One of the invaluable, never-to-be-repeated aspects of Bill Belichick’s reign of brilliance? The opportunity to observe a franchise over almost a quarter-century and know that one variable -- Belichick -- remains a constant.
The rules change. The players change. The business of the NFL changes. The regimes around the league turn over repeatedly. But because the Patriots have been ostensibly run by one man, we can chart how he’s reacted and adapted to the changing climates locally and "globally" to factors the rest of the league imposes on him.
Like a tree, the Patriots have rings. You can chart the climate during a season by how wide or narrow those were.
They are an NFL archaeological site. You can unearth, say, a shard of a plate like the Greg Spires release in September of 2001. From that artifact you can see the evolution of the game. The Patriots didn’t need him because they wanted to go to a specific defense.
Tampa signed him to play in their style and Spires wound up being valuable there in the Tampa-2. The Bucs won a Super Bowl in 2002. The Patriots won in 2001, 2003 and 2004. How did Belichick view the game then? What kind of player had value? You can track it.
Same with all of their drafts. Why do we incessantly reference them and reflexively know which were the high-yield or low-yield years? Because the same guy is in charge. We can learn by looking back in a way you can’t with any other franchise because all of them have turned over their leadership, most repeatedly.
The Patriots' great drafts set them up for sustained success. The lean draft years meant they had to procure talent in other ways. There’s been a lot of lean recently, enough so that owner Robert Kraft has public voiced mild dissatisfaction in consecutive years. But 2021 was a seemingly good year. A fat ring on the tree.
New England Patriots
What might that lead to? And can Belichick’s past drafts be ranked using some kind of measurable? Why not? It’s 2022. The world’s at our fingertips.
I ranked the Patriots drafts by going to Pro Football Reference and adding up the career "weighted approximate value" of every player the Patriots drafted since 2000. I don’t even want to get into how they come up with the numbers. You can if you like.
All I know is that the seasonal AV for players tracks consistently. For instance, Mac Jones’ rookie season was a 14. Tom Brady’s 2021 was a 16. Brady’s 2007 season was a 23. Gold standard. Jakobi Meyers was a nine last year; Nelson Agholor was a five. Checks out.
Two caveats to bear in mind: I didn’t exclude non-Patriot seasons from players who went on to do well elsewhere, like Chandler Jones (56 AV in six seasons with Arizona; 32 AV in four seasons here). I’m not including the 2020 and 2021 drafts because those guys are just starting and obviously have tiny career AVs so far.
And, obviously, undrafted guys who came in and made big impacts (Malcolm Butler, 30 AV in three seasons; J.C. Jackson, 24 AV in four seasons) don’t get credited in draft scores.
Here are the best drafts in descending order using combined career AV for the draft class.
1. 2003 (264 combined career AV)
The big numbers came from fourth-round picks Dan Koppen (82) and Asante Samuel (74). First-round pick Ty Warren was a 45 while Eugene Wilson was a 29 and seventh-rounder Tully Banta-Cain was a 22.
2. 2010 (254)
Second-rounder Rob Gronkowski put up a 78 and first-rounder Devin McCourty is a 68. Ted Larsen, who never played here, put up a 36 as a guard with the Bucs. Brandon Spikes was a 25 and Aaron Hernandez was a 21 from 2010 through 2012.
3. 2005 (239)
First-rounder Logan Mankins had the highest career AV of any player not named Brady with 102. Seventh-rounder Matt Cassel had a 47 over his 14 seasons. Nick Kaczur (37), Ellis Hobbs (28) and James Sanders (25) also put up numbers.
4. 2000 (238)
Tom Brady has the highest AV in NFL history with 184. Other than that, the 2000 class got 18 from fourth-rounder Greg Robinson-Randall and 10 each from second-rounder Adrian Klemm and seventh-rounder Patrick Pass.
5. 2009 (208)
Big chip-in from seventh-rounder Julian Edelman (61). Second-rounder Sebastian Vollmer brought in 52, Patrick Chung was a 38 (though we know that shoulda been higher), Darius Butler was a 22 and Brandon Tate was a 16.
