One of the reasons the Patriots have been at or near the top of the NFL mountain each season over the last 15 years is because of their drafting and player development. Since Bill Belichick took over as coach/GM in 2000, New England has had only one losing season (a 5-11 record in 2000) and has won at least 10 games every year except for 2000 and 2002. Having the best quarterback and coach of the century has been a major force behind their success, but what has also been critical is consistently bringing in fresh talent through the draft.
Here is a look at the best picks the Patriots have made since 2000, with some honorable mentions.
Richard Seymour, DL (2001)
The selection of Seymour was the highest pick the Patriots have had in the Belichick era, sixth overall. Immediately upon coming to New England, Seymour had a transformative impact on the Patriots defense. He went to four Super Bowls with the team and was part of the original New England Dynasty that won three rings in four seasons from 2001-2004. Seymour played in 111 games with the Patriots and amassed 223 tackles, 39 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and 29 passes batted down. He also had 4.5 playoff sacks and two postseason forced fumbles. His primary role in the Patriots 3-4 scheme was to eat up space and allow linebackers to make highlight plays, which Seymour did extraordinarily well. He routinely took on double teams and clogged holes in the running game while collapsing the pocket on passing plays. He was also a popular figure and leader in the locker room and helped implant the “Do Your Job” mentality into the New England football psyche. In his last act with the Patriots, he netted the team a first round pick in a trade to Oakland in 2009.
Honorable Mentions: Ty Warren (2003), Vince Wilfork (2004), Logan Mankins (2005), Jerod Mayo (2008), Devin McCourty (2010), Dont’a Hightower (2012)
Rob Gronkowski, TE (2010)
The second round has been a tricky spot for the Patriots. They have selected some excellent players, including the Hall of Fame level Gronkowski, and have also had some major misses, such as Chad Jackson. They have also used second round picks as part of the acquisitions of Corey Dillon and Wes Welker. In 2010, the team had their best use of a second round pick to date, selecting Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski. To put it simply, Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL and on track to be the best tight end ever. The Patriots offense moves like a machine when he is available and it is no coincidence that some of the their most crushing playoff defeats have come with Gronkowski injured. In his six seasons in Foxboro, he has an astounding 380 catches for 5,555 yards and 65 touchdowns in 80 regular season games. He set the tight end touchdown record for a season (17) in 2011 and has caught at least ten touchdowns in every season except one. In ten career playoff games, he has nine touchdowns and 754 yards receiving, including a touchdown in the Patriots Super Bowl XLIX win over Seattle. He has also distinguished himself as one of the most beloved Patriots in the community, being a consistent face at team events and at charitable functions.
Honorable Mentions: Matt Light (2001), Deion Branch (2002), Eugene Wilson (2003), Sebastian Vollmer and Patrick Chung (2009), Shane Vereen (2011), Jamie Collins (2013)
Stevan Ridley, RB (2011)
The third round has not been kind to New England, but they have had some hits on productive players. The most notable was LSU running back Stevan Ridley, who was drafted in 2011. Despite having fumbling issues, Ridley was the Patriots best running back from 2011-2014, totaling 2817 yards on 649 attempts and scoring 22 rushing touchdowns. His best season was 2012, when Ridley ran for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Honorable Mentions: J.R. Redmond (2000), Ellis Hobbs and Nick Kaczur (2005), Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon (2013)
Stephen Gostkowski, K (2006)
There are several potential choices here, but the ten year veteran Gostkowski is the pick. The four time Pro-Bowler and two time First Team All-Pro has 502 out of 503 regular season extra points and 60 out of 61 postseason extra points. He has made 276 field goals out of 316 in the regular season and is 24 of 26 in the playoffs. He might not have the place in New England folklore that Adam Vinatieri does, but he has been just as effective as his predecessor. He hasn’t had as many clutch kick opportunities as Vinatieri did, but he hasn’t shied away in big moments, such as his game winning kick against San Diego in the 2006 postseason or his overtime winner against Baltimore in the 2010 regular season. He is also excellent on kickoffs, routinely pinning opponents down deep inside their own territory.
