Sunday 7: Recalling Bill Belichick’s best Patriots drafts


1 – Much has been made in recent years regarding a dip in Bill Belichick’s success rate in the NFL Draft. Even Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been quick to point out over the last year or so New England’s struggles to secure widespread young talent in the 2017-20 drafts.

The hope, for Kraft and all of Patriot Nation, is that last April’s draft turned that trend around with the addition of first-round quarterback Mac Jones, second-round defensive lineman Christian Barmore and fourth-round running back Rhamondre Stevenson, at the very least.

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Heading into the hopeful opportunities of draft night 2022, it felt like a good time to acknowledge that while Belichick oversaw some pretty putrid drafts in recent years he’s also led the charge on some incredibly impressive pick parties while overseeing New England’s drafts dating back to 2000.

While Belichick will never be able to top taking Tom Brady in the sixth round of his first draft in New England in 2000, his best work landing elite talent for a rebuilding team came a year later when he had his first first-round pick with the Patriots. Belichick snagged the only Pro Football Hall of Fame pick of his Patriots tenure (to this point!) with the No.
6 overall selection and then turned around to take Patriots Hall of Fame left tackle Matt Light with the No. 48 pick overall. Two picks. Two foundational pieces of the lines on both sides of the ball for a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl less than 10 months later. Not bad, even if the rest of the 2001 brought almost no positive impact.

Another top-heavy, two-pick party came in 2010 when Belichick landed cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round and tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second round. The former is a lock for the Patriots Hall of Fame as a mainstay of the team’s defense for more than a decade, while the latter is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history destined for his day in Canton. The 2010 group also include depth with linebacker Brandon Spikes in the second round and tight end Aaron Hernandez in the fourth.

In terms of deepest drafts, Belichick’s best work may have come in either 2003 or 2005. The 2003 class included defensive tackle Ty Warren at No. 13 overall, corner-turned-safety Eugene Wilson in the second round, kickoff returner/wide receiver Bethel Johnson in the second round, defensive tackle Dan Klecko in the fourth round, cornerback Asante Samuel in the fourth round, center Dan Koppen in the fifth round and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain in the seventh round. Each of first six picks brought a level of impact to the team, including Warren, Wilson, Samuel and Koppen as core contributors, and only two of the 10 picks that year – quarterback Kliff Kingsbury and tight end Spencer Nead – were total non-factors.

The 2005 class of seven players included four impact starters led by first-round offensive lineman Logan Mankins followed by cornerback Ellis Hobbs, right tackle Nick Kaczur and safety James Sanders.
Seventh-round QB flier Matt Cassel even paid off dividends down the road.

The 2011 draft was another solid weekend of picks, landing left tackle Nate Solder in the first round, running back Shane Vereen in the second round, running back Stevan Ridley in the third round and right tackle Marcus Cannon in the fifth round.

Another impressive early dynasty years Belichick-led draft came in 2002 with the addition of first-round tight end Daniel Graham, second-round future Super Bowl MVP wide receiver Deion Branch, underrated fourth-round defensive lineman Jarvis Green and clutch seventh-round wide receiver David Givens.

In fact, Belichick’s draft run from 2001-05 was pretty damn impressive overall, with a haul of first-round picks that included Seymour, Graham, Warren, Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson and Mankins. Former Patriots Vice President of Player Personnel obviously also deserves a hat tip for his role in New England’s drafting success in that span.

The worst draft in Belichick’s time in New England? That almost certainly has to be 2017, when New England traded away most of its picks in various deals – including a first-round pick for wide receiver Brandin Cooks – and only ended up drafting four players total in the form of third-round picks (DE) Derek Rivers and (OL) Tony Garcia, fourth-round defensive line pick Deatrich Wise Jr. and sixth-round offensive lineman Conor McDermott. Only Wise, who remains with the team, had any positive impact in New England.

2 – While there is far from certainty that Belichick will continue the positive momentum from a year ago with another impactful draft, one thing that is a virtual certainty is that the Patriots draft boss will swing at least one trade in the three-day selection process later this week. Belichick has made at least one trade in all but one of his previous 22 drafts in New England, the only year he did not make a draft weekend trade coming in 2004. Although even that draft class technically included a trade, as the Patriots sent their 2004 second-round pick to the Bengals in a deal for veteran running back Corey Dillon.

3 – Though Belichick has a well-earned reputation of trading down in the draft with regularity, he’s actually made the exact same number of trades up and down in the draft over the years according to the pre-draft press release put out by the Patriots crack media relation staff. Of New England’s 56 draft weekend trades over the last two-plus decades, 28 had the team moving up in the process and 28 saw the Patriots slide down the board in the deals.

4 – Given the lack of elite quarterback prospects and limited blue-chip talent at the top of the draft, the opportunities and best-case scenarios that could be presented to Belichick’s Patriots are very much a wait-and-see proposition. It certainly seems that the dream scenario of an elite, impact wide receiver like Alabama’s Jameson Williams falling to New England at No. 21 is an extremely unlikely possibility. If getting Jones a true No. 1 option is the goal, it might require the Patriots to consider trading up.
With six teams picking ahead of the Patriots holding multiple first-round picks in this year’s draft, almost anything could happen in the first 20 selections.
While that should make for exciting, unpredictable entertainment for fans on draft night, it will also make for uncertain options for Belichick, Matt Groh and the rest in the Patriots draft night war room.

5 – So, who would be our favorite options for the Patriots in the first round this Thursday night? Who would get us all fired up in the midst of our five-hours of live draft coverage on the WEEI airwaves? Alabama’s playmaking wide receiver Williams remains the jackpot hope. USC pass-catcher Drake London wouldn’t be a bad fallback option at the position. Northern Iowa left tackle Trevor Penning would the equivalent of swinging for the fences at the less-sexy offensive line spot. Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean or Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd would make some sense and create at least a little fun buzz on defense. New England has plenty of needs and regardless of the perceived talent level of this draft, it should still present a palatable buffet of options for the Patriots at No. 21.

6 – Did you know that the Patriots have drafted 23 total players from both Boston College and Michigan over the years, most from any one school? Interestingly, both programs have prospects in this year’s draft who could make sense for the Patriots at No. 21 overall and add to the total. Boston College guard Zion Johnson has been a popular pick in mock drafts for New England. Meanwhile, versatile Michigan defensive back Dax Hill has entered the discussion in recent weeks given his unique skills and the Patriots propensity to put such players to use under Belichick.

7 – Belichick and the Patriots head into Thursday night’s opening of the 2022 NFL Draft with eight selections in the three-day affair. New England’s first pick comes at No. 21 overall on Thursday night. The Patriots currently have two picks for Friday’s second day of draft action, No. 54 overall in the second round and No. 85 overall in the third round. The team closes out the weekend with five picks on the third day of drafting, No. 127 overall in the fourth round, No. 158 overall in the fifth round, No. 170 overall in the fifth round, No. 200 overall in the sixth round and No. 210 overall in the sixth round.

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