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NFL draft

Patriots’ draft success is a judgment call

Evaluating an NFL team’s draft performance is almost an impossible task.

How do you measure it?

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You could count the amount of starters each team has drafted.

If you throw out 2011 - it’s too soon to look at that class - and view the results from 2007-10, the Raiders, Panthers, and Colts are among the leaders in draftees who started.

Anybody want to give those downtrodden teams any draft awards?

If you look at drafted players that emerged as starters or backups, the Panthers, Colts, and Rams lead.

No one is putting those teams on a pedestal.

Even if you look at teams with the lowest bust percentages - players out of the league - the Broncos and Panthers have the most players still kicking around.

There doesn’t seem to be a tried-and-true formula.

“It’s one thing to start for the Colts when they’re 2-14,’’ said NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, a former personnel executive. “It’s another to start for the Patriots when you’re 13-3.’’

There is probably a large segment of NFL fans, especially in New England, that will say just look at the record and how far a team advances in the playoffs.

That is a fair statement, but incomplete.

The Patriots lacked depth last season. If they had hit on a few more players in recent drafts, they might have been Super Bowl champions. Not only last season, but in previous years.

And depth comes from the draft. It’s cheap. You get to mold the player.

The Patriots have added 14 players from outside the organization this offseason. That’s on top of the 18 they brought in during training camp last year.

Some say the Patriots run complicated schemes on both sides of the ball, so veterans are needed.

Really? So if drafted receivers Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, or Taylor Price had worked out, then Chad Ochocinco would have still been needed?

“In the end, you’re trying to balance the two,’’ Patriots director of personnel Nick Caserio said. “The most important thing for us is to bring players into our program that we feel good about and we think are going to have a chance to develop.

“I would say that sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. In the end, the most important thing is finding players that fit your program, fit what you do, wherever they come from.’’

How do the Patriots think they’ve done in the draft?

“That’s for you guys to analyze,’’ Caserio said.

Looking at the Patriots’ draft performance against other successful teams such as the Packers, Steelers, Ravens, and Eagles, New England compares favorably in some areas. In others, the Patriots do not.

The Patriots have employed a strategy of trading down in the draft to accumulate more picks. They have traded down 13 times from 2007-10, traded up five times, and traded a player for picks twice, for 20 total deals. The Eagles (13), Ravens (12), and Packers (eight) deal as well. The Steelers made just three trades.

The Patriots’ propensity to deal has allowed them to - in a phrase used by draft analysts - manipulate the draft.

It is a terrific strategy. Not only have they led the league with 40 draft selections from 2007-10, but they have traded up to take players such as spectacular tight end Rob Gronkowski (second round) and special teams captain Matthew Slater (fifth).

Of course, the Patriots have flubbed, targeting tackle Thomas Welch (seventh), nose tackle Ron Brace (second), guard Rich Ohrnberger (fourth), and Jackson (second).

“I think obviously the thing New England has always done a good job of has been when they’ve made a mistake, they cut their losses,’’ said Lombardi, who was Bill Belichick’s personnel man with the Browns.

That would explain why the Patriots have the highest bust percentage (28 percent) among similarly successful teams in that period. The Eagles (23), Ravens (19), and Packers and Steelers (18) follow.

The strategy allows the Patriots to take as many swings as possible. No matter how much work a team does, there’s a lot of luck involved - even when it works out splendidly, such as Tom Brady did as a sixth-round pick in 2000.

“In my case, it’s dumb luck,’’ said Chiefs general manger Scott Pioli, the former personnel director for the Patriots. “It’s not a perfect science.

“[Drafting Brady] certainly wasn’t us being smart at the time - it wasn’t. That’s the truth. I listen to all the scouts now and all the general managers that were around, ‘I couldn’t get our general manager to take him,’ or ‘Our coach wouldn’t take him.’

“Truth is, we didn’t want him until then either.’’

The Patriots have drafted five players that went to the Pro Bowl from 2007-10: safety Brandon Meriweather (who was released), linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Devin McCourty, Gronkowski, and Slater.

That’s tops in the league, with the Steelers second with four.

Every team has a different philosophy.

If you look at the Jets, they’re at the opposite end of the spectrum. They used only 17 picks from 2007-10 - by far the fewest (the Saints were next at 23) - preferring to trade up to take players such as cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker David Harris, tight end Dustin Keller, quarterback Mark Sanchez, and running back Shonn Greene.

Sometimes it has worked, sometimes it hasn’t.

“The draft is important, and obviously if you have less picks there’s more of a premium on each one,’’ said Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum. “When we’ve taken risks, we feel like they’ve been calculated, well thought out. They don’t all work out, but we do it when we feel the price and risk is reasonable.’’

The Jets and Patriots use different philosophies. Tannenbaum said the Jets assess the draft in January and plan accordingly. They used just three picks in 2009, but made 10 selections in 2006 and had a very successful draft up and down (D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Eric Smith, Brad Smith, Leon Washington, and Drew Coleman). The Jets have 10 selections this year.

Although they go about things differently, the Jets and Patriots lacked depth last season - and you can draw a correlation to their recent drafts. The difference in the levels of success? The quarterback position.

If the Patriots just hit more often with the second- and third-round picks they traded down for - those players theoretically have a solid chance to develop into starters - their advantage in the AFC East and the league, for that matter, would grow.

From 2007-10, the Patriots missed on defensive back Terrence Wheatley, linebacker Shawn Crable, quarterback Kevin O’Connell, Brace, defensive back Darius Butler, Tate, and Price. The jury is still out on safety Patrick Chung (if he stays healthy, he’ll be a star) and linebacker Jermaine Cunningham.

The Patriots could not have done better than Gronkowski, linebacker Brandon Spikes, and offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer.

Just a few players here and there. That’s the difference between success in the draft, and the ultimate payoff with Super Bowl titles.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.
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