Honorable Mentions: Jarvis Green (2002), Asante Samuel (2003), James Sanders (2005), Randy Moss trade (2007), Aaron Hernandez (THE PLAYER, 2010), Bryan Stork (2014)
Dan Koppen, C (2003)
The 2003 draft is one of the best Belichick and company have had in New England and fifth round pick Dan Koppen out of Boston College is part of the evidence of that. The center came in and was a key piece on two championship teams and made three Super Bowl appearances. He kept Tom Brady upright and was part of one of the better offensive lines in the league during his tenure. Whether it was helping to open running lanes so Corey Dillon could set the team rushing record in 2004 or keeping the pocket clean so Brady could throw 50 touchdowns in 2007, Koppen consistently performed well.
Honorable Mentions: Matthew Slater (2008), Joe Cardona (2015)
Tom Brady, QB (2000)
Do I really need to explain this one? The Patriots selected arguably the greatest quarterback of all time with this pick.
Honorable Mentions: Nate Ebner (2012)
Julian Edelman, QB/WR (2009)
The final round of the draft has been kind to the Patriots over the years and the team got the biggest bang for its buck in 2009 with the selection of Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman. The team converted Edelman to wide receiver and he quickly became one of the best pass catchers the Patriots. He has caught 482 passes in 87 games for 3434 yards and 21 touchdowns. He has also played defensive back at times for the Patriots when they’ve suffered extreme rashes of injuries and has been an excellent punt returner with four touchdowns and a 12 yard return average. His playoff performances have been sublime. In 12 career playoff games, Edelman has 68 catches for 682 yards and four touchdowns, including the game winning score in Super Bowl XLIX.
Honorable Mentions: Patrick Pass (2000), David Givens (2002), Tully Banta-Cain (2003), Matt Cassel (2005)
The art of building through the draft does not end when the seventh round concludes. Undrafted free agents are important on any team and have been especially important to the Patriots over the years. Coming from various backgrounds and almost always counted out, these players can be some of the hungriest a team has and the Patriots have used that hunger to their advantage over the years. The team has signed dozens of undrafted free agents since 2000, but the following are the cream of the crop:
Lonnie Paxton (2000) – The long snapper for the biggest kicks in New England history, he rarely made a mistake and was always reliable in crucial situations
Stephen Neal (2001) – The converted college wrestler is one of Belichick’s favorite topics to bring up when discussing player development. After a slow start with the team, he eventually became a steady and productive presence at guard
Dan Connolly (2008) – Dan Connolly went from undrafted free agent to team captain on a Super Bowl champion. The offensive lineman was a favorite of Brady’s and his retirement after the 2014 season left a hole the team hasn’t fully filled yet.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2008) – The “Law Firm” as he was affectionately called, ran for over 1000 yards in 2010 and was notorious for not fumbling. Although he didn’t have the raw talent of other Patriots backs, he earned time on the field and helped the Patriots immensely in 2010 and 2011. He scored 29 touchdowns in four seasons with the Patriots and added a playoff score in 2011 in the AFC Championship Game.
Ryan Wendell (2009) – Another offensive lineman who went form undrafted to key protector of Tom Brady. His versatility and run-blocking have been a huge part of his growth as a player. The team sorely missed him in 2015, when he missed most of the season injured.
Ryan Allen (2013) – Allen has emerged as one of the better punters in the NFL after being signed after the 2013 draft
Malcolm Butler (2014) – Perhaps the most celebrated of all undrafted players, Butler made one of the best plays in franchise history when he intercepted Russell Wilson on the goal line with under 30 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX to seal the win. He followed that up by turning in a strong campaign as the team’s number one corner in 2015. If he turns in another few seasons of play on that level, he will be far and away the Patriots best undrafted player.