Ranking the Greatest New England Patriots of All Time

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 23, 2019

Ranking the Greatest New England Patriots of All Time

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    Tom Brady
    Tom BradyMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Tom Brady might be the greatest player in NFL history, but you can replace the "might be" with "unquestionably is" when looking for the best player ever to suit up for the New England Patriots.

    While Brady's spot in the all-time Patriots rankings is obvious, filling out the top 10 isn't easy.

    To do so, we considered five main factors: Pro Bowl nods, first-team All-Pro appearances, approximate value, length of tenure with the Patriots and team success while on the roster.

    The first two data points let us know how well each player stacked up against his peers at that time. Approximate value—Pro Football Reference's attempt to attach a value to everyone—allows us to compare players from different positions. Tenure is included since a B-plus player for 11 seasons might be better than, say, seven years of an A-minus. As for team success, we looked at whether the team clearly improved after acquiring the player.

    Two other quick notes: With all due respect to Bill Belichick, only players were considered. Also, only players who spent at least 50 percent of their careers with the Patriots were eligible. That latter qualifier forced us to exclude one Hall of Fame linebacker, who we'll briefly discuss in the honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Adam Vinatieri
    Adam VinatieriBRETT COOMER/Associated Press

    Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski, K

    It's probably best to address Vinatieri and Gostkowski together, since they are just about the only players to have attempted a field goal for the Patriots since 1996.

    Vinatieri is one of the best, most clutch kickers in NFL history. He forced overtime before kicking a game-winner in the "Tuck Game," and he drilled last-second kicks from more than 40 yards out to win both Super Bowl XXXVI and XXXVIII. Those three incredible moments will never be forgotten in the greater Boston area.

    Vinatieri made 81.9 percent of his regular-season field-goal attempts and 76.5 percent in the playoffs during his 10 seasons with New England. He was selected to two Pro Bowls over that span.

    Gostkowski is sitting at 87.4 percent during the regular season and 88.6 percent during the postseason, and he has been selected to four Pro Bowls. He has been one of the most accurate kickers of all time.

    Both fell outside the top 10, but if either one had made the cut, it would've been Gostkowski.

              

    Steve Grogan and Drew Bledsoe, QB

    For many franchises, Grogan and Bledsoe would be near-locks for a spot in the top 10. Each threw for more than 25,000 yards and 165 touchdowns in New Englandnumbers on par with what Joe Namath and Troy Aikman did in their respective careers. But it's hard to be impressed by either one when juxtaposed with what Tom Brady has accomplished.

                  

    Troy Brown, WR/KR/PR

    It's a tough call to omit Brown. He spent his entire 15-year career with New England and is still the franchise leader in punt-return yards (2,625). Only Wes Welker (672) has more receptions with the Patriots than Brown (557). And Brown's three-year peak (2000-02) was excellent. But he was selected to only one Pro Bowl (2001), and the 12 non-peak years were nothing special.

             

    Stanley Morgan, WR

    It's an even tougher call to omit Morgan. In 13 seasons in New England, he racked up 10,352 receiving yards, nearly 2,500 more than the next-closest Patriot. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection, the most noteworthy of which came in 1986 when he had 1,491 receiving yards. Aside from Jerry Rice (1,570), that was the most in the league that year. He would be No. 11 on these rankings if there was one more spot available.

             

    Nick Buoniconti, LB

    Buoniconti was left out because of a technicality: He played more career games with the Dolphins (92) than he did with the Patriots (91). Randy Moss was not eligible for inclusion for the same reason. But as far as per-game approximate value is concerned, only a few Patriots are better than these two. Had Buoniconti been included, the Hall of Fame linebacker and four-time first-team All-Pro selection with the Patriots would have landed in the Nos. 6-8 range.

              

    Gino Cappelletti, WR/K/DB

    A star from a bygone era, Cappelletti made 176 field goals and had 42 receiving touchdowns during his 11-year career with the Patriots. He ranks third and fifth, respectively, on the Patriots' all-time leaderboard in those two categories. He was named the 1964 AFL Player of the Year, accounting for 155 points that season.

             

    Bruce Armstrong, Jon Morris and Matt Light, OL

    Armstrong was named a Pro Bowler six times. Morris received that honor in each of his first seven seasons. And Light probably deserved more than three Pro Bowls and one All-Pro first-team selection for more than a decade of protecting Tom Brady's blind side. But we have two other offensive linemen higher on the list.

10. Logan Mankins, LG

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Career with Patriots (2005-13): 114 Approximate Value, 6 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro First-Team Selection

    Pinpointing Logan Mankins' spot on this list was the most difficult part of the entire exercise. It was tempting to put him in the top five, and it was equally tempting to omit him entirely.

