Commentary

Patriots rookie progress report

Taking a step back at the bye to evaluate how far they've come after six weeks

Updated: October 19, 2011, 8:49 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots took Nate Solder with the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, he was dubbed the left tackle of the future. What perhaps even Solder didn't know at the time was that he was also the right tackle of the right now.

[+] EnlargeNate Solder
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesThrust into an important role as a rookie, Nate Solder has held his own on the offensive line.,

With Sebastian Vollmer limited to one game this season due to a lingering back injury, Solder stepped into an immediate starting role on an overhauled right side of the line. He has started five of six games for the Patriots and more than held his own while logging 400 snaps through the first six weeks of his rookie campaign.

According to offensive snap totals logged by analytical site Pro Football Focus, Solder has found himself in pass protection on 235 total plays and allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits, and nine total quarterback pressures. By comparison, veteran left tackle Matt Light, the man he's pegged to replace down the line, has allowed 11 pressures, three hits, and three sacks over 269 plays in pass protection.

Big things were expected from the 6-foot-8, 319-pound Solder, but his immediate impact makes him the early star of a 2011 draft class that has produced mixed results through the first six weeks of the season.

The Patriots enter the bye week with nearly a fifth of their total team comprised by rookies. There's 13 total among the 73 players attached to New England's roster, including reserve lists.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick sat down with his rookies Wednesday to discuss the team's expectations as the first-year players -- locked into the routine of the NFL season ever since the lockout lifted -- prepare for their first dose of extended freedom with the next five days off.

With almost three months of football activity behind them, including a total of 10 games (four preseason, six regular season), the bye affords us a prime opportunity to reflect on the production of the Class of 2011 thus far. We invite you to share your thoughts on each as well:

Nate Solder, OT, first round (17th overall)

He was thrust into the fire on "Monday Night Football" against Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker Cameron Wake in the season opener, but Solder has done a solid job (he allowed three quarterback pressures that night, but no sacks). The only time he was been beat for a sack was against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium. Solder even found his way onto the field as a third tight end/backup tackle in the one game Vollmer did play. Solder's ability to step in has made Vollmer's inability to stay on the field less of a story for the Patriots over the first six weeks.


Ras-I Dowling, CB, second round (33rd overall)

The book on Dowling coming out of Virginia was that he was a first-round talent if he could stay healthy. It's a little more clear why teams might have been a little gun shy. Dowling has appeared on a mere 92 of a potential 412 total snaps this season, sitting out the last four weeks after injuring his hip in Week 2 against the Chargers. The encouraging side? Dowling started both of his first pro games and, according to Pro Football Focus numbers, allowed only three receptions for 74 yards on seven targets. But with injuries throughout the secondary, the Patriots could really use him back on the field after the bye.


Shane Vereen, RB, second round (56th overall)

With Kevin Faulk starting the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Vereen had a chance for early reps, but his own hamstring injury set him back in training camp. Vereen carried only 11 times for 34 yards in the preseason, where third-round pick Stevan Ridley capitalized on available reps and surged ahead on the depth chart. Vereen played the first three offensive snaps of his career Sunday against Dallas (he did not carry the ball) and is working on special teams trying to carve out a spot on the game-day roster. The impending return of Faulk could limit his reps the remainder of the year.


Stevan Ridley, RB, third round (73rd overall)

With Vereen injured, Ridley carried a team-high 30 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns during the preseason, vaulting him to third on the running back depth chart. When Danny Woodhead tweaked an ankle in Oakland, his regular-season snaps spiked: He had 10 carries for 97 yards with a 33-yard touchdown run. Ridley's been quiet since, carrying 10 times for 32 yards over the past two games, but he's shown potential to be a productive back in this offense. Like Vereen, his time could be cut by Faulk, but he's also worked in returning kickoffs, which increases his value on the game-day roster.


Ryan Mallett, QB, third round (74th overall)

The Patriots have been content to roll with two quarterbacks in the past, but Mallett's potential has the team carrying a third signal-caller this season. The 6-foot-6, 238-pound quarterback completed 36 of 63 passes for 357 yards and a touchdown during the preseason. He's unlikely to surge past Brian Hoyer as the team's No. 2 quarterback this season, but there's a very good chance he could have a larger role on this team -- or somewhere else, if the Patriots decide to flip a backup for a draft pick -- down the road.


Marcus Cannon, OL, fifth round (138th overall)

Considered one of the top offensive line prospects coming out of TCU, Cannon's draft stock dipped after his diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It didn't scare off the Patriots, who now carry the 6-foot-5, 358-pound tackle on the non-football injury/reserve list as he recovers (his final chemotherapy treatment was in July). Asked this week about what the team saw in Cannon during the scouting process, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said: "I mean program-wise, I think he's exemplary. I think anybody you talk to down there will tell you his work ethic, his intelligence, conditioning -- he really does everything that he's asked to do and he's a smart guy. He's had experience at both tackles. I don't think there's any reason why he couldn't play guard, just on the surface. I'm not saying he can, but I don't see any reason to say he couldn't, let's put it that way. He has position versatility, he's a smart guy, he has good size, runs well. High level of competition, he's performed well. [He has] a lot of things going for him." If and when able to return to action, Cannon could stabilize an offensive line thin on overall depth.


Markell Carter, LB, sixth round (194th overall)

Carter was among the team's final cuts when it originally trimmed down to 53 players before the start of the season, but he landed on the practice squad. He has earned back-to-back black jerseys as one of the team's practice standouts of the week (including this past week, suggesting he might have spent time as Dallas' DeMarcus Ware during scout team work). Carter had a less-than-stellar preseason, but the strong practice efforts are an encouraging sign in his development.


Jeff Tarpinian, LB, undrafted

Undrafted free agent Jeff Tarpinian made the Patriots' 53-man roster out of camp, but was cut before opening night in Miami with the Patriots needing to add depth on the offensive line. He re-signed to the practice squad two days later and was then elevated back to the 53-man squad in late September. While he hasn't played a snap as a linebacker, he has established himself as a core member on special teams, playing on the four primary kick units (kick return, kick coverage, punt return, punt coverage) each of the past four weeks.


The other rookies: After a revolving door at long snapper for much of the preseason, rookie Danny Aiken, who spent time with Buffalo after being undrafted out of Virginia, won the job. … In addition to Carter, the practice squad features three other rookies, including defensive end Alex Silvestro, and cornerbacks Josh Victorian and Sterling Moore. … Defensive end Christian Cox and offensive lineman Kyle Hix are both on injured reserve after joining the team as undrafted free agents.

The departed: The Patriots cut ties with two rookies before the season. Tight end Lee Smith, a fifth-round selection out of Marshall, was among the team's final cuts and was swooped up by the Buffalo Bills, while cornerback Malcolm Williams, a seventh-round pick out of TCU, remains a free agent after being cut by the team.

Don't forget about next year's picks: While you can certainly make the case that it's a byproduct of all the swaps in recent years, the Patriots still have two high picks in the 2012 draft thanks to trades made during the 2011 draft.

The Patriots have New Orleans' first-round pick after trading away pick No. 28 this year (New England parlayed that into Vereen at No. 56 and the future pick). The Patriots also have a second-round pick from Oakland after sending out a third- and fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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