6. 2001 (191)
The Patriots got two of their biggest scores in one draft right here: 91 for Richard Seymour and 89 from Matt Light. The five highest AVs came in ’00 (Brady), ’01 (Light and Seymour), ’04 (Vince Wilfork) and ’05 (Mankins).
7. 2012 (177)
Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower put up 73 and 65 combined (so far). Both were first-rounders. Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard chipped in 19 and 11.
8. 2011 (166)
First-rounder Nate Solder is a 64. Marcus Cannon is a 42. Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley were both 25.
9. 2016 (159)
Joe Thuney is a 48 so far, while Jacoby Brissett has gone elsewhere to amass his 24. Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras are 34 and 25 respectively while Kamu Grugier-Hill has 18 since moving on from New England.
10. 2015 (141)
First-rounder Malcom Brown puts up a surprising 43 (29 in four seasons here) and Shaq Mason gets credit for the same, though his number ought to be higher. Trey Flowers is a 34; second-rounder Jordan Richards was a 10.
11. 2004 (138)
First-rounders Wilfork and Benjamin Watson bring in 90 and 40, respectively. Those would be hits in an otherwise quiet draft.
12. 2013 (131)
This is where the leaner seasons began. As you saw with the aforementioned 2015 and 2016 drafts and as you’ll see coming up, a lot of the higher-scoring seasons for those draftees came elsewhere. The Patriots had three decent players from this draft: Jamie Collins (58), Logan Ryan (39) and Duron Harmon (25).
13. 2014 (130)
Second-rounder James Garoppolo is a 40 (37 with the Niners). James White is a 37. Cameron Fleming is a 25. Star-crossed Bryan Stork was a 10.
14. 2006 (123)
Special-teamers get short shrift on these AVs with Stephen Gostkowski’s 37 being real light. Jeremy Mincey put up 29 (mostly elsewhere) and Laurence Maroney was a 26. Second-rounder Chad Jackson was a 2.
15. 2002 (121)
This was just a six-man class and it was led by the 52 from second-rounder Deion Branch. Fourth-rounder Jarvis Green was a 28 while first-rounders Daniel Graham and David Givens were both 22s. So a lot of bang from the group.
16. 2018 (77)
The huge dropoff in total points is explained in part by the fact these guys are just getting going, but also because they are mainly just OK at best. First-rounder Isaiah Wynn is a 16 through four injury-marred years. Sony Michel’s been a 21 so far. Ja’Whaun Bentley is a 20. The 3 that second-rounder Duke Dawson compiled all happened elsewhere. Same with Braxton Berrios’ 9.
17. 2008 (62)
This number would be waaaaayyyyy higher if the special teams contributions were weighted at all. Matthew Slater is at 0 AV. Should be about 60. That’s a glitch in the system. Jerod Mayo is a 51 and Jonathan Wilhite is a 10.
18. 2019 (54)
Like 2018, this low score can’t all be chalked up to players being young. This was a 10-pick draft! First-rounder N’Keal Harry contributed 6 (1, 3, 2 from 2019-2021). Chase Winovich (10) and Damien Harris (13) are the only players over 10 so far.
Joejuan Williams, Yodny Cajuste, Hjalte Froholdt and Jarrett Stidham have combined to put up 6. Six. From four guys. In 12 total seasons.
19. 2007 (50)
First-rounder Brandon Meriweather was a 33. The Patriots didn’t pick again until Round 4. (The Randy Moss and Wes Welker deals meant fewer picks.) None of the seven players drafted in the last three rounds put up AV in New England. So low-scoring, but explicable.
20. 2020 (34)
Just to give an idea of where this encouraging group is so far. Michael Onwenu is a 12 and Kyle Dugger is a 9 to date.
21. 2017 (29)
The Patriots only had four picks. The league confiscated their first-rounder. The only scorer of note is Deatrich Wise (22). Conor McDermott, Antonio Garcia and Derek Rivers combined for 5.
22. 2021 (22)
Mac Jones had his 14. Christian Barmore was a 3 (probably because of the lack of starts) and Rhamondre Stevenson was a 5. We’ll see if this eight-pick class is able to get to triple-digits. It should.