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ben volin | on football

Why has the Patriots’ recent drafting been so poor?

The Patriots dropped the ball with the selection of cornerback Cyrus Jones in the second round in 2016, and have had trouble drafting top talent since then.
The Patriots dropped the ball with the selection of cornerback Cyrus Jones in the second round in 2016, and have had trouble drafting top talent since then.Barry Chin

The Patriots sparked the most fireworks in free agency, signing more than 20 players for a record $175 million fully guaranteed.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft made it clear that the splurge was necessary because the team had little developmental pipeline to speak of.

“If you want to have a good, consistent winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency,” Kraft said in March. “You have to do it through the draft. The teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good. I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years.”

The draft has not been the Patriots’ friend over the past five years. A team that hit several home runs a decade ago — Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, and others — suddenly has a lot of strikeouts, and only a few singles and doubles. This has led to the Patriots essentially buying a new team for 2021 as they attempt to reclaim their place atop the NFL.

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To be fair, the Patriots haven’t had a draft pick higher than 20 since Nate Solder at No. 17 in 2011, which means they aren’t getting a crack at the elite talent. They found a few gems in the middle rounds in recent years, including Shaq Mason, Trey Flowers, and Damien Harris. And they have done well with undrafted free agents, developing David Andrews, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Jakobi Meyers, and Gunner Olszewski.

But Kraft isn’t going to open up his wallet in free agency forever. The Patriots have to start hitting on more picks, starting this Thursday with the No. 15 selection.

Let’s take a deeper look at the Patriots’ draft record since 2016:

1. No home runs

Their best pick of the past five years is Joe Thuney, a third-rounder in 2016. Nothing against Thuney, who was everything you could want from a player. But when your best pick is a guard from five years ago, it says you’re not finding elite talent in the draft.

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Jones and Hightower from 2012 were the last first-round picks to thrive in Foxborough. Offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn (2018) has played in only 18 of 48 games his first three years. Running back Sony Michel (2018) has been fine, but he doesn’t do much in the passing game and hasn’t played to the level of a first-round pick. Receiver N’Keal Harry (2019) has been a big disappointment and may need a change of scenery.

The struggles go back further. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown (2015) was underwhelming, and defensive tackle Dominique Easley (2014) was released after two years. The Patriots also traded out of the first round in 2017 (for wide receiver Brandin Cooks) and 2020 (trade down), and had their first-rounder taken away in 2016.

Though the Patriots haven’t had a high pick for a decade, good players can be found throughout the first round; they simply haven’t found them.

2a. Whiffs in the second round

Safety Kyle Dugger and linebacker Josh Uche, last year’s second-round picks, showed promise and potentially can reverse the trend. But the Patriots’ record in the second round from previous years is simply dreadful.

Here are their second-round picks from 2015-19: Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, and Joejuan Williams. Four defensive backs, four disappointments.

Richards was a liability on defense and played only special teams. Jones was traded after one poor season and one torn ACL. Dawson, acquired in a draft-day trade-up, was dumped before ever playing a snap for the Patriots. And Williams hasn’t been able to crack the regular cornerback rotation in his first two years.

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Defensive back Jordan Richards (left) didn't work out after being a second-round pick in 2015.
Defensive back Jordan Richards (left) didn't work out after being a second-round pick in 2015.Winslow Townson

It’s bad enough that the Patriots haven’t found any star players in the first round, but they also have basically set fire to their second-round picks.

2b. Whiffs on skill players

Defensive back is not the only position where the Patriots have struggled. They have not done a good job of identifying talent at the “skill” positions on offense and defense.

Their draftees since 2016:

RB: Sony Michel, Damien Harris.

WR: N’Keal Harry, Braxton Berrios, Malcolm Mitchell.

TE: Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene.

CB: Joejuan Williams, Duke Dawson, Cyrus Jones.

S: Kyle Dugger, Jordan Richards.

The running backs have been good (Harris may be great), and Dugger has potential. But we see why the Patriots spent big money at receiver, tight end, and, in previous years, cornerback. They have struggled to identify and/or develop young players at those positions.

3a. Wasting key assets

There is no more valuable asset in today’s NFL than a starting quarterback, yet the Patriots have gotten pennies on the dollar. Jimmy Garoppolo was traded for a measly second-round pick (43rd overall), with Bill Belichick hand-delivering him to San Francisco and refusing to drum up a bidding war. Jacoby Brissett, one of the top spot starters/backups in the league, was traded to Indianapolis for a spare receiver (Phillip Dorsett).

The Patriots should have gotten a lot more in return for both players — especially Garoppolo, who could have fetched a first-round pick. They would have been bigger players in some drafts with better ammo.

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3b. No investment in quarterback

Garoppolo was traded in 2017, yet the Patriots stopped looking for their quarterback of the future. Their only moves have been to draft Danny Etling in the 2018 seventh round and Jarrett Stidham in the 2019 fourth round. Tom Brady left in 2020, yet the Patriots curiously didn’t take anyone in last year’s draft.

Quarterback Danny Etling wound up in Seattle after being drafted by the Patriots in 2018.
Quarterback Danny Etling wound up in Seattle after being drafted by the Patriots in 2018.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Five years ago, the Patriots had the NFL’s best quarterback depth chart (Brady, Garoppolo, Brissett). Today they have one of the worst (Cam Newton, Stidham).

4. Not enough late-round gems

Offensive lineman Michael Onwenu, a sixth-round pick who started 16 games last year (mostly at right tackle), looks like a great pick. Linebacker Elandon Roberts and guard Ted Karras were good finds in the sixth round; defensive lineman Byron Cowart and tight end Ryan Izzo have been decent enough contributors; and fifth-round punter Jake Bailey is already an All-Pro.

But it’s not a good sign when the only finds in the late rounds have been a right tackle and a punter.

5. Wasting picks

It’s fairly remarkable how many mid-round picks ultimately played few or no games with the Patriots.

From 2017, third-round pick Tony Garcia and sixth-round pick Conor McDermott, both offensive tackles, were released before playing a snap with the Patriots. Dawson, the 2018 second-round pick, was dumped to Denver after one season and no games. Offensive lineman Yodny Cajuste, a third-rounder from 2019, still has not appeared in a game. Fourth-round pick Hjalte Froholdt, another offensive lineman, was released after playing 61 snaps in two seasons. Justin Rohrwasser, a fifth-round pick in 2020 and the first kicker taken in the draft, was released after one year and no games.

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6. Coaching/front office turnover

It’s probably not a coincidence that the Patriots’ draft struggles have come during a period of significant turnover on Belichick’s staff.

Their last great draft — 2013, with Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon — was their last one with Jon Robinson before he became the Titans’ general manager. The Patriots also lost many coaches from 2018-20, including Matt Patricia, Brian Flores, Dante Scarnecchia (who as of 2020 still helped with some scouting), Chad O’Shea, and Josh Boyer. They lost James Liipfert to the Texans as college scouting director, and Jack Easterby, Belichick’s trusted character coach, to the Texans as vice president of football operations.

This year will be the Patriots’ first draft without Nick Caserio and former college scouting director Monti Ossenfort, who went to Tennessee. Let’s see if Belichick’s new brain trust of Dave Ziegler, Matt Groh, Eliot Wolf, and Patricia can do better.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.