Patriots' Best and Worst Draft Picks of the Last Decade
The Patriots have maintained their dominance with salary-cap discipline, free-agency frugality and maximizing value on every single draft pick they make. Bill Belichick understands that the draft is a crapshoot, and the only way to mitigate risk is to make a lot of selections that target player fit, not team need.
Despite struggling to find long-term starters in the draft from 2006-2009, the Patriots had a draft resurgence from 2010-2013. In the last four drafts, the Pats have taken 13 players who project to significant roles this upcoming season.
Over the last decade, the Pats have had their fair share of draft hits and misses. Here are the five best and five worst.
Fifth Worst: Jermaine Cunningham
Drafted: 2010, 53rd overall
Key Stats: 14 Patriots starts, 3.5 sacks
The Patriots were desperate for an impact edge player after 2009's first-round exit that saw them unable to generate consistent pass-rush pressure on the quarterback.
Jermaine Cunningham was tasked with being the answer, as the Patriots were in a full defensive rebuilding mode from the dynasty defense that gave them three Super Bowls and an undefeated season in the 2000s.
Cunningham showed some promise in his rookie season, playing defensive end and outside linebacker, but from there, his Patriots career disappointed. He almost rebounded in 2012, sliding to an interior pass-rusher role, but that momentum was derailed when he was suspended for PED use late in the season.
He'd never get out of Bill Belichick's doghouse after that and was unceremoniously cut in the 2013 preseason.
What's even more frustrating about Cunningham is that the Patriots took him before his Florida teammate Carlos Dunlap, who was, by all other accounts, the far better player. Dunlap went on to shine for the Cincinnati Bengals, leaving Patriots fans to imagine what might've been.
Fifth Best: Chandler Jones
Drafted: 2012, 21st overall
Key Stats: 29 games started, 17.5 sacks
The Patriots shocked just about everyone when they traded up to take defensive end Chandler Jones, a late-rising prospect that Mike Mayock said could potentially be the best player to come out of the 2012 draft.
Jones immediately became an every-down defensive end for the Pats, showing impressive strength and athleticism from his first preseason game. Jones would elevate his game in 2013, racking up 13 sacks to lead the Patriots while playing almost every defensive snap.
Jones is just scratching the surface of his potential and looks to be a firm building block with a bright future in New England.
Fourth Worst: Ron Brace
Drafted: 2009, 40th overall
Key Stats: 39 career games, 24 tackles
Ron Brace was selected in the second round of 2009 as the Patriots were going into full rebuilding mode on defense. Richard Seymour would soon be traded away, Jarvis Green was in his final season and Ty Warren would play just two more games after hitting an injury wall in 2010.
The opportunity was right for local product Brace to lead the next generation of front-seven dominance for the Pats, but he could never get healthy enough to make an impact. Brace would see time in 39 games over four seasons.
Whether it was the injuries or failed conditioning tests, Brace seemed to have a permanent home in Bill Belichick's doghouse. Despite his wide body and perfect two-gapping size, Brace never put it all together and was released near the end of the 2012 season.
Fourth Best: Jerod Mayo
Drafted: 2008, 10th overall
Key Stats: 79 career games started, 463 tackles
Jerod Mayo was another late-riser in the 2008 draft process, and the Patriots were able to trade down and still get him at 10th overall. Mayo immediately lived up to his lofty draft status, becoming an every-down linebacker and captain of the Patriots' defense for the past six seasons.
2013 saw Mayo's season end early, and the team missed his leadership and speed. If Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest were the cornerstones of the dynasty defense, Mayo has been the key figure of Belichick's second defense.
Mayo signed a five-year contract extension on top of his rookie deal in 2011. He's signed through 2017 and will be looking to bounce back after last season's injury. Initial reports are that he's looking good.
Third Worst: Terrence Wheatley
Drafted: 2008, 62nd overall
Key Stats: 11 games played
With Asante Samuel's departure in 2008, the Patriots needed to bolster their cornerbacks and took Wheatley near the end of the second round.
Compare Wheatley to this offseason's cornerback additions and there really is no comparison. For some reason, in the late-2000s the Patriots had a thing for undersized corners with great change-of-direction skills. But the game was headed in a different direction, where big corners who excel at the line of scrimmage were critical.
Wheatley had his injury issues coming out of Colorado, and they stuck with him in the pros.
Wheatley dressed as a reserve in six of the first seven games of his rookie season, getting his first start against the Indianapolis Colts. In that game, Wheatley sustained a wrist injury and was placed on injured reserve.
The following year he was active for just five games, all as a reserve.
Finally, a foot injury in the 2010 preseason once again set Wheatley back. He was active in Week 8 against the Minnesota Vikings but did not play a snap and was waived the following week, ending his Patriots career.
