During a half-hour conference call with reporters on March 31, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft admitted something that had become obvious to fans of his team.
The Patriots had whiffed on far too many draft picks in recent years, and those misses had drained their roster of high-end homegrown talent.
“In the end, if you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency,” Kraft said. “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.”
One month later, Bill Belichick and his brain trust put that new approach — which reportedly was more “collaborative” between Belichick and lieutenants Dave Ziegler, Eliot Wolf, Matt Groh and Matt Patricia — into practice. The Patriots selected eight players in the 2021 NFL Draft, including their first first-round quarterback since Drew Bledsoe in 1993.
The results? Well, half a season isn’t long enough to comprehensively evaluate a draft class. But so far, they’ve been overwhelmingly positive.
Top pick Mac Jones is putting together one of the best statistical seasons ever by a rookie QB, decisively outperforming his fellow first-year signal-callers as he makes a strong push for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Second-rounder Christian Barmore quickly has become a disruptive force for the Patriots’ defense, seeing more playing time than any Pats D-lineman during the team’s current four-game win streak. And fourth-rounder Rhamondre Stevenson, who rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’ 45-7 pasting of the Cleveland Browns, has looked like a future franchise running back, albeit in a smaller sample size.
Third-round selection Ronnie Perkins has yet to play a snap, but this was expected to be a pseudo-redshirt season for him as he transitions from defensive end to outside linebacker. He showed promise in the preseason and should compete for a role in 2022, as should fifth-rounder Cameron McGrone, an athletic linebacker whose draft stock tanked after he tore his ACL last November.
But even if Perkins and McGrone never pan out, the Patriots appear to have hit home runs with three of their top four picks, making this a potentially transformative draft class for a franchise that badly needed one.
New England was able to land at least two starting-caliber players last year in second-round safety Kyle Dugger and sixth-round offensive lineman Mike Ownenu (the jury’s still out on second-round linebacker Josh Uche, and their third-rounders aren’t looking promising). But here are the players they selected in Rounds 1 through 3 from 2015 to 2019:
WR N’Keal Harry (first, 2019)
CB Joejuan Williams (second, 2019)
OLB Chase Winovich (third, 2019)
RB Damien Harris (third, 2019)
OT Yodny Cajuste (third, 2019)
OT Isaiah Wynn (first, 2018)
RB Sony Michel (first, 2018)
CB Duke Dawson (second, 2018)
DE Derek Rivers (third, 2017)
OT Antonio Garcia (third, 2017)
CB Cyrus Jones (second, 2016)
G Joe Thuney (third, 2016)
QB Jacoby Brissett (third, 2016)
DT Vincent Valentine (third, 2016)
DT Malcom Brown (first, 2015)
S Jordan Richards (second, 2015)
DE Geneo Grissom (third, 2015)
How many definitive, unequivocal hits do you see on that list?
Certainly Thuney, who started every game for New England over five seasons before leaving for a big-money contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. Harris, too, though he’s had trouble with injuries. Brown is borderline. Michel was an important piece on a Super Bowl team but was traded before the end of his rookie contract. Wynn had his fifth-year option picked up but has missed 31 games in four seasons. Winovich has yet to carve out a consistent role.
The Patriots had some solid-or-better finds in later rounds (Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason, Deatrich Wise, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Ted Karras, Jake Bailey) and in undrafted free agency (David Andrews, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Adam Butler, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski) those years, but the bill for their high-profile misses finally came due in the twilight of the Tom Brady era.
Since so many of those draftees hadn’t developed into quality players, New England’s roster simply lacked talent in 2019 and 2020 — a fact both Kraft and Belichick have acknowledged. That was a key contributing factor in the team’s pair of disappointing finishes and precipitated its massive free-agent spending spree this past offseason.
Veteran imports like Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, Kyle Van Noy, Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux and Trent Brown have and will continue to play vital roles for a 2021 Patriots squad that suddenly looks like an AFC contender. But, as Kraft said, teams breed long-term success by drafting well.
That’s what the Patriots did for the first decade-and-a-half of the Belichick era. This year looks like a return to form.