Great football teams evolve over time.
They feature savvy, experienced veterans and young, hungry rookies; former cornerstones who have been around for ages and mercenaries who just arrived a month ago.
The 2017 New England Patriots have been constructed over the course of 18 years. And while they employ an overwhelming number of relative newcomers, some important pillars of years past still remain.
With the Patriots set to take on the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday in Super Bowl LII, here’s a chronological look at how their current 53-man roster came together:
Drafted quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round (199th overall)
The Patriots’ most important player just so happens to be the one who’s been with the team the longest. Just three other QBs have started a game for the Patriots since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001.
Drafted kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round (118th)
The year Adam Vinatieri left for the Indianapolis Colts, Gostkowski arrived. He rebounded nicely this season after a rough 2016.
Drafted wide receiver/special teamer Matthew Slater in the fifth round (153rd)
Slater is one of the best special teams players in NFL history, and that’s no exaggeration. He was voted to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl this season despite playing just nine regular-season games.
Drafted safety Devin McCourty in the first round (27th)
Drafted tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second round (42nd)
The Patriots got the future leader of their defense and the best tight end ever with their first two picks in the 2010 draft. Not a bad haul.
Drafted offensive tackle Nate Solder in the first round (17th)
Solder has been New England’s primary left tackle since 2012.
Signed running back Brandon Bolden as an undrafted free agent
Signed fullback James Develin as a free agent
Two special teams stalwarts. Develin also earned his first Pro Bowl nod this season as the AFC’s top fullback.
Signed wide receiver Danny Amendola as a free agent
Drafted safety Duron Harmon in the third round (91st)
Signed punter Ryan Allen as an undrafted free agent
Amendola never became the next Wes Welker and has had to take a pay cut in each of the past three offseasons, but he’s always been nails in clutch situations and has been arguably the Patriots’ best player in these playoffs. Harmon is a key part of the Patriots’ secondary and is in his second season as a team captain. Allen has earned high praise from punting superfan Bill Belichick on multiple occasions this season.
Drafted running back James White in the fourth round (130th)
Drafted offensive tackle Cameron Fleming in the fourth round (140th)
Signed cornerback Malcolm Butler as an undrafted free agent
Signed safety Patrick Chung as a free agent (second stint with Patriots)
Signed defensive tackle Alan Branch as a free agent
Signed running back Dion Lewis as a free agent
Butler and Chung form two-thirds of New England’s starting secondary, and Lewis established himself as one of the NFL’s top running backs over the second half of this season. His emergence diminished White’s role, but the Super Bowl LI hero proved he’s still a threat by scoring three touchdowns over the Patriots’ first two playoff games. Branch, one of the team’s defensive standouts in 2016, could be a healthy scratch in Super Bowl LII.
Drafted defensive tackle Malcom Brown in the first round (32nd)
Drafted safety Jordan Richards in the second round (64th)
Drafted defensive end Geneo Grissom in the third round (97th)
Drafted defensive end Trey Flowers in the fourth round (101st)
Drafted offensive tackle Shaq Mason in the fourth round (131st)
Drafted long snapper Joe Cardona in the fifth round (166th)
Signed center David Andrews as an undrafted free agent
Signed special teamer Brandon King as an undrafted free agent
Claimed offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle off waivers from the Detroit Lions
Richards and Grissom haven’t panned out, but Brown, Flowers and Mason all were hits, and Andrews was an excellent undrafted find.
Signed wide receiver Chris Hogan as a restricted free agent
Drafted guard Joe Thuney in the third round (78th)
Drafted linebacker Elandon Roberts in the sixth round (214th)
Drafted guard Ted Karras in the sixth round (221st)
Traded for cornerback Eric Rowe from the Philadelphia Eagles
Traded for linebacker Kyle Van Noy from the Lions
Stealing Hogan from the Buffalo Bills was a coup for the Patriots, though he did miss half of this season with a shoulder injury. The Pats got Van Noy practically for nothing last November (a sixth-round pick for him and a seventh), and he’s become one of their most important defensive players. A good chunk of New England’s talented 2016 rookie class is stuck on injured reserve (see below), but Thuney and Roberts play prominent roles on offense and defense, respectively.
Traded for tight end Dwayne Allen from the Indianapolis Colts
Signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore as a free agent
Traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints
Signed defensive tackle Lawrence Guy as a free agent
Signed running back Rex Burkhead as a free agent
Signed running back Mike Gillislee as a restricted free agent
Drafted defensive end Deatrich Wise in the fourth round (131st)
Signed tight end Jacob Hollister as an undrafted free agent
Signed offensive tackle Cole Croston as an undrafted free agent
Signed defensive end Adam Butler as an undrafted free agent
Signed linebacker David Harris as a free agent
Traded for linebacker Marquis Flowers from the Cincinnati Bengals
Traded for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett from the Colts
Traded for cornerback Johnson Bademosi from the Lions
Signed quarterback Brian Hoyer as a free agent (second stint with Patriots)
Signed defensive end Eric Lee off the Bills’ practice squad
Signed linebacker Nicholas Grigsby off the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad
Signed wide receiver Kenny Britt as a free agent
Re-signed defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois (second stint with Patriots)
Signed linebacker James Harrison as a free agent
The Patriots certainly were busy in 2017, with 20 of their 53 active players joining the team within the last calendar year. And just one of those players (Wise) arrived via the draft. The best finds on this list: Gilmore, Cooks, Guy, Burkhead, Flowers, Jean Francois and Harrison.
Re-signed wide receiver Bernard Reedy (second stint with Patriots)
A return specialist, Reedy won’t see the field in Super Bowl LII unless Amendola gets injured before the game.
Currently on injured reserve: wide receiver Julian Edelman, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, linebacker Shea McClellin, cornerback Cyrus Jones, tight end Martellus Bennett, special teamer Nate Ebner, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, cornerback Jonathan Jones, defensive end Derek Rivers, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images