The New England Patriots chose certainty over promise in their approach to the 2017 offseason.
The Patriots, set to select in the first round after a one-year absence thanks to Deflategate, traded the 32nd overall pick to the New Orleans Saints for Brandin Cooks and the 64th overall pick to the Carolina Panthers for Kony Ealy and an early third-rounder (72nd overall). That’s not a bad way to use two top picks.
There certainly are ways to recoup first- and second-round selections too. The Patriots could trade quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for multiple high picks, or they could move cornerback Malcolm Butler to the Saints and either receive their 32nd overall pick back or a second-rounder (and probably more). They also could trade next year’s first-round pick to move up in this year’s draft if they really love a player, though that seems highly unlikely given their history of acquiring those types of picks, not trading them away. The latest Bill Belichick’s Patriots have ever begun a draft was last season, when they chose Cyrus Jones with their first pick 60th overall.
So would the Patriots actually go into the 2017 NFL Draft without first- or second-round picks? Yes. Belichick knows he made his bed when he traded for Cooks and Ealy. He knew at the time there was a chance another trade wouldn’t come to fruition and that he had to be prepared to not take a player in the early rounds of his year’s draft. That doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t still try, but they are at least prepared for a scenario in which they don’t select a player early.
And the Patriots are set up well for the 2017 season without a high pick. If the Patriots go into the draft without a first- or second-rounder, that means they still have Butler at cornerback and thus perhaps the best secondary in the NFL. Their only major need to fill is at pass rusher. The Patriots also could use an athletic linebacker, a running back for the future, a tight end and a developmental offensive tackle. Those players presumably could be taken later.
The Patriots currently have a more talented team than the one that just won Super Bowl LI. Any talent they add through the draft is simply throwing cherries on top of an already delicious sundae. And any talent they add through the draft likely won’t see many snaps in 2017 anyway.
If the Patriots trade Butler, then a hole opens up at cornerback. But they also would be acquiring the picks through which to fill it.
It’s a strange year to study the draft, since it’s so difficult to predict which players still will be available at 72nd overall and beyond. Putting together mock drafts was much easier when the Patriots still had first- and second-round picks. But Cooks and Ealy will make a bigger impact in 2017 than a first-rounder or the difference between the 64th overall pick and the 72nd. So that’s why you can chalk this offseason up as a win for Belichick and the Patriots before the draft even occurs.
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