Let’s run some numbers on the 2018 NFL Draft, an event that has come to define this year’s playoffs, and how they relate to the Patriots.
New England had two first-round picks in the 2018 draft. There were five quarterbacks selected in that first round, and the Patriots didn’t take one until the seventh round. Three of those five quarterbacks drafted in the first round are still playing in the 2020 postseason. The Patriots did not make the playoffs this year.
The Patriots were expected to take their bi-annual shot at selecting the quarterback of the future in April of 2018.
They had traded backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a second-round pick on Halloween 2017, leaving the team with a 40-year-old Tom Brady and veteran backup Brian Hoyer. Brady was set to hit free agency in two years with suddenly no clear succession plan.
The Patriots had taken Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft and traded him. They had taken Jacoby Brissett in the third round of the 2016 draft and traded him, as well.
The Patriots were connected to quarterbacks all over the board from Baker Mayfield, who wound up going first overall, to Chad Kanoff, who went undrafted, in 2018.
The Patriots showed pre-draft interest in Mayfield, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson, all of whom went in the first round, and they had the ammunition needed with two first-round picks, one of which was acquired by trading wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams, to move up.
The Patriots wound up staying put and taking left tackle Isaiah Wynn 23rd overall and running back Sony Michel 31st overall. They didn’t select a quarterback until the seventh round when they drafted LSU’s Danny Etling (who briefly moved to wide receiver one year later). They traded that second-round pick they received for Garoppolo so many times that there’s no longer a direct, clean line connecting him to a draft haul.
The Patriots drafted cornerback Duke Dawson in the second round after multiple trades then waited until the fifth round to take their next player, linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. They selected linebacker Christian Sam and wide receiver Braxton Berrios in the sixth round, and Etling, cornerback Keion Crossen and tight end Ryan Izzo in the seventh round. Their best find of the year was undrafted free agent cornerback JC Jackson. They also signed punter Corey Bojorquez, who now stars for the Buffalo Bills, after the draft.
The Patriots also made four savvy trades to acquire veteran players. They shipped their third-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for offensive tackle Trent Brown (plus a fifth-round pick), a 2019 third-round pick for defensive tackle Danny Shelton (plus a 2018 fifth-round pick), a fifth-round pick for wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (plus a sixth-round pick) and a sixth-round pick for cornerback Jason McCourty )plus a seventh-round pick).
The Patriots, as you likely remember, wound up winning Super Bowl LIII with major contributions from Michel, Brown, Shelton, Patterson and McCourty. They set themselves up well to win their sixth Super Bowl and third in five seasons. Teams should technically only win the Super Bowl every 32 years, and what the Patriots accomplished in the 2018 NFL Draft helped them win a ring.
If that is all that matters to you, and it’s completely understandable if that’s the case, then you might want to stop reading here before we get into matters of revisionist history.
MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACKING
It would have been extremely difficult to trade up to No. 1 overall to acquire Mayfield, whose Cleveland Browns are still in the postseason. The Patriots would have needed to not only trade their two first-round picks but probably also at least one future first-round pick and additional selections. It’s debatable whether Mayfield was even worth the first overall pick since the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, both of whom also are still in the postseason, have outplayed him. The Patriots dodged a bullet by not trading up for Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen. The Bills moved up for Allen, sending the 12th, 53rd and 56th overall picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to move up and take their quarterback of the future.
Using this trade value chart, that trade was worth 1,910 points. The seventh overall pick was worth 1,500 points. So, the Bills wound up overpaying a bit (in a deal that has worked out wonderfully) to acquire Allen. To gather 1,910 points, the Patriots would have had to trade the 23rd, 31st, 43rd and 95th overall picks. That’s Wynn, Michel, Brown, and that second-round pick acquired for Garoppolo, which turned into all or some of Dawson, Sam, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris, Yodny Cajuste, Jarrett Stidham, Byron Cowart and Dalton Keene.
In a vacuum, you absolutely trade that package for Allen. But the Patriots won a Super Bowl with Michel and Brown, and they probably would not have won a ring without their starting running back AND left tackle.
The Patriots did have a shot at Jackson, however, who went 32nd overall, right after New England had taken Wynn and Michel.
Wynn was a head-scratching pick at the time because most assumed he would play guard in the NFL. He looks like the Patriots’ left tackle of the future, but after missing 16 games as a rookie, eight in 2019 and six more in 2020, he’s only been on the field for 37.5 percent of his possible career games. His weighted career approximate value, a Pro Football Reference metric, of 7 is third-lowest in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft just above Rosen and Seattle Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny. Wide receivers D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley went 24th and 26th overall, respectively.
The Patriots took Michel 31st overall, adding the rookie running back to a positional group that already included Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill. They lost Dion Lewis in free agency and wound up cutting Gillislee. Hill suffered a torn ACL in the Patriots’ first game of the season. The Patriots got so shallow at running back during the course of the 2018 season that Patterson wound up having to be moved from wide receiver to play in the backfield. The Patriots needed a running back like Michel.
And Michel helped the Patriots win Super Bowl LIII. There’s a debate whether a running back selected later or signed after the draft could have done the same, however.
Michel carried the ball 209 times for 931 yards with six touchdowns and caught seven passes for 50 yards in the regular season then added 71 carries for 336 yards with six touchdowns and a 9-yard catch in the postseason.
