New England Patriots: Were They The Biggest Draft Winners?

Nov 15, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Washington Redskins during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Washington Redskins during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

The New England Patriots didn’t have a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. They didn’t even have a second-round pick. But did Bill Belichick still emerge as the biggest winner?

Every year, it seems like the New England Patriots are a step ahead of the game. Whether it’s redefining the tight end position, taking advantage of league rules, using hybrid linebackers and safeties, mining compensatory picks, or unearthing new special teams strategies, Bill Belichick always finds a way to outsmart the competition.

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In 2017, the Patriots didn’t have a single pick in the first or second round, and it was a damning statement about how they viewed the top-end talent in this draft class. They traded down from the second to the third to scoop up edge rusher Kony Ealy, but their biggest move of the offseason was their decision to part ways with the No. 32 pick for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

If you recall, Cooks was the 20th pick in a loaded 2014 NFL Draft class that included wide receivers Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr., and Mike Evans. Those were the wideouts picked before Cooks, because the Saints actually traded up from No. 27 to No. 20 to acquire the former Oregon State standout.

Since then, Cooks’ star has only grown. He’s nabbed over 1,100 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons, averaging 15.0 yards per reception in 2016 as one of the NFL’s premier deep threats. Even on a team with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, Cooks figures to be the Patriots biggest weapons.

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At the price of the No. 32 overall pick, that was likely the best value in the entire draft class. Wide receivers Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross were the clear top three options in the class, and they heard their names called in the top 10. After those three, East Carolina’s Zay Jones was the 37th overall pick to the Buffalo Bills. Davis, a top-five pick, is the only one of those receivers who is expected to have a better career than Cooks. If Ross remains healthy, he could be a similar player to Cooks, but he was “picked” 21 spots higher than the former Saints star (if we value Cooks as the 32nd overall pick).

The Patriots sent a fourth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for tight end Dwayne Allen, who will replace Martellus Bennett as Rob Gronkowski’s backup. Even without considering the fact that New England received an additional sixth-round pick from the Colts, Allen represents more value than a fourth-round pick alone. The Pats don’t owe him anything beyond 2017 if he flops, and tight ends are extremely valuable in this league. Seven tight ends were selected before the pick the Colts received from New England, and I have a hard time believing that Allen, a former third-round pick, isn’t worth that much.

When the Patriots did make their selections, they didn’t pull any shockers a la Jordan Richards or Joe Cardona. Third-round pick Derek Rivers is the hyper-athletic edge rusher this team needs, Antonio Garcia is the type of raw athlete (31-inch vertical) that Dante Scarnecchia could mold into a quality contributor at offensive tackle, Deatrich Wise is a long defensive lineman who can help this team, and late-round tackle Conor McDermott is another guy who tested well (7.52s three-cone drill and 4.58s 20-yard shuttle).

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A common theme this year was the Patriots taking fliers on great athletes in the trenches who can be coached up into contributors that fill a specific role the Pats need. Depth at offensive tackle and defensive end are huge issues for the Pats. They have enough pieces at running back, wide receiver, and in the secondary, but beefing up on both lines needed to be a priority. The Patriots are among the best teams at developing offensive linemen due to their coaching staff, so it seems like they drafted to their strengths this year with so many unknown commodities.

As always, New England came into the draft season with a clear idea of what they would see on the board in April. They didn’t like what was out there, and all of their moves in the offseason reflected their desire to bet on veteran players.

Despite trade rumors, they kept two important pieces in Malcolm Butler and Jimmy Garoppolo, who is their top insurance policy to their meal ticket in Tom Brady. With the picks they decided to keep, the Patriots didn’t do anything fancy. They chose to snag athletes at positions where they needed depth, and they also chose prospects at positions they are traditionally good at developing or finding useful, niche roles for those players.

With so many other variables out there and so many other strong drafts, it’s hard to definitively call the Patriots the biggest winners. But given the opinions about the underwhelming top-tier talent in this class, the Patriots chose an excellent strategy.

Next: Grading The Patriots Draft Picks

Judging their execution will inevitably depend on the quality of the players they selected, but, for my money, they did the best job they could of sticking to the plan. Instead of trying to outsmart the draft board in front of them, they planned things out in advance and came away with great value. The Cooks trade alone was huge, and it makes them seem even stronger as a team after already winning the Super Bowl.