On a team that’s traditionally been stocked with veterans, players right out of college haven’t been asked to make sizable contributions in New England -- last year’s first-round pick Jerod Mayo was the exception rather than the rule. The 2003 rookie class was the last to make a serious mark as a group in its first year, as Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel and Dan Koppen all saw extended action their rookie season.
In this year’s crop -- 12 draftees, the most in the Bill Belichick era -- there are a few candidates who could have the same impact as those members of the 2003 class. Here’s a look at some realistic expectations for this year’s rookies.
Safety Patrick Chung. Second round, 34th overall. With New England’s safety position in a bit of a transitional state -- no one knows what Rodney Harrison is going to do until June 1 -- Chung could see good reps as a rookie, maybe more than fellow safety Brandon Meriweather did in his first season with the Patriots back in 2007. However, barring any major injuries in the secondary, he likely won’t be asked to contribute much. The Patriots still have some good depth at the position with a group that includes Meriweather, James Sanders and Tank Williams, who sat out all last season because of injury. (In addition, newcomer Shawn Springs is likely an emergency option at safety as well.) But going forward, the 6-foot, 210-pound Chung may end up being asked to do many of the same things Harrison did, and could step into a leadership role sooner rather than later. Interesting note: Chung started high school at the age of 12.
Defensive lineman Ron Brace. Second round, 40th overall. The 6-foot-3, 329-pound Brace has some versatility -- he can line up at the defensive tackle spot, or over the nose, and could take some reps from backup linemen Mike Wright and Jarvis Green this season. But like Chung, the Patriots did not necessarily take Brace to make serious contributions this season. They could use him this season as an understudy to incumbent nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and eventually groom him to take over in the trenches. If New England can’t reach an agreement with Wilfork going forward, Brace may be asked to step in and do many of the same things Wilfork does now. Interesting note: He loves watching cartoons, including SpongeBob and “everything from Rugrats to old Batman cartoons.”
Cornerback Darius Butler. Second round, 41st overall. A wild card. Butler is believed to be a second-round steal, someone who could come in and contribute this season, especially at a position -- cornerback -- that remains wide open with the Patriots. At 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds, he’s a shade bigger than most prototypical New England corners, but has shown a real ability to be a playmaker (he finished his college career with 10 interceptions), something the Patriots have been lacking since Asante Samuel left in free agency. With this selection -- as well as the acquisitions of Springs and Leigh Bodden -- the Patriots were clearly ready to move on from Ellis Hobbs III. With Hobbs departed for Philadelphia, the kick return position also remains a questions mark -- don’t be surprised if Butler has a say here by the end of the season. He also has limited experience at wide receiver, but that’s likely too much to put on the plate of a rookie. Look for him to figure into the defensive mix this season, with an occasional cameo on special teams. Interesting note: He is an unabashed Samuel fan, and said Saturday night he tries to model his game after the ex-New England cornerback.
Offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer. Second round, 58th overall. According to Belichick, Vollmer projects as a right tackle, which should make that positional battle very interesting come training camp. Right now, incumbent Nick Kaczur and backup Ryan O’Callaghan are likely considered the top two players on the depth chart at right tackle, but Vollmer will be heard from. A German who spoke little English before he started at the University of Houston, he’s known as a bit of a project, but one who could pay off for the Patriots before the end of the 2009 season. Interesting note: His nickname is “Sea Bass,” but has no ideas who he got it. (Maybe someone needs to schedule a viewing of Dumb & Dumber.) “I think I actually got it before I arrived in Houston. I can’t tell you how or who created the name, but it’s always stuck with me,” Vollmer said. “I go by ‘Sea Bass,’ I guess.”
Wide receiver Brandon Tate. Third round, 83rd overall. If Butler is a wild card, Tate might just be the whole deck. A stellar return man and pass catcher, he was considered to be a first round pick before he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee midway through his senior season. He slipped down boards even more after testing positive for marijuana at the NFL Scouting Combine. Both Tate and Belichick were noncommittal about the 2009 season, but you have to believe the Patriots might simply decide to redshirt him for the upcoming campaign and have him start fresh in 2010. After all, what’s the rush? Unless Greg Lewis and/or Joey Galloway don’t pan out at wide receiver, there’s no reason to think he’d have anything other than a minimal role in the passing game in 2009 as a No. 3 receiver … and that’s the best possible scenario. As NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock suggests, put him in the basement and let him focus on 2010. Interesting note: If you Google “Brandon Tate” and “weed,” you get 8,340 responses.
Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie. Third round, 97th overall. The only true linebacker taken in the entrire draft by New England, you would have to think that McKenzie will make the squad somewhere this season, perhaps even just on special teams. Then, you hear what Belichick said about him in the post-draft press conference, and you realize he will almost certainly find a role for McKenzie on the team somewhere this year. “I would just say of all the players that I’ve talked to and we’ve interviewed this year and even through the years, that Tyrone is amongst the most impressive,” Belichick said Sunday night. McKenzie said the Patriots have already talked to him about where he’ll be playing, but he’s been sworn to secrecy about where that is. Interesting note: McKenzie’s background is well chronicled here, but it’s also worth mentioning that McKenzie is the third player New England has taken at the 97th spot – offensive lineman (1997) and wide receiver/kick returner Sammy Martin (1988) were taken at No. 97 by the Patriots.
Offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger. Fourth round, 123rd overall. Maybe the best thing Ohrnberger has going for him is positional versatility, which could play a role in how much action he sees this season. He did play the last 34 games of his college career at guard, but was also the backup center and has also played right tackle for the Nittany Lions. At 6-foot-2 and 291 pounds, he’s considered undersized, which means he’ll fit in nicely along the New England offensive line. If he is going to make his bones on the 53-man roster as a rookie, it’ll be as a backup lineman who could fill in at a variety of spots. Interesting note: He recently performed stand-up at the Improv in Hollywood.
Offensive lineman George Bussey. Fifth round, 170th overall. Barring injuries, the 6-foot-2, 306-pound Bussey is a likely practice squad candidate, probably as a guard. If he does stick, he may end up playing a role down the road -- several of New England’s offensive linemen have contracts that are up at the end of the 2009 season, and if he can play the waiting game as a backup or practice squad player, he may have a future role with the Patriots. Interesting note: There was a disco group back in the 1970s named “The George Bussey Experience.” Look for Chris Berman to try and drop that into a Patriots’ highlight the next few years.
Long snapper Jake Ingram. Sixth round, 198th overall. No middle ground here -- Ingram will battle it out with veteran Nathan Hodel for the right to replace Lonie Paxton as the Patriots’ long snapper. The last man standing will get the job, and the loser will be out on the street. New England won’t be keeping two long snappers. It’ll be tough to top Ingram -- a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder who was a converted defensive lineman, he was the only one at his position to receive an invitation to both the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine. “He can block. He can cover pretty well. His snaps are accurate; they had good velocity,” Belichick said when asked about Ingram. “So I think that he will be competitive for that position. I felt like he was a top player for his position in the draft.” Interesting note: His younger brother Luke is expected to take over as long snapper for Hawaii next season.
Defensive lineman Myron Pryor. Sixth round, 207th overall. Likely a practice squad candidate. Pryor could simply be a victim of numbers -- New England has plenty of defensive linemen, and unless Pryor comes into camp and blows everyone away, he’s likely headed for the practice squad or the waiver wire. A 6-foot-1, 310-pounder, he was a four-year starter at Kentucky whose specialty is the pass rush. Interesting note: Pryor is the first player taken 207th overall by the Patriots. Other notable players taken at that same spot in recent years include running back Chester Taylor (taken in 2002 by Baltimore) and safety Antoine Bethea (taken in 2006 by Indianapolis).
Wide receiver/quarterback Julian Edelman. Seventh round, 232nd overall. An intriguing pick. The Patriots have traditionally chased after a quarterback in the late rounds of the draft, but Edelman is hardly a traditional quarterback. He was a signal-caller for the Flashes, but was a run-first, pass-second QB with terrific speed. As a result, he almost certainly won’t be an every-down quarterback in the NFL, but could be an intriguing chess piece -- his college coach believes he could be Wes Welker for a new generation. “He may get a chance to play some quarterback in the Wildcat offense, but I know the Patriots like him as a slot receiver and kick-returner,” said Kent State coach Martin. “I think they compare him to Wes Welker.” New England will likely find a spot for him, either on the 53-man roster or the practice squad. Interesting note: His agent -- Don Yee -- also represents Tom Brady.
Defensive lineman Darryl Richard. Seventh round, 234th overall. Richard should be competitive for a spot on the practice squad. A 6-foot-4, 290-pounder out of Georgia Tech, he’s known as a superb student-athlete -- he won the James Tatum Award, given to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top senior student-athlete. In addition, he was a finalist for the Draddy Award, considered the Academic Heisman, and the Wuerffel Trophy. Only problem is that he might be a bit of a tweener for an NFL defense -- too big to move to linebacker and too small to be an interior lineman. If the Patriots like the look of him this spring and summer, taking a year to either put on some weight and become a lineman or take some off and become a linebacker might be in his best interest. Interesting note: Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey believes Richard may have what it takes to run for president one day.
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for WEEI.com.