The Patriots can’t afford a draft bust because it’s draft or bust for the team’s offseason. The NFL Draft, which kicks off Thursday night, is the fulcrum in Foxborough for upgrading the roster.
The pressure is on to deliver with their nine selections, starting at No. 21 in the first round. These picks will determine the soundness of the Patriots’ offseason blueprint and define whether they got better after a 10-7 playoff season or simply stood pat with the bat on their shoulders while the rest of the AFC swung for the fences.
The draft represents the most attainable avenue left for significant improvement for a team that faltered, losing four of its final five games, including an embarrassing playoff beatdown by the Bills.
While there have been some big splashes made by fellow AFC teams, the Patriots have registered only ripples with their roster, bringing back excommunicated cornerback Malcolm Butler and trading for leftover Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker while re-signing core players including Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, James White, and Ja’Whaun Bentley. They’re treading water and banking on a rising quarterback (Mac Jones) to lift all team tides.
The draft is where coach Bill Belichick and his ever-growing, ever-insulating claque can make up some ground and do it on their value-worshiping terms. It’s where they can keep their bosses happy.
“I’m happy that I think we had a great draft last year and made up for what happened the previous four years or so,” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft last month at the NFL owners meetings.
“I look forward to hopefully having a great draft this year. That’s the only way that you can build your team for the long term and consistently that you have a chance of winning is having a good draft.”
As novel and enjoyable as last year’s record spending spree was, it was the draft that made the offseason. Selecting Jones with the 15th overall pick was the pivotal move in reconstructing the team and returning to the playoffs.
The Patriots have some obvious needs. The telltale stat for the 2021 edition was that it didn’t win a game all year in which the opponent scored 25 points. It’s nearly impossible to win a Super Bowl in this day and age of NFL (fantasy) football without the ability to win games played in the 30s somewhere along the line.
Arming Jones with more dynamic weapons at wide receiver would appear to be a no-brainer, especially in a draft that has a wealth of wideouts, including two Alabama receivers with the imprimatur of Certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) Nick Saban — Jameson Williams and John Metchie III, who could slide down the board because of ACL injuries.
Or the Patriots could trade the 21st pick to try to acquire a proven NFL receiver like dynamic but disgruntled 49er Deebo Samuel.
Don’t get your hopes up or hold your breath.
It’s anathema to the Patriots to surrender a first-round pick and hand out a contract expected to be worth more than $20 million per year for a wide receiver. It’s simply not in Belichick’s DNA.
The most he’s ever paid a wide receiver per year is the $11 million AAV that belongs to Nelson Agholor, part of last offseason’s spend-a-palooza designed to make you forget Tom Brady that won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers.
Williams, torn ACL and all, would likely require a trade-up and surrendering some draft capital. We’ll leave a light on for Metchie in the second round.
Traditionally, Belichick’s football philosophy has held that you build a team from the inside out, meaning perimeter positions such as wide receiver and cornerback — another huge need with the departure of J.C. Jackson — are fungible. You can manufacture them, coaching them up at corner or relying on the quarterback and The System to enhance receiver production.
So, buckle up and prepare to be underwhelmed when the Patriots use that first-rounder on a linebacker or an offensive or defensive lineman, if they stay at No. 21 at all.
More likely, in an eye-of-the-beholder draft, they can auction off the pick to another team infatuated with a player. Belichick always says that teams execute trades up the board for a specific player, not for the pick.
I can already hear the groans from here, but that’s how the Patriots roll, especially with a post-TB12 playoff berth and a promising young QB in their pocket.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots, who possess one second-round pick (No. 54), ended up making three second-round picks as they did in 2010: Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes. I could see that scenario minus the McCourty first-round pick that year.
“There is good depth,” said Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh. “It’s so easy to just get caught up on the splash names, 1 through 5. So, it’s finding that value for the positions that you think can have I use the word instant impact.
“Hopefully your first-round pick is coming in and providing something for you right away and similarly with the second- and third-round picks. But I think every year it’s pretty easy to say, ‘OK, well, here’s a group of players in that second and third round …’ There’s just more of those players than there is those guys at the very top of the board.”
It doesn’t matter how you maneuver and manipulate the board as long as you get impactful players. You can find talented pass-catchers in the second and third rounds. The Patriots, unfortunately, know that from experience.
In the 2019 draft, they used their first-round selection on N’Keal Harry, who has the turn radius and deliberate change of direction of an 18-wheeler. Then they watched as talents like Samuel, A.J. Brown, and D.K. Metcalf went in the second round. Terry McLaurin and Diontae Johnson were taken in the third and Hunter Renfrow, a perfect Patriots slot receiver, in the fifth round.
A total whiff the Patriots are still paying for.
The good news is that Groh’s métier is the draft. It’s the reason behind his meteoric rise from area scout in 2018 to atop player personnel.
Also, No. 21 has been a lucky number for them during the Belichick Era. The Patriots selected Pro Bowlers Chandler Jones (2012) and Vince Wilfork (2004) there.
This is the Patriots’ best, last chance to remake their roster this offseason. They can’t fumble it.
This draft will determine whether their offseason — and maybe their 2022 season — goes boom or bust.