Third Best: Logan Mankins
Drafted: 2005, 32nd overall
Key Stats: 130 career games started
Logan Mankins was the Patriots' first draft pick after their last Super Bowl victory in 2005 and has been one of the NFL standard-bearers at guard ever since.
Praised as one of the toughest players in the game, Mankins played most of 2011 and all the way through the Super Bowl on a torn ACL. Mankins signed a six-year, $51 million contract extension that runs through 2016 after a somewhat contentious negotiation.
Mankins even slid over to left tackle to fill in for a concussed Nate Solder against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013.
Simply put, Mankins sets the tone up front for the Patriots. He's battled through injuries and has been everything the Patriots could've wanted from a long-term left guard that they selected with the final pick in the first round.
Second Worst: Ras-I Dowling
Drafted: 2011, 33rd overall
Key Stats: Eight games played
Ras-I Dowling was the first Day 2 selection of the 2011 NFL draft, a pick the Patriots certainly thought long and hard about and entertained trade offers for.
Dowling's size showed that the Pats wanted to move towards more press man in their coverages, but his lengthy injury history should've been more of a red flag. It was one that would come back to haunt them.
Despite missing time during his rookie year training camp with an injury, Dowling was a surprise starter in the season opener against the Miami Dolphins and flashed some physicality.
However, Dowling would injure his hip in Week 2 and ended up on injured reserve in a quick and disappointing end to his rookie year.
Dowling would once again get quality playing time in 2012's opener. He played 37 snaps in the opener against the Tennessee Titans but played less and less after that. He would tear his quad in Week 7 and once again be placed on injured reserve.
Dowling was cut at the end of training camp in 2013.
On paper it's easy to see why the Pats took Dowling, but he was one player who truly was injury prone. The fact that he was the first pick in the second round, giving the Pats plenty of time to consider him and many other players, is what makes him such a disappointment.
Second Best: Devin McCourty
Drafted: 2010, 27th overall
In 2008 and 2009, the Patriots secondary was a mess. They cycled through a group of journeymen free agents and rookies in an attempt to stop the bleeding, but no one stuck.
When the Pats took Devin McCourty in the first round of 2010, fans and pundits alike bemoaned that he wasn't an elite cornerback, that he was destined to only play special teams and would not be the answer to the Patriots' lack of talent at cornerback.
Instead, McCourty grabbed seven interceptions as a rookie and was named a second-team All Pro and to the Pro Bowl. In 2012, McCourty flirted with time at safety to help with an injury-depleted secondary, and in 2013, he made the permanent move to free safety.
It's no coincidence that McCourty's move to safety helped shore up the back end of the Patriots defense.
McCourty now enters the final year of his rookie deal and looks like a prime candidate for a long-term extension from the Pats.
Worst: Chad Jackson
Drafted: 2006, 36th overall
Key Stats: 14 games played, 13 catches
The Patriots drafted Chad Jackson at a time when they were turning over their passing attack and desperate for a new weapon on offense.
After the combine, Jackson looked like an athletic freak, with prototypical size and speed of a star X-receiver. However, hamstring problems got Jackson's career off on the wrong foot, and he never seemed to recover.
Jackson would finish his rookie season with 13 catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games. He would tear his ACL in the AFC Championship, once again setting him back and setting the stage for the Pats' 2007 offseason, where they would acquire Donte Stallworth, Wes Welker and Randy Moss.
Jackson would never catch another pass in New England.
No player has been more hyped or had higher preseason expectations than Chad Jackson, and the Patriots needed him even more once Deion Branch held out and was subsequently traded. Jackson's hamstring issues early on were unfortunate, but his inability to click with Tom Brady and master the offense only compounded the problems.
There's little debate that Jackson is the biggest draft disappointment of the last decade.
Best: Vince Wilfork
Drafted: 2004, 21st overall
Key Stats: 132 games started, five Pro Bowls
For the first few years of his career, Vince Wilfork was considered nothing more than a nose tackle—a running-down-only space-eater who would come off the field in passing situations. But around 2010, Wilfork morphed into an every-down player and Bill Belichick's primary defensive chess piece.
Belichick would not only use Wilfork on passing downs, but at any position on the defensive line to effectively discourage any attempts to run in Wilfork's attention.
From 2010-2012, there might not have been a better all-around defensive lineman than Vince Wilfork. He missed just six games in his first nine seasons before his first major injury in 2013 caused him to miss the majority of the season.
The Patriots and Wilfork were able to figure out a way to redo his contract this offseason, essentially putting the 32-year-old on a "prove it" deal this coming season.
Wilfork is a uniquely gifted athlete, and if there's anyone who can come back from a major injury and prove all his doubters wrong, it's him.
The Pats were lucky to get by without Wilfork in 2013. There's little question that he has been the heart and soul of the Patriots defense through their transition from the dynasty days. For that reason alone, he's their best draft pick of the last decade.