Sophomore report: A look at last year’s draft class

With the bitter taste of a 33-14 loss to the Ravens in the Wild Card round, the Patriots entered the 2010 draft with a need to upgrade their toughness.

Two years later, nine draft selections are still on the team, and several players have emerged as top-tier players at their positions.

Many fans were up in arms when the Pats took Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty with the 27th pick. Thankfully, Bill Belichick and his staff are much better talent evaluators than us fans and media type.

McCourty’s physical style of play, combined with a knack for big plays earned him a rare rookie pro bowl selection.

However, McCourty’s second go-around hasn’t gone as smoothly. The team’s No. 1 corner hasn’t lived up to his billing as the next shutdown corner as he’s allowed 35 receptions for 495 yards and four touchdowns in only six games.

Most of McCourty’s struggles have come against bigger receivers like Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson, but the talented coverman should be able to regain his rookie form with an improved pass rush.

In my opinion, the best player, and perhaps one of the brightest budding stars in the NFL, is second-round tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The “kid” is simply a “man amongst boys.” At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, he has the strength to outmuscle any defensive back, and has enough speed to separate from most linebackers. The most underrated part of his game is his elite blocking ability.

Gronk should be a multi-time Pro Bowler for the rest of his career.

Armed with two extra second-rounders, the Pats opted for a pair of Florida Gators in Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes.

Cunningham was expected to bring a pass rush presence and was the highest drafted linebacker besides Jerod Mayo during Belichick’s tenure.

While he played solid run defense, he didn’t post great sack numbers and has been a disappointing non-factor in 2011. The Pats don’t have a great track record of second-rounders panning out (Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Bethel Johnson), but Cunningham does have the size and versatility to play end in the 4-3 or outside linebacker in the 3-4.

Although Spikes came on slowly and has not seen consistent playing time due to injury and a suspension, he has the chance to be one of the better players on defense.

His intensity, instincts and physicality are the perfect complement to the speedy Mayo. Spikes showed what he is capable of in a dominant performance against the Cowboys last week and should only improve with more playing time.

Third-rounder Taylor Price has the ideal size/speed combination to be an effective receiver at this level, but he’s stuck behind some experienced wideouts in Deion Branch, Wes Welker and regrettably, Chad Ochocinco. Price has seen the field from the sidelines more than in the huddle, but with Ochocinco’s struggles, he could see more playing time.

Despite earning the John Mackey Award in 2009, Aaron Hernandez slipped in the draft due to concerns over a failed drug test while at Florida. Long story short, the Pats got a steal. Hernandez plays a hybrid receiver/tight end role in the offense and is a matchup nightmare. He has terrific speed and is excellent after the catch.

He and Gronk form the league’s best pair of tight ends and they both haven’t reached their ceilings.

The Patriots did some solid work late in the draft and in the free agent realm as punter Zoltan Mesko is an asset in the kicking game. Seventh-rounder Brandon Deadrick has started and fills a role in the defensive line rotation.

However, what’s most impressive is the undrafted free agent signings the team made.

Linebacker Dane Fletcher is a special teams ace and has a lot of versatility, playing fullback at times. Safety Sergio Brown is also a core special team member, although he hasn’t performed well when given reps at safety. Defensive tackle Kyle Love has started next to Vince Wilfork this year and is a load to block.

Overall, after a poor stretch of drafts (06-08), the Patriots picked up solid pieces in 2009, but some real playmakers in 2010. They addressed their needs, increased their toughness and added several Pro Bowl-caliber players in the process.