Economics 101: Why New England Patriots Drafts Are Such Mysteries

Samer IsmailAnalyst IIApril 24, 2009

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 09:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots encourages the offense in the fourth quarter against the Buffalo Bills on November 9, 2008 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills 20-10.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

If there is one constant about the plethora of mock drafts out there, it's that the vast majority of them will get draft picks for the New England Patriots wrong.

In fact, sometimes they're hilariously wrong.

The good news is that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has revealed the Patriots' philosophy regarding the draft.

The bad news is, even if you do understand how the Patriots approach the draft, the best you can do is make an educated guess as to what the Patriots will do.

So, what is the Patriot Way?

To quote Belichick's recent press conference:

Q: "This will be a successful draft if we—

BB: "Improve our team."

It sounds really silly when you first hear it, but that is the Patriots' paramount goal. Not "get the best rookies we can."

Not "fill our needs." Simply "improve our team."

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So, how do they determine if they've improved? There's a very simple economics concept that gives the answer. There is one major drawback associated with it, though, which I'll address later.

That concept is utility, which Webster's simply defines as "fitness for some purpose or worth to some end." In the context of the NFL, it's what the player brings to the team.

The Patriots' goal is to get as much utility out of each pick as possible. Here are some examples of how that has affected the roster in the past, and how it might play out this year:

1. Who will the Patriots select in the first round?

Obviously, the more talented the player, the more overall utility that player adds. On the other hand, that utility comes at two costs.

First, there is the salary associated with picking that player. The higher the pick, the greater the cost. At some point, the cost of adding that player outweighs the utility that player provides.

For example, even though the Patriots don't currently have a fullback on the roster, there really isn't much sense in drafting one in the first round, because they don't use the fullback enough to justify paying a first-round salary for one.

Second, remember that there is a fixed limit on roster size. Thus, in order to add a rookie, another player has to be let go. So the question is not really how much utility will a player add, but how much additional utility will he add?

This is why, despite Mel Kiper's predictions to the contrary, it is unlikely the Patriots will draft a running back in the first round. Given that the Patriots already have five NFL-ready running backs, paying a first-round salary to a rookie while letting go one of the backs they already have really doesn't add very much utility to the team.

2. Trading picks for established players

As I've written before, the Patriots are not averse to trading picks for veterans. They've done it several times in recent years, perhaps most notably in 2007 when they traded second- and seventh-round picks before the draft for Wes Welker and a fourth-round pick during the draft for Randy Moss.

In both cases, the Patriots made a determination that the utility of adding that veteran, at that salary, was comparable to—if not outright better than—any rookie they might have been able to draft at that pick.

Also, given that all the Patriots got from those three picks is two All-Pro players with 390 receptions for over 4,500 yards and 45 touchdowns, it seems rather unlikely they could have done any better with those picks in the draft.

The Patriots already traded one pick for a player in 2009 (Philadelphia wide receiver Greg Lewis). Pat Kirwan and Vic Carucci seem convinced the Patriots will trade more picks for disgruntled Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers to convert him to a 3-4 outside linebacker.

I've already argued why I think this trade makes no sense, but it is at least theoretically possible that the Patriots feel that the utility he brings would be worth the rather steep price tag.

3. Trading up in the draft

The Patriots aren't averse to trading up in the draft, although they seldom do it in the first round. In any case, the utility decision here is a relatively simple one: Do you expect more utility by taking one better player or by taking two players that grade out lower in your system?

4. Trading picks for future picks

Here is one of the inevitable conundrums that faces a team with a well-stocked roster and many draft picks: Is it better to use those picks now, or push them forward into future drafts?

For New England—which has a league-high 11 draft picks, and a league-high four first-day picks—trading picks forward is part of the Patriot Way.

The Boston Globe quoted advice Jimmy Johnson once gave Belichick: "Picks are like money and you can always put them in the bank and they can draw interest."

The Patriots have taken that advice to heart; of the 41 trades made during the draft that have resulted in a team receiving a pick in a future draft since 2000, the Patriots have made eleven, more than any other team.

But if you think that those were all made because the Patriots didn't like the players available at that pick, think again. Belichick admitted last year that he was on the phonewith Shawn Crable, planning to pick him at No. 69 when San Diego called with their trade offer.

The Patriots made that trade and were still able to get Crable with their next pick, but they felt there was enough utility in gaining a second-round pick in this year's draft to risk missing out on Crable.

Given the current uncertainty regarding the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the poison pills that might come into play if a new one isn't negotiated before the start of the 2010 season, the Patriots might be even more eager than usual to trade a pick or two into the future.

So, what's the problem with the utility concept?

It is, by definition, a matter of team preference. In other words, in order to use utility to figure out exactly what the Patriots would do, you'd need to know exactly what factors the Patriots use in determining a player's utility.

For example, since need factors into utility—the less talent you have at a position, the more utility a good player can add—how much of a need do the Patriots see at each position?

A lot of pundits have OLB tagged as a position of need for 2009, but perhaps the Patriots see the expiring contract of Richard Seymour as a bigger problem, and decide to take the best defensive lineman they can get in the first round.

Similarly, how much do the Patriots crave versatility? Would Connor Barwin or Pat White, who play multiple positions, provide more utility than, say, Brian Cushing or Mohammed Massaquoi, who have more experience at their chosen positions?

Of course, since the Patriots don't say much about their evaluation process, it makes it that much harder for people to predict what they do.

And when they ignore the concept of utility entirely, that's when hilarity results (as when many amateur mock makers felt the Patriots would try to move up for Darren McFadden).

A couple of predictions

I'm not going to try to predict actual players; that requires far more skill and analysis than I have time to do. (I'll admit I'm also afraid that by naming the players I want, I might be dooming their chances of becoming Patriots.)

That said, based on my assessment of utility—which I freely admit may not be how the Patriots assess it—I will make these predictions:

  1. The Patriots will select a total of four players in the first three rounds.
  2. The Patriots will end the third round with at least one extra pick in either the first or second round of the 2010 draft.
  3. The Patriots will not select a quarterback before the fourth round; if they select Pat White before then, it will be primarily as a wide receiver. They will select a quarterback in the last four rounds.
  4. The Patriots will not select a running back in the first round.
  5. The Patriots will select at least one linebacker in the first two rounds.
  6. The Patriots will select at least one defensive back, most likely a safety, in the first three rounds.

After the draft, we'll see how close my predictions come to the truth.