AP Photo/LM OteroThe Patriots had interest in Dez Bryant before the 2010 draft, and he's got their attention again heading into Sunday's game.
Those two players could even spend time matched up against each other on Sunday, affording the rare opportunity to critique a deal when the principle parties -- at similar stages of their careers -- are matched up on one another.
At the moment, neither side is griping about the deal. The Patriots entered the 2010 draft with the No. 22 pick, but -- as they are wont to do -- traded out of that position, sending the selection to Denver in exchange for the No. 24 pick and a fourth-round choice (113th overall) that they would use to select tight end Aaron Hernandez.
The Patriots had a second chance to select Bryant -- a player they hosted in Foxborough on a predraft visit despite buzz that he could be selected well before New England would be on the board -- but this time facilitated a swap with the Cowboys, who drafted Bryant, and used New England's original fourth-round pick to grab linebacker A.J. Edds (119th).
New England landed McCourty at No. 27, then used Dallas' third-round pick (90th) to select wide receiver Taylor Price.
The unanswered question is how seriously the Patriots considered Bryant before dealing away those picks. Coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Nick Caserio shed a tiny bit of light on their thought process Tuesday.
"I think there's a lot of guys that we spend quite a bit of time with around the draft," Caserio said. "[Bryant's] situation, like a lot of players, it seems every year there are a lot of underclassmen that haven't declared for the draft that you have to go back and just sort of go through the full process that you're not able to go through between the school call, all-star games, combine, [and] those types of things. We try to gather as much information as we possibly can from multiple sources and then try and put the picture all together on the player relative to our program.
"There's no question he was an explosive player, similar to what he's done so far with Dallas. He makes a bunch of big plays. He's a talented player, somebody that we will certainly have to figure how to defend come Sunday."
In his rookie season, Bryant caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six touchdowns. He also returned a pair of punts for touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound wideout certainly caught the attention of the Patriots before the draft, and has it again.
"We really scout all the players in the draft," Belichick said. "There are certain players that I don't spend too much time on just because of where they're going to be drafted and what our opportunity is to get them. We definitely did our work on Bryant.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezDevin McCourty has worked out fine for the Patriots, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
"I think the things that we see -- he's a big receiver, a strong guy, hard to match up on outside, hard guy to tackle after the catch. He's got, like a lot of these receivers, it seems like we see one every week that have outstanding size or they're very strong, they have great reach. Even if you have them covered, you really don't have them covered because of their length and their ability to either body-up the defender or just outjump them or outreach them for the ball. He's definitely in that category and a hard guy to tackle when he gets the ball in his hands."
All that said, the Patriots definitely like the players they got out of all the maneuvering, including McCourty, who earned Pro Bowl honors after starting all 16 games last season and registering 60 tackles and seven interceptions.
When healthy, Price has shown glimpses of being a potential impact receiver. He's only seen game action one time since being drafted, catching three passes for 41 yards in Week 17 last year. After battling injuries during the 2011 preseason, Price is still waiting for his first offensive snap this season (though he's been active in recent weeks).
Edds briefly landed back in New England earlier this season after being signed off waivers from the Miami Dolphins. While on the Patriots' practice squad, he was signed away to the Colts' active roster earlier this month.
While we're on the subject of the 2010 draft, it's worth revisiting New England's entire haul with a season-plus to critique.
The team held three second-round picks that year. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (42nd overall) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (62nd) already have asserted themselves as key starters, while defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (53rd) has seen his workload decrease after a solid rookie season.
Asked about Cunningham's lack of playing time this year -- he's played just 32 snaps in four games -- Belichick said Tuesday that injuries have set him back, as did a transition to a base 4-3 defense.
"I think one of the things that Jermaine has had to work through is the time he missed in training camp and the preseason," Belichick said. "With him last year really playing outside linebacker, and this year we transitioned into a little bit more of a multiple defensive front, it's been a little bit of an adjustment for him.
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"Missing that time didn't help him any. He's worked hard and he's done a good job to get back on the field -- getting rehab and getting back out there. I think he's improving. He's gotten a little better each week. He's definitely on the upswing here. He's a guy that we hope will be able to contribute for us."
Hernandez returned to action Sunday after missing two games with a left MCL injury. Asked about his impact, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, "Aaron is a good player, he's a smart player. He's got quickness, he's got decent hands and he can block. With him and Rob [Gronkowski] out there, and the receiving corps the way it is, you have a good group of guys to work with."
The Patriots also plucked punter Zoltan Mesko (150th overall) in the fifth round in 2010 and he instantly asserted himself as one of New England's key specialists.
As for the back end of that draft, sixth-round pick Ted Larsen (205th) was among the team's final cuts last year. The offensive lineman latched on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he started 11 games in 12 appearances in 2010. He started in Week 1 this year, but had a rough game in pass protection and has played limited snaps since.
The Patriots also ended up with four seventh-round picks last year: tackle Thomas Welch (208th), defensive linemen Brandon Deadrick (247th) and Kade Weston (248th), and quarterback Zac Robinson (250th). Welch spent two games on the 53-man roster this season, but was waived Monday (he should land back on the practice squad), while Deadrick is on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Weston got cut in late August, but signed with the Indianapolis Colts' practice squad earlier this month, while Robinson has bounced from the Seahawks to the Lions to the Bengals since being a final cut of the Patriots last year.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.