Back when he was Bill Belichick’s right-hand personnel man, former Patriots Vice President Scott Pioli had a rather interesting, specific way of describing New England’s roster-building process.
He would often note that the Patriots weren’t collecting talent, but building a team. That it wasn’t about putting together a roster of the BEST 53 players, but rather the RIGHT 53 players.
Obviously the process worked very well in his run helping run the New England football program in the early 2000s, the first phase of the Patriots dynasty. There was the stunning Super Bowl win in 2001 when an unknown backup quarterback stepped up to guide a team that at the time included a roster significantly rebuilt by what some described as a Kmart “Blue light Special” free agent class. Adding veteran cast-offs over the years and a few impact draft picks, the group would win two more Super Bowls in a three-year span by 2004.
The team-building plan worked perfectly.
Of course looking back on it now, there’s the realization that those Patriots teams weren’t just good teams but actually a pretty freaking impressive collection of talent. Tom Brady was a budding GOAT. Ty Law and Richard Seymour were future Pro Football Hall of Famers. And guys like Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Mike Vrabel, Deion Branch, Kevin Faulk, Rodney Harrison, Vince Wilfork and others already are or soon will be Patriots team Hall of Famers.
Forget the plucky team descriptions of the early, unexpected winning that was indeed a very talented roster developed and deployed by a Hall of Fame coach.
Fast forward a couple decades with a new cast of characters in New England and the comparison between roster talent and team potential is once again a key storyline, this time a Belichick-led squad put together with the help of director of player personnel Matt Groh, Eliot Wolf and others.
Dating back to last season, even with the Patriots returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence post-Brady, the biggest question facing New England was whether it had the type of go-to, blue-chip talent to measure up with true contenders, the kinds of game-changing playmakers that seem to be the recipe for winning in the modern NFL.
The January Wild Card beatdown by the Bills in Buffalo was an indication that it did not. Months and another offseason of drafting, trading and signing of players later, the general perception is still that the Patriots lack high-end talent.
That narrative was quantified the past week when ESPN released a series of position-by-position NFL player rankings that were built around an anonymous survey of NFL executives, scouts, players and coaches.
Whelp, a sampling of the rest of the league has spoken and they apparently don’t think a whole hell of a lot of the collection of talent that New England has put together. Only one Patriots player, tight end Hunter Henry, finished in the top 10 at his position and that was tied for the No. 10 spot.
That’s it. No other players at none of the other 10 positions listed.
No Matthew Judon. None of the depth chart of impressive safeties. No mention of respected linemen like David Andrews or Trent Brown.
Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Of course that doesn’t mean young, developing talents like Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Kyle Dugger, Rhamondre Stevenson, Kendrick Bourne or others aren’t on impressive career tracts. They just aren’t there yet.
It just means that for the here and now, according to a pretty big panel of supposed experts, New England’s roster just doesn’t measure up in terms of talent with the rest of the NFL.
It’s not really surprising. In fact, anyone with any objectivity has been noting that fact for the better part of the last year or longer. It’s a byproduct of poor drafting and other factors. It is what it is.
It’s also not a death blow to the 17 games the team will still have to line up and play this fall. There is no rule that the most talented team must be the winning team. This is still real not fantasy football. They still play the games on grass (well, mostly fake grass) rather than on paper.
But the reality is that to be successful this fall this New England squad needs to be a better team than its collection of talent would indicate. It needs to be better than the sum of its far-from-daunting parts.
Can the Patriots be a good team in 2022? Sure.
But right now they don’t measure up to the competition as a great collection of talent.
Of course maybe in 10 or 15 years we’ll be looking at this roster in a much different light.
Or maybe in a few months we won’t be.