    There are several big factors working in his favor.

    Mankins is fourth in approximate value on the Patriots career leaderboard. And out of the 1,021 players who have appeared in at least four games with this franchise, Mankins is also fourth in approximate value per game, trailing only Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Randy Moss in that category.

    Moreover, Mankins is one of only eight players selected to at least six Pro Bowls while with the Patriots. Not only did the 2005 first-round draft pick provide a lot of value for New England, but he was repeatedly recognized as the best player at his position for most of his career.

    But Mankins played the most forgotten of all positions: guard for an offense that never had a dominant run game. 

    The bigger problem, though, is that New England won the Super Bowl in each of the two seasons before drafting Mankins and won again in the first season after trading him to Tampa Bay, but it didn't get a single ring in his nine years with the organization.

    Now, is it his fault that David Tyree made that unreal catch in Super Bowl XLII or that the Patriots defense couldn't stop Eli Manning in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI? Of course not. But it undeniably hurts Mankins' legacy that he was never part of a championship team during a two-decade run when New England won six titles.

9. Vince Wilfork, NT

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Career with Patriots (2004-14): 102 Approximate Value, 5 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro First-Team Selection, 2 Super Bowls

    New England already had an excellent defense before taking Vince Wilfork in the first round of the 2004 draft. In fact, the Patriots allowed the fewest points per game (14.9) during the 2003 season. But a reliable defensive tackle had eluded the franchise for decades, dating back to Houston Antwine and Jim Lee Hunt clogging up the trenches in the 1960s.

    Wilfork became the keystone of the 3-4 defense almost immediately.

    He was never anything close to the stat-sheet stuffer that Warren Sapp was with Tampa Bay and Oakland. Heck, Sapp had more sacks in the 2000 season (16.5) than Wilfork did in his entire career (16.0).

    But Wilfork was the immovable object to Sapp's unstoppable force. He drew constant double-teams and made opposing teams think twice about trying to run the ball up the gut or throw screen passes over the middle. His superhuman strength is what caused the famous "butt fumble," as he shoved New York Jets guard Brandon Moore into Mark Sanchez like the former was a tackling dummy.

    In addition to his first-team All-Pro honor in 2012, Wilfork was named to the second team in 2007, 2010 and 2011.

8. Wes Welker, WR

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Career with Patriots (2007-12): 86 Approximate Value, 5 Pro Bowls, 2 All-Pro First-Team Selections

    Wes Welker was with the Patriots for only six seasons, but during that time, the slot receiver extraordinaire forever changed football as we know it.

    Welker was primarily a return specialist in his first three seasons with the Miami Dolphins, racking up nearly 5,000 yards on nearly 300 kick and punt returns. But he became a big part of Miami's passing game in his third season, after which the Patriots traded a second-round and seventh-round pick to acquire him.

    A 5'9" speedster with no fear of running crossing routes, Welker led the NFL in receptions in 2007, 2009 and 2011. He finished second in that category in both 2008 and 2012. Even with a bit of a down year in 2010 (86 receptions for 848 yards), Welker averaged 112 catches and 1,243 yards per season with New England.

    As a result, Welker is the Patriots' all-time leader in receptions (672), receptions per game (7.2) and receiving yards per game (80.2). Randy Moss is the next-closest Patriot in the receptions per game category (5.0), and even he didn't end up anywhere close to Welker.

    Would Welker and his 185-pound frame have survived even half a season back when receivers were risking life and limb by running routes across the middle of the field? Probably not. That's why slot receivers weren't as prevalent in the NFL until rule changes made them viable in the early 2000s. But that doesn't change the fact that Welker's per-game value added in New England (86 AV in 93 games) is second only to Tom Brady.

    As was the case with Logan Mankins, though, we have to penalize Welker a bit for never getting a Super Bowl ring. He did his part with at least six receptions and 50 yards in each of his nine postseason games with New Englandincluding 11 catches for 103 yards in Super Bowl XLII—but he and Brady were unable to win one together.

7. Mike Haynes, CB

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Career with Patriots (1976-82): 78 Approximate Value, 6 Pro Bowls, Defensive Rookie of the Year (1976), NFL Hall of Fame (1997)

    Including Mike Haynes (50.8 percent of games played with Patriots) while excluding Nick Buoniconti (49.7 percent) is, admittedly, a bit silly. But it just so happens that the Pats have an NFL Hall of Famer barely on each side of that cut line.

    With that said, Haynes had a remarkable seven-year run with New England. Emphasis on "run," because this guy was faster than greased lightning.

