FOXBOROUGH — This year’s NFL Draft was supposedly loaded with talent. Listening to the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock in the days leading up to the draft, this year’s class was “deep” at tight end, running back, and edge rusher, and “very deep” at safety.
Naturally, the Patriots punted.
Bill Belichick is always out there alone, doing his own thing, while the other 31 teams play catch-up. This year, it was eschewing draft picks for proven players, ending this weekend’s three-day draft bonanza by selecting just four players, the smallest draft class in team history and smallest draft class by any defending Super Bowl champion in NFL history.
The Patriots took a defensive end from Youngstown State in the third round, an offensive tackle from Troy in the third round, a defensive end from Arkansas in the fourth round, and an offensive tackle from UCLA in the sixth. That’s it.
They found depth at the two positions that truly needed it, but ended their day early by trading away their last seventh-round pick. With 70 players now on the roster, they’ll fill out their final 20 roster spots with undrafted rookies and veteran free agents still on the scrap heap.
The Patriots’ plan this year revolved instead around free agents and veteran players.
They signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a $65 million deal, traded for receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive end Kony Ealy, and signed restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee. That’s in addition to taking care of their own — Dont’a Hightower, James White, Alan Branch, and Duron Harmon.
Here is how I break down how the Patriots spent their draft picks:
1.) WR Brandin Cooks
2.) DE Kony Ealy
3.) DE Derek Rivers*
3.) T Antonio Garcia*
4.) TE Dwayne Allen
4.) DE Deatrich Wise Jr.*
5.) TE James O’Shaughnessy
5.) RB Mike Gillislee
6.) T Conor McDermott*
We’ll see if any of the rookies pan out, and Ealy has been inconsistent in his short NFL career. But that looks like a pretty nice haul of talent.
What this strategy shows is that the Patriots aren’t in the mood for drafting and developing too many players. They’re not here to wait around for youngsters to develop in three years (other than Garcia, who looks like he might be Nate Solder’s replacement next year). The Patriots are here to add players who have already developed, and became available due to contract situations or a coaching change on their previous team.
One conclusion to draw from the Patriots’ roster-building strategy is that they just didn’t see great talent in this year’s draft.
Director of player personnel Nick Caserio noted again that the Patriots only put draftable grades on 50-75 players, and “75 is probably high.” But he said that using picks on veterans instead of rookies was not a big organizational shift.
“The team building process, there’s no template, there’s no book,” he said. “It’s about trying to put the best team together, however we get to the that end point.”
The other conclusion to draw is that they are going “all in” this year with Tom Brady turning 40 years old in August. Caserio dismissed that suggestion Saturday night.
“I’d say that has zero to do with it,” he said of Brady’s age.
Of course, going “all in” usually implies sacrificing the future for the present, and the Patriots haven’t done that. They didn’t sacrifice any of next year’s draft picks for this year’s picks, and the players they acquired in trades are all between the ages of 23-27.
The Patriots also have more than $20 million in salary-cap space, and the cap continues to grow by $10 million-plus every year. They’re “all in,” but without having to mortgage the future.
And no move solidified that belief more than the Patriots’ decision to keep quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and not trade him to the Cleveland Browns. The Browns checked back in with the Patriots during Thursday night’s first round, per ESPN, and the Patriots responded firmly that Garoppolo was not for sale.
The Patriots don’t live in a bubble, either. They saw the haul of draft picks that Chicago gave up for Mitch Trubisky, and how the Chiefs and Texans each gave up an extra first-round pick for Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. The Patriots could have gotten a bevy of picks for Garoppolo, but instead chose to stick with their backup quarterback.
“Whatever other teams do, we can’t control, that’s their decision,” Caserio said. “Ultimately it comes down to what do we think is best for the New England Patriots, and that’s what we go with.”
The Patriots decided that having a good backup quarterback who knows the system behind the 40-year-old Brady is more important than a couple of high draft picks. They decided that Brady might not be able to play as long as he says he will, and that Garoppolo might be the quarterback of the future. They decided that they won’t make a decision on Garoppolo’s future until they absolutely have to — in March 2018, with his contract set to expire.
They might come to regret it. They have just one first-round pick on their roster from 2014-17 — defensive tackle Malcom Brown. Their recent second-round picks haven’t produced much, either, and that includes Garoppolo.
On the other hand, the veterans they have signed are still young. And they have draft picks next year and millions in cap space.
The future is now in Foxborough, but the Patriots haven’t compromised their tomorrow, either.
Even though they punted on the draft, they exit the weekend with a loaded roster, an enviable quarterback depth chart, and a team built to win now and in the future.