Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Patriots' True Draft Strategy

I'm not trying to deny that the New England Patriots have an effective draft model. I'm just trying to figure out exactly what it is.

My last article on New England's draft record hopefully cleared up one misconception: that the Pats are better than average in the 3rd round and below. They're actually rather bad. Most of their mid- to late-round picks in the last few years haven't even stuck around as depth or role players. They've just...been cut. The Seahawks have gotten more depth players out of their fourth- and fifth-rounders than that. (Of course, you could argue that a backup with the Seahawks would be camp fodder on most playoff teams, but I digress.)

So...what are the Patriots doing then, exactly? I noticed one interesting item: in the last two years, they've had seven second-round draft picks - far more than any other team. I'm sure there's more to their draft strategy than just that, but I can at least talk about the results.

How on earth did the Pats end up with four second-rounders in 2009? By looking ahead during the previous year. They traded QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs, traded down with the Packers (the Clay Matthews trade), and gave up a third-rounder to the Chargers for a second-rounder the following year. Boom - three extra second-rounders.

And in 2010, how did they end up with three second-rounders? Same thing: by flipping two third-rounders from the 2009 draft - their natural selection and another pickup from the Matthews trade - for second-rounders the following year. And when 2010 came, they traded down with one of those picks and acquired a 2011 second-rounder.

If Bill Belichick were running the Seahawks, here's what I imagine he would do:

  • Trade Brandon Mebane for that 2011 3rd he was tendered for. (I like Mebane, but Seattle seems pretty committed to its scheme, and Mebane doesn't fit in his current role.)
  • Take one of the late fifths or our early sixth, and use it to bump our early fourth up to a late third.
  • Take the two third-rounders to teams who are desperate for extra picks this year, and flip them for 2012 second-rounders.

It appears to be second-rounders the Patriots are hoarding, and for good reason: that's where starters come from. Last year's fourth round gave the league only two starters and a couple of productive wide receivers. Most of the second round is starting. It also bears mentioning that the second-rounders they're relying on are future picks - despite the fact that they're rebuilding their defense, they are willing to wait a year in order to choose from better talent. Delayed gratification. It hints at their mentality: they value the power of the second round. (Or perhaps, those second-rounders are just incidental results of a higher formula and I have no idea what I'm talking about, but the strategy seems consistent over the last couple years.)

Of course, this is a strategy the Patriots can afford, because let's be honest: the real reason the Patriots win is Tom Brady. Seriously, people underestimate just how much an elite QB transforms a team. He turns mediocre receivers into #2's, like Peyton Manning. He makes the O-line look good with his quickness and decision-making. He opens up the run game. His constant scoring dictates the opponents' strategy, which helps the defense. Brady is the single most transformative element on the New England roster; without him, they have the unmistakable profile of an 8-8 team, the ceiling of the 2008 Minnesota Vikings (and that's probably flattering).

The Seahawks have no such luxury. Matt Hasselbeck is past his prime, and there are holes all over his roster. Again, brutal honesty: the Seahawks made the playoffs last year only by circumstances, special-teams, and pure dumb luck. Their rebuild is much more dependent on the draft. (But do the Seahawks gain the luxury of delayed gratification if there will be no NFL season this year?)

So it's legitimate to ask, do we put off the rebuild a little bit if it means better talent to choose from, or should we start grabbing players now? A lot of folks won't like delaying the improvement of the team, and I understand. They want to hasten the rebuild, and they think as many picks as possible will do that. But that has to be balanced against the potential value of each draft round.

I personally am okay with waiting if it means picking from a better talent pool. The regenerating Pats defense, and most championship rosters for that matter, are held together by talent from the first two rounds. DT Vince Wilfork, LB Brandon Meriweather, LB Jerod Mayo, DE Ty Warren, CB Devin McCourty, and G Logan Mankins all went in the first round. T Matt Light, T Sebastian Vollmer, S Patrick Chung, and TE Rob Gronkowski came from the second. This is the core of the team we're talking about here. Seattle needs a core, and cores don't come from anywhere except the top rounds.

(And yes, I know Tom Brady and Matt Cassel were both very late picks, as was Matt Hasselbeck. Good luck duplicating that success. There are literally two dozen Mike Teels for every Brady in the last three rounds.)

Now, if you can find me a way to take some extraneous Seahawks (are there any?) or some current picks and trade them for future second-rounders, then hey, I'm listening. Not this mid-round stuff, but second-rounders. But even in that context, the Patriots haven't been foolproof drafting high. Several of their recent second-rounders - LB's Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes, DT Ron Brace, and DB Darius Butler - are upper-tier role-players and good depth. They perform well but aren't providing certain crucial commodities (like pass rush), and that makes them somewhat disappointing for second-round picks. Remember when I compared the results of two Patriots first-round trade-downs in my last article? One became Rob Gronkowski, but a third-round pick largely whiffed on WR Taylor Price. And let's not forget that some of Belichick's second-rounders have been absolute, even famous, busts. WR Chad Jackson, DT Kareem Brown, and CB Terrence Wheatley still elicit epic facepalms amongst the Patriots fanbase years later.

