New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke with reporters for more than 30 minutes Wednesday. One of his more notable comments focused on the NFL draft.
Not the 2021 NFL Draft, during which the Patriots could look to land their quarterback of the future, but New England’s recent drafts, which Kraft admitted have not been up to par.
“In the end, if you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency,” the Patriots owner said in a conference call. “You have to do it through the draft, because that’s when you’re able to get people of great talent — whether it’s Willie McGinest or Tom Brady — you get them at a price where you can build a team and be competitive. Once they get to their (second) contract, if they’re superstars, you can only balance so many of them.
“So really, the teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good. I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years, and I really hope — and I believe — I’ve seen a different approach this year.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been one of the NFL’s best drafters over the course of his 21-year tenure. Of the 27 players selected to New England’s 2010s All-Decade Team last fall, 20 either were drafted by the team or signed as undrafted free agents. In totality, Belichick’s draft hits far outweigh his misses.
Recently, though, the Patriots have struggled to draft and develop the young, affordable talent necessary for sustained success in the NFL.
Of the 10 players the Patriots drafted in the first three rounds between 2017 and 2019, three no longer are with the team (Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Duke Dawson) and another has yet to play an NFL snap (Yodny Cajuste).
2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry reportedly is on the trade block after two disappointing seasons. 2018 first-rounders Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel have struggled to stay healthy. Joejuan Williams (2019 second) has floated near the bottom of the depth chart for two seasons. Damien Harris (2019 third) showed great potential in 2020 but missed six games with injuries.
Chase Winovich (2019 third) has made the greatest impact thus far, but his playing time fluctuated wildly last season. And though the Patriots seem to have found multiple impact players in the 2020 draft (Mike Onwenu, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche), they showed how they felt about third-rounders Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene when they signed the two best veteran tight ends on the market (Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith) earlier this month.
After fielding a younger, less experienced roster last season and finishing 7-9, their worst record since 2000, the Patriots have been uncharacteristically aggressive this offseason. To date, they’ve signed 13 external free agents and acquired another via trade, handing out upward of $145 million in guaranteed money to that group. They’ve also managed to re-sign many of their own free agents, including David Andrews, James White, Lawrence Guy and Cam Newton.
Kraft pointed to the Patriots’ abundance of salary cap space (the third-most in the NFL entering free agency), recent lack of draft success and motivation to quickly return to contention as the driving forces of their spending spree.
“What happened here last year was not something to our liking, and we had to make the corrections and do the things (that we did),” Kraft said. “In all businesses we?re involved in, we try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the market — in the paper business, in anything. We were in a unique cap situation this coming year going forward, and it allowed us to try things.
“We missed to a certain extent in the draft, so this was our best opportunity. I don?t ever think the market over the next 10 years will be like this, unless, God forbid, there?s another pandemic. We lost $4 billion of revenue last year, and the cap went down. That hasn?t really happened since I bought the team, and we just happened to be in a unique situation.”
With nearly all of their glaring roster holes filled by incoming veterans, the Patriots enter this year’s draft with the freedom to select the best available player who falls to them or engineer a move up the draft board for a premier quarterback prospect. They currently own the 15th overall pick, and the top five QBs (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones) all are likely to go in the top 10.
The Patriots have drafted in the top 20 just four times in the Belichick era but hit on all four picks, landing Mayo, Nate Solder (No. 17, 2011), Ty Warren (No. 13, 2003) and Richard Seymour (No. 6, 2001).