Patriots are still reloading, and their AFC foes are still chasing
FOXBOROUGH — Winning never gets old for the Patriots. Their quarterback is ageless. Their head coach is an NFL immortal. They’re the dynasty that’s never in decline. But look behind Super Bowl ring No. 6 and you see a roster that if it were a tree would have quite a few rings, indicating it’s older than it looks.
Winning never gets old for the Patriots, but their roster has in some positions. That’s why this was an important NFL Draft for coach Bill Belichick and Co., armed with a dozen draft picks and several urgent roster needs. After an offseason that saw more high-profile farewells than hellos, this was a pivotal part of the team-building process for your New England Patriots to extend their reign, as Belichick and Tom Brady enter their 20th seasons.
The Patriots are better than they were before the draft, but they’re not a better team than the one that took the field for Super Bowl LIII, after taking some personnel hits and swinging and missing on high-profile free agents at wide receiver and tight end.
An NFL alchemist, Belichick will squeeze the most out of his roster. But the Patriots, who haven’t drafted a Pro Bowl player since Jamie Collins in the second round in 2013, are at a point where they could use an infusion of youthful talent. Even Belichick would admit his team got away with one last year. While wide receiver N’Keal Harry, the first wideout taken in the first round by the Patriots during the Belichick Era, is the headliner, the success of this draft rests in what the Patriots extracted from the second and third days. That will determine whether they paved the way for both maximizing the immediate future with Brady and prolonging their run.
The Patriots like to preach the strength of their roster is their middle class. That aligned with the strength of the 2019 draft, which was the talent still available in the middle rounds. The Patriots drafted 10 players and made seven trades, three of them with Los Angeles Rams coach and Belichick not-so-secret admirer Sean McVay.
The Patriots have often done some of their best work after the first round — Matt Light, Deion Branch, David Givens, Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen, Julian Edelman, Patrick Chung, Rob Gronkowski, Collins, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Joe Thuney to name a few.
ESPN had an insightful stat: Thirteen of the Patriots’ 22 Super Bowl LIII starters were drafted in the fourth round or later. One of the key players that the Patriots were trying to find a replacement for in this draft was defensive end Trey Flowers, who cashed in with the Patriots disciples in Detroit. Flowers was drafted in the fourth round in 2015, along with starting guard Shaq Mason. More Foxborough Finds like that were needed after the last few drafts have not been as fertile for those in the Belichick Bunker.
Instant evaluation of draft picks is like that last drink you have while socializing on a Saturday night: It feels good and seems like a good idea at the time, but you regret it when the haze lifts. So, it doesn’t matter that I loved the Patriots’ third-round selection of defensive end/outside linebacker Chase Winovich and detested the subsequent superfluous running back selection of Alabama’s Damien Harris in the third.
It’s better to focus on the underlying philosophical approach than dissect the individual selections. The draft is a guessing game. It’s just that those employed by NFL teams are taking more educated guesses.
“Look, the draft, it’s an inexact science,” said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “I mean for me to sit here and tell you anything different . . . everybody puts in a lot of time and a lot resources, and even with that, sometimes it’s a 50-50 proposition. We just try to work through our process and try to stay consistent. . . . That’s the one thing that we just try to do. We try to do the best we can with the opportunities that present themselves.”
The good news is that there seemed to be a concerted effort to address roster shortcomings and get some help for Brady. Harry’s selection augmented a roster that sports Edelman and a bunch of receiver retreads and unknowns. The Patriots also added some insurance at left tackle with West Virginia’s Yodny Cajuste in the third.
But it wouldn’t be a Patriots draft if they didn’t make some unorthodox decisions and unexpected selections. With Gronkowski’s retirement leaving a gaping hole at tight end, the Patriots, of course, didn’t take a tight end.
On Saturday, one pick after the Houston Texans took San Diego State tight end Kahale Warring with the 86th pick, the Patriots drafted Harris. It was a puzzling pick and dubious value considering the Patriots are stocked at running back. You didn’t need to take Brandon Bolden’s replacement or a James Develin upgrade as the short-yardage runner in the third round.
Arkansas has become the new Rutgers for the Patriots, especially with former Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema on the Patriots coaching staff now. With their first selection Saturday, New England drafted an Arkansas guard in the fourth round who sounds like a “Game of Thrones” character. Meet Hjalte Froholdt, the first of his name, protector of the QB, breaker of defensive linemen, and warden of the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots made a bold pick on Day 3. No, it wasn’t selecting a potential heir/air apparent to Brady in the fourth round, Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham, an untapped talent.
It came when they selected a right-footed punter in the fifth round, Stanford’s Jake Bailey. Belichick moving up four spots to draft a punter who can also kick off is peak Patriots. It’s trolling the rest of the unwashed league. But given Belichick’s well-documented affinity for left-footed punters and the spin they can produce it’s heresy. Ryan Allen is officially on notice if His Hoodiness likes a righty this much.
It was a little surprising the Patriots didn’t double-dip at wideout or dip into a deep pool of safeties with Devin McCourty and Chung advancing in age. Those were areas where the depth in this draft carried into Day 3.
But fate always seems to flip for Foxborough. Plus, contributions from the injury-cursed 2018 draft class are anticipated.
The Patriots are less talented than the team that got a confetti shower in Atlanta. But the same can be said for their primary competitors in the AFC.
The Kansas City Chiefs are poised to lose dynamic receiver Tyreek Hill, embroiled in a child abuse and endangerment controversy that has forced the Chiefs to indefinitely suspend him and will force them to permanently part with him if they have an ounce of morality. The Pittsburgh Steelers shipped away recalcitrant receiver Antonio Brown, and saw franchise-tag hostage Le’Veon Bell depart for the New York Jets.
The Patriots need this draft class to hit, but they remain the class of the AFC.