Somewhere in the ether, this belief has popped up that the New England Patriots are a successful franchise because of a draft strategy of quantity over quality - or perhaps more fairly, quality via quantity. They trade down repeatedly to pick up as many picks as possible, including mid- to late-round picks, then turn them into starters, then trade those starters after a few years for more picks. Thus New England ends up with better players just by virtue of selling high and having more players to develop.
In other words, the media's gushing about "the rich getting richer" has folks thinking that the Patriots are running around winning with a bunch of 4th-round Pro Bowlers and overachieving 7th-round depth - the ultimate poster boys for "build through the draft".
But consider this recent tweet from NFL Draft Bible:
And it sent me on yet another weekend-consuming research project. Check 4urself...Between 2005-2008 the Patriots had 26 draft picks & failed on every selection except 3 (Meriweather/Mayo/D.Thomas) Terrible. Check 4urself.
Just this last draft, New England pulled the trigger on some trade-downs of just the variety that gets people buzzing. Starting with the #22 pick, they traded with Denver and dropped two spots to #24, picking up an extra fourth-rounder. Then they traded from #24 back to #27 with Dallas to pick up an extra third. The fourth-rounder turned into TE Aaron Hernandez, a terrific value pick who put up John Carlson rookie stats.
The third-rounder, however, turned into WR Taylor Price, who had 3 catches for 41 yards this year. That's a disappointing return even for a rookie third-rounder, especially on a team whose quarterback can make any receiver look good.
Meanwhile, Dallas took the #24 pick that Belichick gave up for Price and picked a better receiver, the promising Dez Bryant. Also lost to the Patriots was Dan Williams, a 3-4 nose tackle who might well have been on the Patriots' board but went to Arizona at #26.
Some would say, "Who cares? The Patriots still grabbed a great fourth-round starter at the cost of only two spots AND still grabbed a great first-rounder in CB Devin McCourty. That's more than most boring teams would accomplish by staying put. Classic Belichick victory!"
Fine and good - except that Aaron Hernandez pretty much represents the ceiling of this kind of move for the Patriots. Take a look at their current roster and see how many mid- to late-rounders are starting.
|Free Agents from Other Teams||8*||10||18|
|Undrafted Free Agents||3||5||8|
I personally was surprised to find out that the Patriots' roster has more free agents signed from other teams than they do 3rd-7th rounders. I'm not sure how this compares league-wide - the Packers have 36 draft picks to the Patriots' 26, though the Patriots have had much better success with undrafted free agents.
But it certainly doesn't support the notion that the Pats have built through the draft more than other teams, much less with lower-round picks. It makes it look like the Patriots are winning with premiere talent - first rounders, second rounders, and free agents compose most of the starting roster.
I decided to break down the Patriots' last seven drafts player by player and see how each round of the draft has served Belichick. Contrary to popular belief, his record in the mid- to late-rounds has actually been rather dismal.
|1||DT Vince Wilfork||3-time Pro Bowler|
|1||TE Benjamin Watson||Productive TE, casualty of Pats' "unsentimental" free agency|
|2||DE Marquise Hill||No starts or sacks in three years before tragic death in '07 offseason|
|3||S Guss Scott||2 starts in two seasons with Pats, bounced between 4 teams in '06|
|4||S Dexter Reid||Released after one season|
|4||RB Cedric Cobbs||Played in only three games, 22 rushes for 50 yards|
|5||WR P.K. Sam||Injured and suspended his way off the roster|
|7||CB Christian Morton||Mr. Irrelevant 2004, released before season|
|1||G Logan Mankins||6-year starter|
|3||CB Ellis Hobbs||Overachieving KR guy, never solid in coverage - basically Josh Wilson with injury problems|
|3||T Nick Kaczur||5-year starter|
|4||S James Sanders||6-year starter, 207 tackles and 8 INTs|
|5||LB Ryan Claridge||Out of NFL after 1 season|
|7||QB Matt Cassel||Starting QB for Kansas City|
|7||TE Andy Stokes||Mr. Irrelevant 2005, out of NFL after 1 preseason|
|1||RB Laurence Maroney||Underwhelming, injury-riddled - now with Denver|
|2||WR Chad Jackson||Bust|
|3||TE David Thomas||21 catches in 3 seasons, now backup with Saints|
|4||TE Garrett Mills||Cut after 1 season|
|4||K Stephen Gostkowski||5-year starter|
|5||OT Ryan O'Callaghan||Backup, cut after two seasons|
|6||DE Jeremy Mincey||Cut after preseason, now modest backup in Jacksonville|
|6||G Dan Stevenson||Practice squader, out of football after one season|
|6||DT Le Kevin Smith||Reserve guy for three seasons, now out of football|
|7||CB Willie Andrews||Backup, cut for legal problems after two seasons|
|1||S Brandon Meriweather||Four-year starter, two-time Pro Bowler|
|4||DT Kareem Brown||Cut after preseason, out of football after two seasons with Jets|
|5||OT: Clint Oldenburg||Cut during camp, backup for Jets and Redskins, now out of football|
|6||LB Justin Rogers||Cut after camp, two seasons as Dallas special-teamer|
|6||CB Mike Richardson||Reserve CB for one season|
