Commentary

Examining the Patriots' draft strategy

They may be a powerhouse, but have the Patriots blown it in the draft?

Originally Published: April 17, 2012
By John Parolin | ESPN Stats & Information

When Bill Belichick left the Jets to coach the Patriots in 2000 (reportedly by scrawling his resignation on a cocktail napkin), New England's first-round draft pick was the main part of the compensation package. That pick, the 16th overall selection, became five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson.

The Jets packaged that pick with New York's second-rounder to move up and select Shaun Ellis, a mainstay on the Jets' defensive line for more than a decade. When examining New England's recent draft record, it's fitting that the Belichick era began with a traded-away first-round draft pick.

It's safe to say New England got the most value in that trade. And this was no aberration, as history showed New England to be effective at draft manipulation. Since Belichick took over the team, the Patriots have made 110 picks overall, second-most in the NFL. Additionally, the team ranks third in total number of picks in the first two (28) and first three (41) rounds.

Does Belichick's emphasis on draft manipulation and "value" -- a strategy of trading down to acquire additional picks -- get in the way of acquiring quality players?

The lack of impact talent, particularly on defense, is an often-heard criticism of Belichick's draft record. Having a lot of picks didn't help the Patriots at defensive back last year. New England allowed 411.1 yards per game in the regular season, the most of any Super Bowl participant and the third-most in NFL history.

The 2011 Patriots secondary was a revolving door, with 13 defensive backs playing at least 100 snaps (most in NFL). And rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling, the 33rd overall pick in last year's draft, played in 87 snaps before landing on injured reserve.

Four of the Patriots' seven defensive backs taken since 2007 in the top four rounds were no longer on the roster by the end of the season (Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite and Brandon Meriweather), while Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Dowling all fought injuries.

More picks equals more chances

Increasing a team's volume of picks puts them in a better position statistically to find talent. While that's little consolation to fans disappointed about a trade down instead of the next high-profile first-round selection, it's the way the Patriots have maximized the value of the draft.

Their ability to stockpile picks has increased the probability they can find the next Julian Edelman, Myron Pryor or Brandon Deaderick. Since 2000, only the 49ers have had more players taken in the sixth or seventh round appear in at least a full season's worth of games than the Patriots (22).

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Clay Matthews
Al Bello/Getty ImagesIn 2009, New England traded the pick that became Clay Matthews and ended up with Darius Butler instead.
New England's mobility on draft day hasn't helped only the back end of the draft either. Critics point to individual instances like the 2009 trade of a pick that became Clay Matthews while the Patriots ended up with Butler and two third-round draft picks as an indictment of New England's first-round draft strategy. However, further examination shows New England has had remarkable success when moving up and down in the first round.

Since 2000, the Patriots have traded away 10 first-round picks. In addition to Peterson, the players taken with those picks were Patrick Ramsey, Michael Haynes, Kyle Boller, Joe Staley, Sedrick Ellis, Michael Oher, Matthews, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant. Only three of those 10 players made a Pro Bowl (Peterson, Staley and Matthews).

However, compare that list with the list of players New England has selected with first-round picks out of their natural position: Daniel Graham, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty. Four of the six have been Pro Bowlers, and Warren was named to the 2007 All-NFL first team. All six were at least meaningful contributors in New England.

The Mayo case in particular illustrates another side of this strategy. The Patriots traded the seventh overall selection to New Orleans, which drafted defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. Ellis has been a durable piece of the Saints' defensive line, but the Patriots selected future defensive signal-caller Mayo with the 10th pick. Mayo emerged as the 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year and led the league with 175 tackles in 2010.

Ellis received a five-year, $49 million contract with $19.5 million in guaranteed money from the Saints. Mayo signed his deal for $18.9 million and $13.8 million guaranteed, saving the Patriots $30 million over five years in addition to increased production.

Under the old rookie salary structure, first-round draft picks were paid as superstars without playing a single professional down. The highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL in 2008 was Oakland's Tommy Kelly, who earned $13.98 million. Ellis' contract had an average annual value of $9.8 million before playing a snap. New Orleans didn't overpay, either -- this was consistent with the precedent set by Kansas City's Glenn Dorsey, the fifth overall selection whose five-year deal had an average annual value of over $10 million a year. As rookies, Ellis and Dorsey had to perform near the best players in the league just to get average value. Any less, and the contract simply wasn't worth it.

Day 2 struggles

New England may be more likely to use first-round draft picks with the new rookie wage scale, an area in which Belichick has had success when actually picking. Since 2000, Belichick has drafted six Pro Bowlers with his 11 first-round selections. Only the Panthers and Patriots have had over half their first-round picks selected to a Pro Bowl.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireThe Patriots made 30 draft picks since 2000 in Rounds 2-3, and only two of them, including Rob Gronkowski, have made the Pro Bowl.
As the first-round salaries grew, the Patriots increased their emphasis on picks in the second and third rounds. In the nine drafts from 2000 to '08, the Patriots made 13 picks in the second and third rounds, tied for sixth fewest. However, from 2009 to '11 New England made 14 second- and third-round selections, five more than anyone else.

Despite the heavy volume of picks in the second and third round, it is when examining these selections that New England's talent evaluation comes under justifiable scrutiny.

The Patriots have made 30 selections since 2000 in Rounds 2-3, only 10 of whom have started 16 games in their career (10 of 26 discounting last season's rookies). The landscape is littered with names like Brandon Tate, Chad Jackson, Shawn Crable, Tyrone McKenzie, Taylor Price, Wheatley, etc. In fact, of the 21 selections since 2005, 11 are no longer with the team, while Jermaine Cunningham and Ron Brace haven't proven much yet.

Only two (Matt Light and Rob Gronkowski) of the 30 have made Pro Bowls, a 6.7 percentage that ranks 22nd in the NFL. This has come during an era where making a Pro Bowl has never been easier. In 1999 (the year before Belichick came to New England), 91 players were named Pro Bowlers, while from 2000-11 there were an average of 102 Pro Bowlers per year, highlighted by 124 in 2009.

The Pioli factor

Another question surrounding New England's draft strategy revolves around former vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who left the organization in 2008. Was there a marked difference in results with Pioli involved?

Comparing the results of draft picks at different positions can be difficult to do. However, draft busts are easy to identify. For our purposes, a player picked in the first three rounds who's no longer with the team past his third season can be defined as a bust.

Under Pioli, seven out of 25 picks in the first three rounds were no longer with the organization after their third seasons. Removing the tragic story of Marquise Hill (who passed away in 2007), that leaves the Patriots with six out of 24 picks being considered "busts."

After Pioli left, four out of 16 picks failed to make a fourth season with the team. There's no statistical difference between picks that failed pre- and post-Pioli.

New England's recent "strength in numbers" strategy in the top three rounds makes sense. Overall, the draft has proven largely to be a game of chance, and since Pioli left, New England has taken more chances through the first three rounds (16) than anyone in the league.

While the new salary scale makes New England more likely to pick in the first round, expect more of the same draft manipulation. More picks across the draft equals more chances to find successful players at good value. The Patriots currently have six picks in the first four rounds of next week's draft, but don't have a pick after that. Based on precedent, expect both of those stats to change.