    During a four-game stretch late in his first season, the 1976 No. 5 overall pick recorded seven interceptions and returned two punts for touchdownshence the Defensive Rookie of the Year honor. In all, he had eight picks and three fumbles recovered and was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

    Haynes had 19 interceptions in his first three seasons before opposing quarterbacks realized they should probably stop challenging him. He finished the New England portion of his career with 28 interceptions and was named to the Pro Bowl in six out of seven years.

    Most notable, though, is how much better the defense was because of his presence. New England went 3-11 and allowed 25.6 points per game the season before drafting Haynes. With him the following year, the Pats went 11-3, allowed 16.9 points and made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

    The Patriots had a significantly above-average defense in each of his six healthy seasons.

6. Richard Seymour, DE/DT

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Career with Patriots (2001-08): 85 Approximate Value, 5 Pro Bowls, 3 All-Pro First-Team Selections, 3 Super Bowls

    No matter what the Patriots asked Richard Seymour to do, he did it dominantly.

    Initially, Seymour was one of two defensive tackles in the 4-3 scheme. In those first two years, he had 100 total tackles and 8.5 sacks. He was named a Pro Bowler in his second season.

    Prior to his third season, the Pats switched to a 3-4 defense, bumping Seymour from defensive tackle to defensive end. Not only did he not miss a beat, but he became even more of an imposing force.

    In 2003, he had 8.0 sacks and knocked down 10 passes at the line of scrimmage. He was named first-team All-Pro in each of his first three years at defensive end.

    Seymour was also a key contributor on special teams throughout his career, blocking several field goals. The most notable one came against the Tennessee Titans in the 2003 AFC Divisional Round. Late in the first half, he rejected a 31-yard attempt by Gary Anderson. New England went on to win by three.

    Seymour even made the occasional appearance at fullback in his first few seasons, although a knee injury he suffered in a goal-line situation in 2005 put an end to that.

    The Patriots won the Super Bowl in three of Seymour's first four seasons in New England. Most of that success has been (rightly) attributed to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but Seymour's presence on the defensive line is a big reason why this franchise was so tough to move the ball against for much of the 2000s.

5. Ty Law, CB

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    RICK HAVNER/Associated Press

    Career with Patriots (1995-2004): 83 Approximate Value, 4 Pro Bowls, 2 All-Pro First-Team Selections, 3 Super Bowls, NFL Hall of Fame (2019)

    One of Chris Berman's best repeated lines on ESPN's NFL Primetime was "They fought the law and Ty Law won" any time Law made a great defensive play. And he said it a lot, because Law was one of the better cornerbacks in NFL history.

    Throwing the ball in his direction was a death wish.

    Long before Darrelle Revis trademarked the phrase "Revis Island" for his ability to shut down an entire section of the field, Law did the same thing for a decade in New England. Though he stood only 5'11", he was a uniquely physical cornerback, capable of delivering hard hits and/or bumping wide receivers off their routes.

    Excluding his injury-shortened (seven games) final season in New England, Law had multiple interceptions every year with the Patriots. In 1998, he led all NFL players with nine picks. Law made six interceptions and was credited with a league-leading 23 pass breakups in 2003. Not surprisingly, those were his two years as a first-team All-Pro. (He also led the league with 10 interceptions in 2005, but that was with the New York Jets.)

    During New England's runs to the Super Bowl in the 2001 and 2003 seasons, Law had a combined 34 tackles, four interceptions and eight passes defended in six postseason games. His pick-six of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XXXVI arguably should have been good enough to make him MVP of the game. His other three interceptions all came against Peyton Manning in the 2003 AFC Championship.

4. Andre Tippett, LB

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Career with Patriots (1982-93): 109 Approximate Value, 5 Pro Bowls, 2 All-Pro First-Team Selections, NFL Hall of Fame (2008)

    The NFL began recognizing sacks as an official statistic in 1982, which was also Andre Tippett's first season in the league. That's purely coincidental timing, but Tippett ended up playing second fiddle to Lawrence Taylor in the competition for best pass-rushing linebacker of all time.

    Tippett finished his Hall of Fame career with 100 sacks in 151 games. He actually did it in a 142-game span, because he didn't record any sacks in nine games as a rookie. He then racked up 65.5 sacks—more than 13 per season—over the next five years.  

    Tippett peaked in 1984 and 1985 with 18.5 and 16.5 sacks, respectively. That's 35 in the span of 32 games, which is remarkable for a defensive lineman and almost unfathomable for a linebacker.

    In both 1985 and 1987, Tippett led the NFL in approximate value, according to Pro Football Reference.

