McCourty at top of Patriots' board

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots stayed true to a winning formula Thursday night, resisting the temptation to reach for a more glaring need while picking the highest-rated player on their board, Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty, with the 27th overall selection.

It is a pick that figures to disappoint fans who were hoping for a difference-making pass-rusher or defensive end.

After all, that's what the Patriots need most.

But teams that reach for need usually find themselves back in the same spot in next April's draft, looking to fill that same need, and that's why you can never go wrong simply picking the best player.

So that's what the Patriots did, trusting their evaluation that was the result of a thorough, yearlong scouting process, and landing a smart, tough prospect who will immediately become a top special-teams contributor while competing for playing time on defense.

The Patriots felt so strongly about McCourty that coach Bill Belichick said he was ready to select him with the 22nd pick. Belichick got him at 27 instead, while picking up a third-round draft choice (90th overall) and improving the team's fourth-round pick by six spots.

"At the end of the round there, things came out about as well as we could have hoped for," Belichick said as the clock was nearing midnight at Gillette Stadium.

"I think Devin's ability to help the team on four downs, it's hard for me to picture a player who can do more than that. There aren't many players who can really impact the game on first, second, third and fourth downs. I think he can be a player that can contribute in all four of those areas, and I think that gives him a lot of versatility and a lot of value."

In targeting McCourty, the Patriots passed on Penn State defensive end Jared Odrick (Dolphins, No. 28) and TCU outside linebacker Jerry Hughes (No. 31, Colts) -- players who, on paper, would have filled their more pressing need.

The Patriots must have felt they weren't ideal fits in their system, which echoed what one scout told ESPNBoston.com when noting that Odrick would be best in a 3-4 defense that slants and stunts its ends more than the Patriots do, while Hughes was considered undersized to set the edge as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 -- something the Dolphins and Jets, also in need of a pass-rusher, seemed to agree with.

That evaluation will ultimately determine if the Patriots made the right pick.

Time also will tell whether they made the right decision in passing on potential No. 1 receivers Demaryius Thomas (No. 22, Broncos) and Dez Bryant (No. 24, Cowboys). With Randy Moss entering the final year of his contract in 2010, those moves will be questioned if Thomas or Bryant emerge as stars.

Any of those picks would have generated more positive buzz locally than McCourty, but Belichick obviously isn't interested in public perception. He's also not afraid to admit a misstep, as the McCourty pick sheds a not-so-favorable light on 2008 draft choices Terrence Wheatley (second round) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round), two cornerbacks who seem to be headed the wrong way on the depth chart.

Part of the reason why this year's draft is so important to the Patriots is that their work from 2006-08 included too many missed opportunities. Those players would be entering their third to fifth seasons, prime years, but the Patriots don't have enough quality in that area on the roster.

The Patriots seemed to recover with a stronger draft in 2009, and now they hope McCourty is the springboard to follow that up this year. Thus, Friday's second and third rounds are crucial for the Patriots, as they have four selections (44, 47, 53, 90) in a draft that Belichick said is strongest, based on the Patriots' grades, from the late first round to the top of the third round.

Looking at the McCourty pick on its own, one can understand why some might be underwhelmed. The easy thing to do is pan the pick because it doesn't fill a top need, but two factors should not be overlooked: The Patriots have significant ammunition to fill out their draft card, and teams looking for beefy defensive linemen and pass-rushers should be able to find quality in the second and third rounds.

If the Patriots don't come away with help for their pass rush and defensive line by the end of the third round, then perhaps it will be time to sharpen the knives a bit more.

But rip the Patriots for selecting their top-rated player in the first round? Absolutely not.

Drafting on that principle, albeit unpopular with some, is a winning formula as long as your scouting process is sound.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.