I say this to point out that no team, not even the New England Patriots, are above the need for good talent evaluation. That alone determines success. Having a first-rounder isn't a guarantee of a good pick; just ask Tim Ruskell. Having extra picks doesn't guarantee quality; the Steelers' drafts are of perfectly normal size. A wagonload of fifth-rounders is worthless if they all get cut, and the average quota of talent from that round almost ensures that many of them will. Exciting trade scenarios aside, there really just isn't any winning strategy except picking good football players.

This is where John Schneider's draft board comes in. The option to trade down has to also be balanced against the players available at #25 and the need of the team, and trading down reduces the available options.

Schneider's actions in last year's draft are telling. He received multiple offers to trade down from the #14 pick, and dropping just a spot or two could have gleaned a spiffy new fourth-rounder. An extra second-rounder would have cost "only" seven spots. But how quickly does talent decline as you proceed through the middle of the first round? #14 to #21 is the hangout of marquee players. A drop of even just one spot sacrifices a potentially franchise-altering prospect at that range. The end of the first round may not be as crucial - the Patriots didn't have any problem dropping seven spots in that range - but it's still a steeper hill than some believe. And rebuilding is not a time to tempt that hill.

In the end, Schneider was so fixated on Earl Thomas that he stood fast and declined the trade offers. The results should speak for themselves over the next few years. It's hard to imagine Thomas lasting any longer than #14 - many expected Philly to take him when they jumped ahead of us to #13. We can fantasize all day about an extra pick that might have been had from a trade down, but once the bird is in your hand, why think about the bush? Thomas was a Pro Bowl alternate last year.

It's true that the Seahawks have an awful lot of holes to fill, and that our many needs make it hard(er) to whiff at any spot. Others add that the depth of this draft falls right in Seattle's neightborhood, late first into the second. But that depth largely pertains to the defensive line, and Seattle has very specific profiles for its D-line players. Most other positions are average to thin in the late first. And then there's the matter of how long the top QB's will last. I can't agree that good depth will widen our draft board or make trade-downs more viable. (Trading down at this range nets only fifth- and sixth-rounders).

You could also talk about player trades and free agency (should they be legal by draft day). RB Leon Washington, quite possibly the most influential Seahawk in 2010, was obtained in a draft-day trade - but so were RB Lendale White and DT Kevin Vickerson, who quickly became irrelevant. WR Mike Williams, a difference maker (if an inconsistent one), was dug up in free agency. We have yet to get a glimpse of Schneider's policy in free agency - would he go after big names like WR Sidney Rice or G Robert Gallery? Or would that not favor PC's policy of competition amongst the humble? And if Seattle could swing lucrative returns in these areas, does that free up the front office to take some more risks in the draft? It could - although quarterback still looms as the greatest need and the least riskable. Depending on how the Seahawks view Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst, their draft strategy could well hinge on those top four quarterbacks.

Basically, I've just written a nice long article to inform you that it's hard to tell what the Seahawks will do come April. My intent was to illustrate the many interlocking factors that come into play when making draft decisions. Players at any point in the first round are hot, quickly-vanishing, potentially game-changing commodities, and imagine the uproar amongst Seahawks fans if one of the top QB's actually falls to #25 and we're not there to take him, having traded down three spots for a fifth-rounder. I don't want to see Seattle miss out the next franchise QB in favor of the next Will Herring. That's a scenario that deserves consideration.

Talent evaluation, the needs of the team, the steepness of the talent curve, and the fact that Belichick-style trade aggression isn't the answer to anything - it's a complicated jigsaw. Schneider will and should remain open to insane trade offers, but his brief history in Seattle indicates that he'll also have a draft board at the ready and will not be easily distracted from it. That's a good thing.


  1. The reason the Patriots always seem to be successful in the draft is because they have a quarterback named Tom Brady. That guy makes the entire offense amazing with mediocre players (i.e. Deion Branch). He single handedly makes up for their horrible defense by keeping them in every game. He covers up all of their bad drafts. That's how good Brady and Peyton Manning are. This is the reason the QB position is the most important. It's why the Hawks should explore every possibility to find a great QB. A great QB will keep us competitive for 10-15 years. Hopefully the new collective bargaining agreement will have a slotted rookie salary cap and allow teams to quickly dispose of crappy players.

  2. sorry, i repeated your tom brady section. Somehow I skimmed over it. So I guess I agree! Great article.

  3. Once again, a good article. It was thought provoking, and helped me re-examine my own thoughts on draft pick trades.

    I wonder if there is a rookie wage scale, will teams be more willing to trade up, as well as trade down? As a kid, I remember teams trading up from as low as the late twenties into the top five. Without the prohibitive cost of paying those high draft picks, it could become more common. This scenario would definitely help someone that likes acquiring second round picks.

    By the way, Logan Mankins was a first round pick in 2005. Admitted, he was the 32nd player chosen, so he was almost a second round pick.

  4. No sweat Bjorn! And you're right, the Jets were willing to trade UP to secure a franchise QB, and even if Sanchez hasn't hit his ceiling yet, it was a good move. I might examine the Jets' strategy later, it actually seems like a more effective model.

    Interesting thought, Neurocell. I could see a rookie cap encouraging more trade-ups. And thanks for the Mankins fact-check.

    Feel free to Follow this blog, guys! It'll make sure you never miss a chance to correct me on my incoherent ramblings.