concept: “In the end, when it’s our turn to pick on each choice, we try to take the player that we feel has the most value and is the best fit for our football team.”

For Belichick, it’s never been about filling a position in the draft. Yes, the Patriots probably could have used one of those top-ranked pass rushers, like Cameron Heyward of Ohio State, UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers or Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. But Belichick stuck to the philosophy that has been pretty successful at Gillette Stadium.

Asked about drafting philosophy at the end of the first day of the draft, Belichick said you need to “go with what you believe in.”

And sometimes that means making picks that don’t make much sense to anyone else.

He spoke about his time as an assistant coach with the New York Giants when some picks were crucified.

The Giants already had Lawrence Taylor and Brad Van Pelt at outside linebacker, but still chose Carl Banks with the third overall pick in the 1984 draft. Those two “became the bookends to that defense all through the ’80s and took us to a lot of victories and two Super Bowl championships.”

In 1982, they drafted Joe Morris out of Syracuse in the sixth round after they already selected a running back, Butch Woolfolk in the first round, 18th overall. Well, Morris became the star. Another instance of not drafting by position.

“It’s great to say, ‘OK, we needed this position, no now we have a card to put up there in that spot,’ ” said Belichick. “But if that player isn’t able to fulfill that area or that position, then you’re coming back here the next year looking for the same thing again. Or it’s really, ‘We took him but we really need better than that,’ or, ‘It wasn’t quite what we want.’

“But I think if you find a player that’s good value for your team, you can never have enough good football players. So sometimes you think you have more than what you need at a certain position, but usually that stuff works itself out one way or the other. You get an injury or two, which inevitably happens in this sport, and what looks like an extra guy that you don’t need ends up being a valuable guy.”

In that sense, when you look at who the Patriots selected this year, you realize they got pretty good value.

First pick Nate Solder is a future franchise left tackle. Big, athletic — he started his college career at Colorado as a tight end — he looms as Matt Light’s replacement as the blind side bodyguard to quarterback Tom Brady.

Light is a free agent, and unless he agrees to the Patriots’ terms, his 10-year career in New England will be over.

Second-round pick Ras-I Dowling, a cornerback from Virginia, is big at about 6-foot-2, 200 pounds — much bigger than the current Patriots cornerbacks. He has the ability to cover the big receivers, such as Braylon Edwards of the Jets or Brandon Marshall of Miami.

The running backs Belichick selected — Shane Vereen of California and Stevan Ridley of Lousiana State — weren’t as well known as others that were available, but both were productive in different ways.

Vereen is a shifty, high-energy back who could one day replace Kevin Faulk, a free agent who likely will return to the Patriots. Ridley is a power inside runner who could replace Sammy Morris, another free agent.

Tight end Lee Smith is considered a tremendous blocker and could replace Alge Crumpler some day. Linebacker Markell Carter of Central Arkansas is considered a raw pass rusher and might be able to develop into a defensive stud they need.

Belichick was asked after the second day about not drafting a pass rusher and if he was comfortable with the players already on the Pats’ roster. Linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, in his second year, had one sack last year. Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick, also in his second year, had two.

“We have some young players on our roster and I think that those players, in all the various positions, not just at that specifically, will still continue to develop,” said Belichick.

Defensive end Ty Warren also should return to the Patriots next year after missing all of 2010 with a hip injury. That will strengthen the defense.

There is another aspect to the Patriots’ defense, pointed out by a former Pats linebacker, Tedy Bruschi, on an ESPN draft wrapup: When the Patriots have needed a pass rusher, they almost always have looked to free agency — Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas were all brought in as free agents.

Chances are Belichick will address the issue that way when the NFL lockout ends.

The Patriots did take some chances, especially on Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and TCU offensive lineman Marcus Cannon.

Mallett was pretty much a consensus first-round pick before off-field concerns over drug use and alcoholism dropped his stock. Likewise, Cannon was a projected first- or second-round pick before he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma days before the draft. He began treatment on the first day of the draft.

In both instances, Belichick said the team was comfortable with the selection. And in both instances, the Patriots could come out as huge winners.

Mallett is a tremendous talent with a strong arm, a potential successor to Brady. Cannon, at 6-foot-6, 350 pounds, can play guard or tackle, and would solidfy an offensive line in transition.

Right guard Stephen Neal retired. Light may be on the way out. Left guard Logan Mankins, one of the best in the league at his position, is a free agent, but the Patriots tagged him with franchise player rights. Center Dan Koppen is getting old.

With Solder and Cannon, the Patriots may have restocked their line just in time. Of course, it will take years to determine the quality of these picks.

For now, we can only say it wasn’t a sexy draft but an attractive one.

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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