Recently, John Czarnecki of Fox Sports graded team's draft efforts from 2003 to 2008, and gave the Patriots the only A+. This came on the heels of a mathematically correct but horribly shortsighted Forbes.com article that noted the Patriots had the lowest percentage of draft picks from the last three years still on the roster. That article penalized the Patriots for having several late draft picks when they were already incredibly well-stocked with talent in 2007.
Needless to say, most NFL analysts would agree with the latter sentiment more than the former. Surprisingly, though, both of these articles miss some of the key moves the Patriots have made to make themselves so good over the last 10 years.
Honorable Mention: Undrafted Free Agents
A little-known secret of the Patriots' success is their ability to find talent among undrafted free agents. Nearly every year, at least one UDFA makes the opening-day roster. In 2008, that honor went to Gary Guyton, a linebacker from Georgia Tech, who was active for all but one game; his playing time earned him a $200,000 bonus from the NFL (not a bad chunk of change for a player earning just over $300,000 for the season).
Similarly, BenJarvus Green-Ellis came in and stabilized the running back position when it was overwhelmed by injuries (with Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and former Patriot LaMont Jordan all on the sidelines), scoring five touchdowns in a six-game span.
The two biggest UDFAs for the Patriots have been two linemen, Stephen Neal and Mike Wright. Neal, a wrestler at Cal State-Bakersfield, never played collegiate football but did beat Brock Lesnar for the NCAA heavyweight crown. Since 2003, he's been a stalwart of the offensive line. Wright, who came out of Cincinnati and can play any position on the defensive line, was recently resigned to a four-year deal that could pay him over $10 million.
5. Trading a first-rounder to San Francisco in 2007
When Deion Branch held out in 2006, the Patriots were able to trade him to Seattle for a first-round draft pick in 2007. They used that pick, 24th overall, to draft Brandon Meriweather (who, ironically, was the hero of the Patriots' 2008 game in Seattle). They then traded their own first, 28th overall, to the San Francisco 49ers for the Niners' fourth-round draft pick in 2007 and their first in 2008.
Clearly, the Niners, who drafted Joe Staley, saw him as the missing piece they needed—as did many draftniks, who predicted the Niners as a playoff team.
Fortunately for the Patriots, the Niners were very, very wrong. The Patriots, who at one point might have ended up with the third pick in the draft, ended up with the No. 7 pick in the 2008 draft.
The Patriots then traded the No. 7 pick to New Orleans, for the Saints' first and third-round picks. With the third-rounder they took Shawn Crable, and with the first they selected Jerod Mayo, the near-unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year.
And what happened to that fourth-rounder in 2007? That, of course, was traded to the Oakland Raiders for Randy Moss, whose career was reborn after Moss traded Oakland's black for New England's navy blue.
4. Trading a seventh-rounder to Miami in 2007
Well before the draft, the Patriots traded second- and seventh-round draft picks to the Miami Dolphins for wide receiver Wes Welker. What makes the seventh-round pick so interesting is that the Patriots, had they wanted to, could have signed Welker, then a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet that the Dolphins could not have matched and would have required only a second-round draft pick in return.
But, by adding in an extra pick, one which almost certainly would not have made the roster, the Patriots avoided unnecessary enmity, and landed a player that Belichick had been drooling over for years.
Some people might also wonder why the Patriots gladly gave up a second for Welker, but were able to finagle Moss for just a fourth. It's simple, really: with Moss, there was still a certain amount of risk of an epic meltdown. With Welker, there wasn't any question of whether it would work; only of how spectacular the fit would be.
Given the number of teams trying to find their own Welkers, I'd say that fit is nearly perfect.
3. Drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000
As more than one Patriots beat writer has said, "He's pretty good." The NFL Network declared Brady the greatest "steal" in the history of the draft.
Fortunately for the Patriots, when they were deciding between Tom Brady and Tim Rattay with this pick, they trusted their quarterback coach. The late Dick Rehbein advocated for Brady, and the rest is history.
So, how can Brady possibly be only the third best pick of the decade? Read on.
2: Drafting Matt Cassel in the seventh round in 2005
At this point, you might think I'm crazy. How could Matt Cassel be a better pick than Brady?
It's simple. The Brady pick represents skill aided by a ton of luck. Even the Patriots admit that they had Brady at the top of their draft board well before they got around to selecting him.
Drafting Cassel, however, was entirely about recognizing talent, and using the draft to their advantage.
After Cassel finished his career as a backup at USC, about all he could look forward to was signing on with a team as a UDFA. His former offensive coordinator Norm Chow had talked to him about joining the Tennessee Titans, while his teammate Carson Palmer wanted him to join the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Patriots, however, had other ideas.
When they saw what little game tape was available, they saw a quarterback with all the physical and mental tools needed to be successful in their system after a year or two of grooming. They also saw a quarterback no other team would be willing to "waste" a draft pick on, so they were able to draft him in the seventh round with the 230th pick.
Even if he had never started a single game for the Patriots, this would have been a fantastic pick.
While some teams have struggled for years just to find a single quality starter, let alone a competent backup, the Patriots, for a seventh-round salary, found a quarterback good enough that they didn't have to worry about the backup position for three years.
In 2006, in fact, Cassel was Brady's only backup when the season began. (And, by the way, this should help dispel the myth that Cassel was in danger of being cut before the 2008 season began—no one in Foxboro felt that way, least of all Cassel's coaches.)
The fact that Cassel did get the chance to start, and played well enough to keep the Patriots in the playoff hunt all season long, and then netted them a second-round pick in this year's draft, just makes it all the sweeter. (And it also cost Denver Jay Cutler, which at this point is icing on the cake.)
No. 1: Trading a first-round pick to the New York Jets in 2000
And, finally, the draft pick that a lot of people forget. Who did Robert Kraft get when the Patriots traded their first-rounder in 2000? The "failed" former head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Bill Belichick. Need I say more?