The 2020 NFL Draft gets underway on Thursday and boy, do the Patriots need to make it count.
It's too soon to tell if New England has any keepers from the 2018 or 2019 drafts, but the three years leading up to them were among the five worst draft classes of the Bill Belichick era.
By and large, however, Belichick has had far more hits than misses when it comes to the draft, particularly in the first round.
Like any general manager, Belichick is prone to both hot and cold streaks in the draft. It's an inexact science.
He's survived one frigid stretch in particular, in 2006 and 2007, so why can't he rise from the ashes again?
Belichick has had far more draft classes in New England which have been a net positive than a net negative, as the six Super Bowl titles would indicate. Some years still stand out above others, however, so after looking at his biggest misfires yesterday, it's time to spread some optimism and take a look at the five biggest draft class successes of the Belichick era.
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The most important factors in determining these rankings were coming away with hits in both the first and second rounds of the draft, as well as a player's longevity in New England. Hitting on late round picks are nice, but there's a fair bit more luck involved in coming away with, say, the greatest quarterback of all-time at No. 199 overall after you've already passed on him six times.
Before we get to the good stuff, there's three honorable mentions to get to: 2000, which produced nine nobodies plus Tom Brady; 2004, which produced Vince Wilfork and Ben Watson in the first round; and 2012, which produced Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower in the first round. Had Jones stuck around New England, coupled with the contributions of later picks Nate Ebner and Alfonzo Dennard, we'd be ranking that class much higher.
On with the show...
Following the dark ages of the 2006 and 2007 drafts, with precious little from 2008 as well, 2009 marked a return to form for Belichick in the draft room -- even without a first-round pick at his disposal.
The Patriots came away with three players who'd become pillars on their next generation of Super Bowl champions, even if it didn't look that way immediately.
Patrick Chung (2-34) spent one year in Philadelphia before returning to the Patriots in time for the Super Bowl XLIX championship team in 2014, while Julian Edelman (7-232) didn't truly break out until 2013. It's hard to imagine the alternate universe in which Chung stayed with the Eagles, or in which Edelman left in free agency after the 2012 campaign. Edelman, in particular, has gone on to leave his mark on not just the franchise, but the league as a whole. Through 2019, he's second all-time in both postseason receptions (118) and receiving yards (1,442) behind some guy named Jerry Rice. He was MVP of Super Bowl LIII.
Don't sleep on Sebastian Vollmer (2-58), either. Though injuries cut his career short, he was still an integral part of the team at right tackle leading up to and through Super Bowl XLIX.
New England had nine other picks this year, none of whom provided significant value for the team. Two showed flashes in cornerback Darius Butler (2-41), who had a great rookie season but regressed badly in 2010. To his credit, following one season in Carolina, he went on to last six more years in Indianapolis. Wide receiver Brandon Tate (3-83) proved to be an electric kick returner but failed when it came to developing a rapport with Tom Brady and was done in Foxboro after two seasons. Like Butler, he had some staying power in the league, playing eight more seasons, primarily in Cincinnati.
The full-on misses for the Patriots included Worcester native Ron Brace (2-40), a defensive tackle who passed away in 2016; linebacker Tyrone McKenzie (3-97), guard Rich Ohrnberger (4-123), offensive tackle George Bussey (5-170), center Jake Ingram (6-198) and defensive tackles Myron Pryor (6-207) and Darryl Richard (7-234).
With only six picks, the Patriots had little room for error coming off their Super Bowl XXXVI title. What they came away with was four very solid players, all of whom played roles on two more championship teams.
Tight end Daniel Graham, the 21st overall pick, was certainly no Rob Gronkowski or even Ben Watson. He still caught 17 touchdown passes from Tom Brady while emerging as one of the best blocking tight ends in the game, lasting five seasons with the Patriots. Just avert your eyes from the player who went three picks later: safety Ed Reed, the first Hall of Famer the 2002 draft has produced.
More weapons were on the way for Brady in Deion Branch (2-65) and David Givens (7-253), the last wide receivers successfully drafted and developed by the Patriots for another seven years. Branch enjoyed two productive stints in New England (2002-05, 2010-12) and was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, while Givens held the record for most postseason touchdown receptions for the Patriots (seven) until Gronk came along.
Defensive end Jarvis Green (4-126) was another solid pickup for New England, racking up 28 career sacks as a sub rusher over eight seasons.
In terms of the misses, quarterback Rohan Davey (4-126) had one fewer career interception (zero) than Jarrett Stidham to date and running back Antwoine Womack (7-237) never saw an NFL field.
One player may not make a draft class, but two can -- especially when one of them has been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
New England's final eight selections in 2001 accomplished zip, zilch and nada, but Richard Seymour (1-6) and Matt Light (2-48) became foundational pieces on three Super Bowl champions.
Seymour, the highest draft pick Belichick has made in his career, has just missed out on enshrinement in Canton two years running following a 12-year NFL career, the first eight of which he spent with the Patriots. Adept at both tackle and end, Seymour was thrice named First Team All-Pro and made seven Pro Bowls, five with the Patriots. Seymour is also currently a finalist for the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Light, meanwhile, protected Tom Brady's blindside admirably at left tackle for 11 seasons, earning one First Team All-Pro nod and three Pro Bowl berths. He was fairly durable for New England as well, starting all 16 regular season games seven times in his career.
