Bill Belichick was still playing with house money as he prepared for the 2003 NFL draft, as he earned the undying affection of the Patriots organization and fan base for leading them to the Super Bowl XXXVI title. The 2003 draft class was imperative to the team?s success throughout the rest of the decade, and it?s time for the NESN.com series to shift toward that very crop of players.
The Patriots got off to a 3-0 start in 2002 and really rode their Super Bowl momentum, but they finished 9-7, missed the playoffs and allowed the most points of any season under the Belichick regime (346, 21.6 per game). They realized they had to get younger and complement the veteran leaders with more athletic, higher-upside talent, and this draft would be important in that process.
Heading into the draft, the Pats were equipped with two first-round picks (Nos. 14 and 19), with the 14th selection coming from Buffalo as a result of the Drew Bledsoe trade. The Patriots made seven trades during draft weekend, but one of their best involved their 19th overall pick. They sent that to Baltimore for the Ravens? second-round selection in 2003 (No. 41 overall) and a first-rounder in 2004, which turned into Vince Wilfork.
The Patriots selected arguably the second best cornerback in the draft with the 120th overall pick. Asante Samuel and his ?Get Paid? tattoo had an ugly exit from Foxboro, but he was stout during his five seasons in New England. By his third season, he emerged as one of the most reliable cornerbacks in the league, and he intercepted 22 passes as a Patriot, including a league-best 10 in 2006.
Samuel was agitated when the Patriots assigned him as their franchise player in 2007, and it seemed pretty clear he would sign elsewhere in 2008. Predictably, Samuel quickly signed a six-year, $56 million contract with Philadelphia on the first day of free agency in March 2008.
Bethel Johnson has been one of the biggest busts of the Belichick era. The extremely fast wide receiver was little more than a kick returner, and it was said that he lacked the desire or smarts to learn the playbook. Johnson caught 30 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons with the Patriots, and he also returned two kicks for touchdowns.
What?s worse, the Patriots traded up to draft Johnson. They sent the 50th and 120th picks (the Pats later recouped the 120th pick) to the Panthers to move five selections up the board.
The Rest of the Picks
Defensive lineman Ty Warren, first round, No. 13 overall: Warren has been a sturdy piece on the Patriots? defensive line since the second he set foot onto the Foxboro campus. One of the really good guys in the locker room, Warren has registered 20.5 sacks and 496 tackles in seven seasons. The two-time Super Bowl champion has also been very durable, having missed just eight games in his career.
Defensive back Eugene Wilson, second round, No. 36 overall: The Illinois cornerback played mostly safety in New England, and Wilson was a good one when healthy. He had 10 interceptions in five seasons with the Pats, but the sides parted ways after Wilson?s string of injuries in 2006 and 2007. He had a quick offseason stint with the Buccaneers and has played the last two seasons with the Texans.
Defensive tackle Dan Klecko, fourth round, No. 117 overall: Best known for being the son of Joe Klecko, Dan Klecko was a versatile player in three seasons with the Patriots. He was originally selected as a defensive player but made most of his contributions as a fullback and on special teams. Klecko was cut prior to the 2006 season and has since spent time with the Colts, Eagles and Falcons. He caught a touchdown for the Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship Game against the Patriots.
Center Dan Koppen, fifth round, No. 164 overall: Another great value pick, the Patriots landed a rock-solid center late in this draft. Koppen, who is 6-foot-2 and 296 pounds, doesn?t have the ideal size for his position, but he is incredibly smart, and that?s what Belichick craves out of centers. Quarterback Tom Brady always praises Koppen?s pre-snap reads, and the center has consistently been one of the team?s most reliable performers.
Quarterback Kliff Kingsbury, sixth round, No. 201 overall: Last November, Belichick was talking about Wes Welker?s collegiate career when the coach alluded to Kingsbury, who was Welker?s teammate at Texas Tech. ?We got the wrong guy,? Belichick said of Kingsbury. ?I did a pretty bad job on that, too.? While the quote was hilarious, Belichick was technically wrong about one thing — Welker didn?t enter his name into the draft until 2004. Anyway, Kingsbury spent his rookie season on injured reserve and was released in 2004. Kingsbury also had similarly unsuccessful stints with the Saints, Broncos, Jets and Bills before leaving the game.
Tight end Spencer Nead, seventh round, No. 234 overall: Nead tried out at fullback, but the BYU product didn?t amount to much. He also spent time with the Rams and Falcons and has been out of football since 2004.
Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, seventh round, No. 239 overall: The edge rusher has had a pretty nice career for a seventh-round draft pick. He was a steady reserve in his first four seasons with the Patriots and turned a 5.5-sack campaign in 2006 into a nice contract with the 49ers. Banta-Cain reunited with the Patriots in 2009 and had the best season of his career, compiling 9.5 sacks.
Defensive tackle Ethan Kelley, seventh round, No. 243 overall: The Baylor product spent the 2003 season on the Pats? practice squad and was released in 2004. He then played in Cleveland through 2007, but he underwent microfracture knee surgery that ended his career.
Who They Missed
The Cardinals selected wideout Anquan Boldin with the 54th pick, nine spots after Johnson. Then, 21 spots after Klecko, the Colts landed defensive end Robert Mathis. And the Dolphins snagged safety Yeremiah Bell 12 picks after Kingsbury.
Warren, Samuel and Koppen have been stars for the team, and Wilson and Banta-Cain had serviceable runs with the organization. The Patriots needed to inject some youth into their veteran-laden roster, and they really came through with this draft class.