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There has been plenty of talk that this could be one of the most impactful Patriots rookie classes drafted by Bill Belichick. Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and Rhamondre Stevenson have all become key pieces in New England’s 8-4 start.
But how do they measure up to some other great first-year groups under Belichick?
For a class to be considered for this list, it had to meet at least two criteria:
- Produce at least three long-term starters for the franchise. In the minds of NFL personnel men, that’s the bar that should be hit every year, and;
- for draft classes pre-2015, have at least three players play a minimum of 100 regular-season games in the NFL. It shows an ability to survive and thrive over an extended stretch in the league.
It also helped to have a third, unidentifiable quality — for example, the 2003 draft produced a handful of great prospects, but also future head coach Kliff Kingsbury. We also took into account draft depth, as opposed to drafts that produced singular standouts. It’s hard to look past the 2000 draft, if only because of the selection of Tom Brady, but it’s not hard to ignore the fact the rest of the draft failed to produce any players of lasting impact for the franchise, other than Patrick Pass.
In short, these are the best draft classes, not best draft picks.
Notables: DL Ty Warren (first round, 13th); DB Eugene Wilson (second round, 36th); WR/KR Bethel Johnson (second round, 45th); CB Asante Samuel (fourth round, 120th); OL Dan Koppen (fifth round, 164th); QB Kliff Kingsbury (sixth round, 201st); DL Tully Banta-Cain (239th).
There were several factors at play (performance, injury, scheme), but this group was impactful right out of the gate. And while some of them flamed out after a season or two — Wilson and Johnson had plenty of standout moments early in their careers — there was plenty of staying power.
Five players ended up with 90 or more regular-season games on their resumes. Warren, Samuel, Koppen, and Banta-Cain all won multiple Super Bowl rings. Samuel played 11 seasons and finished with almost as many interceptions (51) as Hall of Famers Ty Law (53) and Champ Bailey (52).
Notables: DB Patrick Chung (second round, 34th); CB Darius Butler (second round, 41st); OL Sebastian Vollmer (second round, 58th); WR Brandon Tate (third round, 83rd); LB Tyrone McKenzie (third round, 97th); WR Julian Edelman (seventh round, 232nd).
This group didn’t have the instant impact of 2003 or 2021, but it was absolutely vital when it came to helping jump start the second phase of the dynasty.
Chung, Vollmer, and Edelman all became long-term starters in New England, and all three, plus Butler and Tate, played more than 100 games. Butler and Tate ultimately found greater success elsewhere (and McKenzie has as an assistant in Tampa Bay and Tennessee), but this group played a sizable role in helping restore the Patriots to glory a few seasons after they were drafted.
Notables: DB Devin McCourty (first round, 27th); TE Rob Gronkowski (second round, 42nd); LB Brandon Spikes (second round, 62nd); TE Aaron Hernandez (fourth round, 113th); P Zoltan Mesko (fifth round, 150th); OL Ted Larsen (sixth round, 205th).
Top heavy to be sure, but it’s hard to dispute this group’s on-field impact. McCourty will go down as one of Belichick’s favorite all-time players, while Gronkowski is almost certain to be remembered as one of the finest tight ends to play the game. Spikes was a hellacious thumper whose off-field issues played a sizable role in a premature departure, and everyone is aware of what became of Hernandez. (Larsen developed into a dependable presence, playing 10 seasons and 137 games for Tampa Bay, Arizona, Chicago, and Miami.) While there’s a sense of “What might have been?” with this group because of where the ex-Gators ended up, it still deserves a spot on this list thanks to the massive roles McCourty and Gronkowski have played in franchise history.
Notables: DE Chandler Jones (first round, 21st); LB Dont’a Hightower (first round, 25th); S Nate Ebner (sixth round, 197th).
Between Jones and Hightower, this might have been the most productive first round of any Belichick draft in New England. Both were key pieces of the Patriots’ success, and while Jones has gone on to achieve stardom in Arizona, Hightower has evolved into a pillar of the defense.
It’s easy to mock Belichick’s love of specialists, but Ebner was a core special teamer for his eight seasons in New England.
Notables: LB Jamie Collins (second round, 52nd); DB Logan Ryan (third round, 83rd); DB Duron Harmon (third round, 91st).
Collins was a defensive cheat code, capable of lining up all over the place, while Ryan and Harmon quickly became established as key pieces of the New England secondary. Bottom line? Between the 2012 and 2013 drafts, Belichick was able to infuse youth and energy into the defense.
That group, mixed with established veterans like Vince Wilfork and acquisitions like Darrelle Revis, combined to form the nucleus of the 2014 championship roster.
Notables: OL Joe Thuney (third round, 78th); QB Jacoby Brissett (third round, 91st); WR Malcolm Mitchell (fourth round, 112th); LB Kamu Grugier-Hill (208th); LB Elandon Roberts (sixth round, 214th); OL Ted Karras (sixth round, 221st).
Not a lot of overwhelming star power in this group. Instead, it’s filled with a ton of terrific complementary players who all had a role in helping shape the 2016 championship roster.
Thuney, Brissett, and Mitchell all played key roles as rookies, while Karras and Roberts became regular parts of the offensive and defensive rotations, respectively. (It’s worth mentioning that Grugier-Hill — who was a late cut out of camp — has gone on to a steady career as a linebacker/special teamer with Philadelphia, Miami, and Houston.)
An underrated draft class that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
2004 (DL Wilfork, Ben Watson); 2005 (OL Logan Mankins, CB/KR Ellis Hobbs, QB Matt Cassel); 2014 (QB Jimmy Garoppolo, RB James White, OL Cameron Fleming); 2015 (DE Trey Flowers, OL Shaq Mason, LS Joe Cardona); 2020 (S Kyle Dugger, OL Michael Onwenu).
Christopher Price can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.