The only thing keeping this group from soaring any higher is the lack of a third draft pick who gave the Patriots even an ounce of a return on investment. Among Brock Williams (3-86), Kenyatta Jones (4-96), Jabari Holloway (4-119), Hakim Akbar (5-163), Arther Love (6-180), Leonard Myers (6-200), Owen Pochman (7-216) and TJ Turner (7-239), Jones played the most games for the Patriots...with 18. None of them played again in the NFL after 2004.
This would be a pretty good draft based on New England's first and second-round picks alone in defensive lineman Ty Warren (13th overall) and safety Eugene Wilson (36th overall). Maybe not top-five worthy, but you'd have to feel pretty good coming out of the draft with a pair of contributors like them.
What truly elevates this draft class, however, is a pair of picks Belichick made later on in the draft: cornerback Asante Samuel (4-120) and center Dan Koppen (5-164).
Samuel may be best remembered for his would-be, perfect season-sealing interception that wasn't in Super Bowl XLII, but he proved a most-worthy replacement for Ty Law as the team's No. 1 corner halfway through the 2004 season and never looked back until signing with the Eagles in 2008. Samuel led the NFL in both picks (10) and passes defended (24) in 2006 and followed that up with a First Team All-Pro nod in 2007. His four pick-sixes in the postseason are an NFL record, with three of them coming with the Patriots.
Koppen started at least 15 games for the Patriots in seven of his first eight seasons, earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2007.
Even defensive end Tully Banta-Cain (7-239) gave New England 23.5 sacks over six seasons, though 15 of them came after he returned to the team as a free agent in 2009 following two years in San Francisco.
Bethel Johnson (2-45) never developed as a receiver, but he did manage two kick returns for touchdowns over three seasons.
Defensive lineman/fullback Dan Klecko (4-117) didn't do much in Foxboro, with two sacks over three seasons, but the only players who gave the team absolutely positively nothing were quarterback Kliff Kingsbury (6-201), fullback Spencer Nead (7-234) and defensive tackle Ethan Kelley (7-243). Give their draft positions, that was more than acceptable in what was arguably the deepest class of the Belichick era.
The high-end talent with the premium picks, a la 2001, along with depth in the later rounds akin to 2003 meld the 2010 draft class into Belichick's finest work with the Patriots -- and it's still clouded with any number of what-ifs that hold it back from being the greatest draft in team history.
Bill Parcells can lay claim to the best draft hauls for the franchise, for either his work in 1995 (Ty Law at 1-23, Ted Johnson at 2-57 and Curtis Martin at 3-74) or 1996 (Terry Glenn at 1-7, Lawyer Milloy at 2-36 and Tedy Bruschi at 3-86).
Devin McCourty (1-27) and Rob Gronkowski (2-42) alone help hold a candle to either of those hauls, and if things had gone differently for Brandon Spikes (2-62) or, for millions of reasons, Aaron Hernandez (4-113), it's a whole different ball game.
Still, anytime you're talking about a draft class with a player who was named First Team All-Pro four times and is arguably the greatest ever at his position, you take note. The newest member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gronkowski obliterated the record books during nine seasons in New England, setting a franchise record for receiving touchdowns in both the regular (79) and postseasons (12). In 2011, his 17 receiving scores were a single-season NFL record for a tight end. At the time of his retirement, Gronkowski's 7,861 receiving yards were second-most in franchise history behind Stanley Morgan (10,352).
The fact that McCourty, still going strong after 10 seasons, is merely the second-best player to come from this draft class says it all. He's made the Pro Bowl at two different positions (at corner as a rookie in 2010, at safety in 2016) and has been insanely durable, missing just five of a possible 160 regular season games in his career. He'll match Vince Wilfork for longevity among first-round picks of the Belichick era in 2020, with 11 seasons in New England.
Spikes was emerging as a force at inside linebacker for the Patriots, with 178 combined tackles over his final two seasons. He had some regrettable words on his way out the door from New England, however. He played for the Bills in 2014 while the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX, returned to the team in the 2015 off-season but was released before training camp following a traffic incident.
As for Hernandez, there's no need to go over what happened there again. In three seasons, he had 175 catches for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns. Suffice to say, he's one of the biggest wastes of talent of all-time.
The Patriots didn't hit on every draft pick in 2010. Linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (2-53) was the third player from Florida, along with Spikes and Hernandez, who didn't quite meet expectations in New England. Taylor Price (3-90) was the latest wide receiver who failed to click in Foxboro, punter Zoltan Mesko (5-150) lasted just three seasons before being replaced, and though center Ted Larsen (6-205) has gone on to play 10 seasons, he never took a snap for the Patriots.
New England had four seventh round picks, too, none of whom left a lasting impact in offensive tackle Thomas Welch (208), defensive end Brandon Deaderick (247), defensive tackle Kade Weston (248) and quarterback Zac Robinson (250). Deaderick did have a sack of Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLVI, at least.