|6||RB Justise Hairston||Out of football after 10 days on Pats roster|
|6||OT Corey Hilliard||Cut after camp|
|7||LB Oscar Lua||Cut after IR'ing it for rookie season|
|7||G Mike Elgin||Cut after camp|
|1||LB Jerod Mayo||Three-year starter, Pro Bowler, 2008 DROY|
|2||CB Terrence Wheatley||Bust|
|3||LB Shawn Crable||Injury bust|
|3||QB Kevin O'Connell||Out of football after two seasons|
|4||CB Jonathan Wilhite||Three-year reserve|
|5||WR Matt Slater||Gunner with a little return duty|
|6||LB Bo Ruud||IR'ed for rookie season, bounced between two other teams, now out of football|
|2||S Patrick Chung||Solid sophomore player|
|2||DT Ron Brace||Seven starts in two seasons|
|2||CB Darius Butler||Undersized, struggles to tackle, eight starts in two seasons|
|2||OT Sebastian Vollmer||Won starting right tackle job|
|3||WR Brandon Tate||432 yards in 2010, still waiting to break out|
|3||LB Tyrone Mackenzie||IR'ed for rookie season, now practice-squader for Bucs|
|4||G Rich Ohrnberger||Backup LG, no starts|
|5||T George Bussey||Injury bust|
|6||LS Jake Ingram||Waived after season and a half|
|6||DT Myron Pryor||Situational backup, 32 tackles in two seasons|
|7||WR Julian Edelman||#4 receiver and punt returner, 445 receiving yards in 10 starts|
|7||DT Darryl Richard||PS in 2009, IR in 2010, never played|
|1||CB Devin McCourty||Stellar rookie season|
|2||TE Rob Gronkowski||Top TE among 2010 class with 546 yards and 10 TD's|
|2||DE Jermaine Cunningham||Inconsistent pass rusher, solid run stopper|
|2||LB Brandon Spikes||Good value pick, four-game suspension in rookie season|
|3||WR Taylor Price||Bottom of WR roster|
|4||TE Aaron Hernandez||Terrific value TE|
|5||P Zoltan Mesko||Started all 16 games, but a fifth-round punter?|
|6||C Ted Larsen||Waived during final cuts|
|7||T Thomas Welch||Waived during final cuts|
|7||DT Brandon Deaderick||2-sack backup - solid for 7th rounder|
|7||DT Kade Weston||IR'ed for rookie season|
|7||QB Zac Robinson||Project QB released in September|
For seven years, vast swaths of mid- to late-rounders never even made this roster as depth. Tim Ruskell was just as good as Belichick in the 7th round. The 3rd and 4th round have been the very definition of hit-or-miss. Aaron Hernandez and backup safety James Sanders are the most the Patriots can brag about in that draft range, and they're the outlier.
There doesn't seem to be any magic going on here - no mining of unappreciated gold from a glut of extra mid- to late-round picks, no secret coaching tricks making starters out of draft leftovers and fringe talent where other coaches would fail. Belichick is missing on draft selections the same as everyone else. His roster is underpinned by talent from the first two rounds, same as everyone else. His entire 2006-2008 drafts are indeed massive busts, except for a couple first-rounders. His 2009 and 2010 drafts, despite being two of the largest classes known to man, are looking very uncertain after the 2nd round.
Did I mention the Patriots' defense isn't even really that good? It's quietly declined in the years since their mid-decade dynasty, ranking 21st, 16th, and 19th in DVOA the last three years. Anyone paying attention to the Pats knows that their effort to rebuild their defense after the expiration of the Tedy Bruschi era has been one of the ongoing storylines, but those 2006-2008 drafts have badly delayed the effort, and a lot of Patriots fans are still worried about insufficient pass rush. Truckloads of late-round picks haven't helped. (The struggles of the defense also kinda contradict the idea that late-round picks aren't getting a foothold because the team is already deep.)
Here's the twist - none of this is an indictment on the Patriots or their ability to evaluate talent. It's simply the reality of the draft. Many fans way, way, way overestimate the value of a mid-round pick. Starters come from the first three rounds, depth and camp fodder come from the latter three rounds, and the fourth round is borderline - that's the generally accepted methodology for the draft. New England's draft record isn't an epic fail - it's the perfect reflection of how the draft tends to fall.
Of course John Schneider would love to find hidden gems in the 5th round, but so would everyone else - that's the problem. Multiple teams grabbing at the table means that you're simply not going to have a lot of talent left after the first three rounds, and not even Bill Belichick has much control over that. And if lower-round picks aren't worth a whole lot, then they still won't be worth a whole lot when drafted en masse; it'll just mean more cuts to make. Zero times a million is still zero.
So this begs the question - what are the Patriots doing right? How are they winning? What is their real strategy? I will get to this in a later post. For now, I just wanted to talk about how the Patriots aren't succeeding, because I'm scared silly by the oft-repeated idea of Seattle trading out of the first round and sacrificing half its draft board for the sake of an extra fourth-round pick that might not even make the roster. Do you rebuild with the best possible talent or the most possible picks? Should Seattle's multiple talent holes be repaired with extra picks? It's an engaging question. But from glancing at their recent draft history, the New England Patriots aren't giving the answer you might think.