We took a look at Michel’s game-by-game EPA, or expected points added, to see how much value he provided the Patriots on plays when he ran the ball or was targeted out of the backfield. We gathered these stats from rbsdm.com, and yes, we do see the irony in determining a running back’s value using a site called Running Backs Don’t Matter.
Week 2 at Jacksonville Jaguars: L 31-20 / -4.2 EPA
Week 3 at Detroit Lions: L 26-10 / -5.9 EPA
Week 4 vs. Miami Dolphins: W 38-7 / -1.3 EPA
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis Colts: W 38-24 / 2.9 EPA
Week 6 vs. Kansas City Chiefs: W 43-40 / 3 EPA
Week 7 at Chicago Bears: W 38-31 / -3 EPA
Week 10 at Tennessee Titans: L 34-10 / -2 EPA
Week 12 at New York Jets: W 27-13 / 4.7 EPA
Week 13 vs. Minnesota Vikings: W 24-10 / -1.9 EPA
Week 14 at Miami Dolphins: L 34-33 / -3.5 EPA
Week 15 at Pittsburgh Steelers: L 17-10 / -2.4 EPA
Week 16 vs. Buffalo Bills: W 24-12 / 3 EPA
Week 17 vs. New York Jets: W 38-3 / -3.4 EPA
Divisional vs. Los Angeles Chargers: W 41-28 / 3.6 EPA
AFC Championship at Kansas City Chiefs: W 37-31 / 2.4 EPA
Super Bowl vs. Los Angeles Rams: W 13-3 / .7 EPA
The Patriots won all three games Michel missed against the Houston Texans, Bills and Green Bay Packers.
Michel’s value ultimately did not make a difference in 14 of his 16 games during the 2018 season. The Patriots’ Week 6 win over the Kansas City Chiefs is interesting, however, since New England won by three points, which was exactly Michel’s EPA. Subtract those three points, and you’ve got a tie. Add in a running back who could have produced at least 1 EPA, however, and it’s back to being a win for the Patriots. That’s no guarantee.
The Week 14 loss to the Miami Dolphins is more definitive. The Patriots lost by 1 point, and Michel produced a -3.5 EPA in that performance. Take out Michel and put in a different running back, and the Patriots might lose to the Chiefs, beat the Dolphins and still finish 11-5.
Michel ranked 26th out of 47 qualified running backs in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric at -2.7 percent. Undrafted rookies Gus Edwards and Phillip Lindsay, second-round picks Nick Chubb and Kerryon Johnson, and free agents Mike Davis, Frank Gore and Isaiah Crowell all finished with a higher DVOA.
Michel benefitted greatly from fullback James Develin and a strong offensive line while largely taking what was given to him as a rookie. Michel finished 29th out of 50 running backs in rush yards after contact rate. He was 12th of 19 qualified running backs in rush yards after contact rate in the playoffs.
Jackson, one of the best current quarterbacks in the NFL, went one pick after Michel and would have solved the Patriots’ questions at the position in the future. Chubb, linebacker Darius Leonard and wide receiver Courtland Sutton all went within 10 picks of Michel. Tight ends Mike Gesicki and Dallas Goedert were taken in the second round.
The Patriots’ 2018 NFL Draft haul would look much better on paper if they had taken Ridley 23rd and Jackson 31st. If they didn’t trade the 43rd overall pick, they could have taken Goedert, but they might not have wound up with Dawson, Sam, Williams, Harris, Cajuste, Stidham, Cowart or Keene. Dawson and Sam are no longer with the Patriots. Cajuste has yet to make his NFL debut. The Patriots have received minimal contributions from Williams, Stidham and Keene. Harris was a nice find though he’s slightly redundant with Michel. Cowart was a starter in 2020.
But the Patriots also might not have won Super Bowl LIII without Michel. On the other hand, Lindsay and Edwards have been more valuable running backs through three seasons as undrafted free agents. There’s a strong case to make that the Patriots could have won a Super Bowl with a different running back than Michel.
Edwards should have been on the Patriots’ radar after his senior season at Rutgers. Edwards actually began his college career at Miami. The Patriots have wound up with a fairly incredible amount of Edwards’ former Hurricanes teammates, including but possibly not limited to Phillip Dorsett, Asante Cleveland, Ufomba Kamalu, Braxton Berrios, Trent Harris, Michael Jackson, Michael Pinckney, Tyler Gauthier and Tyree St. Louis. So, the mid-2010s Miami teams definitely were on the Patriots’ radar.
The Patriots would be better set up for the future if they had drafted differently in 2018; they won a Super Bowl with what they wound up with that spring.
There’s a fine line to draw where the Patriots could have picked better at the top of the draft while still acquiring Brown, Shelton, Patterson, and McCourty, winning a Super Bowl and setting themselves up better by taking Moore, Ridley, Jackson, Chubb, Leonard or Gesicki.
It’s a fascinating and future-defining draft for the Patriots and the entire NFL. If the Patriots can still find their quarterback of the future this offseason, then there will be fewer regrets over what unfolded in 2018. If there are more seasons like 2020, when they finished 7-9, then thoughts about that 2018 class will linger in New England.
There isn’t really a satisfactory conclusion to how the Patriots should have handled the 2018 draft. Wynn could still be the left tackle of the future. Michel wasn’t worth a first-round pick to this point in his career, but he also helped win a Super Bowl. Who knows if the Patriots could have made up for that Super Bowl in the future by drafting Jackson.
In a year where the Patriots clearly needed a quarterback, however, it’s tough that they didn’t wind up with the three passers who are still leading their teams in the postseason.