    From 1982-88 (Tippett's first seven seasons), New England finished .500 or better and ranked top 10 in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed or both. The year before the Patriots drafted him, they went 2-14 and ranked outside the top 20 in both categories.

    While we aren't saying he was singularly responsible for that turnaround, it is impossible to imagine they could have done it without him.

3. Rob Gronkowski, TE

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Career with Patriots (2010-18): 82 Approximate Value, 5 Pro Bowls, 4 All-Pro First-Team Selections, 3 Super Bowls

    Rob Gronkowski was the ultimate "If he stays healthy" asterisk.

    Gronk had career-best marks of 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns in 2011. (He added 17 catches for 258 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason.) But over the past seven years, one couldn't discuss the tight end's potential impact without that four-word clause, as he missed at least one game each season and averaged only 11.9 games per year.

    Speaking on behalf of all the fantasy football nerds in the audience, there has never been a bigger "Should I or shouldn't I draft him in the second round?" conundrum. You knew you were going to get All-Pro-level production when he played, but you also knew he was probably going to be limited by injury or out altogether by the time your fantasy playoffs rolled around.

    Nevertheless, Gronk was one of the best tight ends in NFL history.

    Out of the 458 tight ends with at least 500 career receiving yards, Gronkowski's mark of 68.4 yards per game is the best. In only 115 games, he landed at No. 9 in career receiving yards among tight ends with 7,861 of them. (Every player ahead of him appeared in at least 182 games.) Gronkowski is also tied for third in career touchdowns (79), trailing only Antonio Gates (116) and Tony Gonzalez (111).

    The man was a cultural phenomenon, too. Between his emphatic touchdown spikes, party cruises, night club dances and ridiculous Tide Pods commercials, Gronkowski was the rare athlete who was constantly on television in a fun, positive light. In a way, his larger-than-life persona made up for all of the injury-shortened seasons.

2. John Hannah, LG

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    Career with Patriots (1973-85): 147 Approximate Value, 9 Pro Bowls, 7 All-Pro First-Team Selections, NFL Hall of Fame (1991)

    John Hannah is widely regarded as one of the best offensive linemen of all time. Not just in Patriots history, but in NFL history.

    Hannah is second only to Tom Brady in approximate value with the Patriots, and his 147 score is at least 31 points better than every non-GOAT to play for this franchise. Brady is also the only Patriot with more Pro Bowls than Hannah.

    But Hannah has Brady beat in All-Pro first-team selections. He has seven of those to his credit, while no other Patriot can boast more than four. There are only 12 players with more first-team selections than his seven, each of whom has a bust in Canton along with Hannah.

    Hannah was a durable anchor for a record-setting rushing attack. In 1978the NFL's first 16-game seasonthe Patriots ran for a still-record 3,165 yards. They were also one of only eight teams since 1950 to record at least 30 rushing touchdowns in a single season. No individual Patriot had more than 768 yards, though, which indicates it was an achievement for the offensive linemen rather than the ball-carriers.

    And that wasn't even their best year from a yards-per-carry perspective. They averaged 4.99 yards per tote in 1976 and 4.84 in 1983 compared to 4.72 in 1978.

    The first year after Hannah retired, New England plummeted to 2.91 yards per carry after a dozen consecutive years of at least 3.73.

1. Tom Brady, QB

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    Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    Career with Patriots (2000-Present): 269 Approximate Value, 14 Pro Bowls, 3 MVPs, 3 All-Pro First-Team Selections, 6 Super Bowls

    This past season, Tom Brady eclipsed both 70,000 passing yards and 500 touchdowns in his illustrious career. He's still slightly behind Drew Brees in both categories, but the six Super Bowl rings and three MVP trophies difficult to refute his greatest-of-all-time status.

    But we aren't concerned with the debate about the best in NFL history here. We're only interested in Patriots history. And while we can argue where certain players do or don't belong in the top 10, Brady is indisputably No. 1.

    You can make Spygate and Deflategate comments to your heart's content, but Brady has more approximate value with the Patriots than their second- and third-most valuable players combined (263). This is like comparing Michael Jordan against all other Chicago Bulls or trying to explain why Ty Cobb is the best Detroit Tiger ever. Sometimes the numbers and the accolades just speak for themselves.

    Not only is Brady clearly No. 1, but he's the only player here who isn't finished playing. He's already the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, doing so at the age of 41 this past season. And his diet and training regimen are so stringentand the Patriots offensive line is so stoutthat he may still have multiple years left in the tank.

    No Patriot is ever going to catch him.

                   

    Kerry Miller is a multisport writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.