On the New England Patriots and Draft Philosophy

On Tuesday, upon hearing Laurence Maroney had been traded, I took my usual positive spin to the transaction by tweeting that the Patriots now had seven picks in the first four rounds of the 2011 draft. I characterized this wealth of picks as "scary".

The Patriots have had back to back excellent drafts, and another year of multiple high picks makes the odds pretty good that they will continue to add even more young talent to a team that is quickly becoming recognized as one of the youngest and most talented in the NFL.

To my surprise Tim Graham, the ESPN beat writer for the AFC East, tweeted back at me something to the effect of "maybe they'll draft another Laurence Maroney".

Thus started a twitter debate of epic proportions. On and on it went for over an hour, to the delight of many "twit-nesses", as we argued about the Patriots draft philosophy. Credit to Tim, who continued to fire back at a mere Pats fan-blogger like myself.

It's hard to make a quality argument 140 characters at a time, though I think I did a pretty good job sticking to my guns, so I felt this was worthy of an expanded analysis. Plus I've heard Felger/Mazz, aka the Abandon Hope All Ye Who Listen Show, were railing against the Pats for their '06/'07/'08 drafts today.

So let's set aside our fan loyalty and look at the NFL draft as rational business people and figure out if the Patriots really are bad drafters as the "pundits" would have you believe they are...

What is the purpose of the draft? To acquire talented young players for your team, of course. Yes, salaries make this a little more complicated, especially in the first round since you can effectively cripple your team by missing on a top-15 pick. 

But generally if you miss on a pick from about 20th to 252nd it's not going to put the franchise underwater. Really, missing on those picks doesn't matter much at all if you're able to continue winning games as the Patriots have done for the past decade, or unless you care what people like Michael Felger and Tim Graham think.

Between injuries, arrested development, and just plain busts who can't grasp what it takes to be a professional football player, the draft is little more than a crap shoot.

Look here at Laurence Maroney's draft class. Maroney is actually one of the decent picks of that first round, especially in the 20s. Is there really one player that was drafted just after Maroney who would've gotten a Super Bowl for the '08/09 Pats?

Maybe only Manny Lawson would've made an impact at a significant area of need, but let's remember that would come at the expense of Maroney's game-clinching performance in the 2007 AFC Championship. The rest played at positions the Patriots were already solid at, or ended up being busts.

No one hits on 100% of their draft picks. You have 1st round complete failures (Jamarcus Russell) and 7th round studs (Marques Colston). Even if there is a team out there hitting on every or most picks they make, I guarantee they haven't had the success the Patriots franchise has had over the past decade.

Did the poor drafts of '06/'07/'08 hurt them in 08 and 09? Sure. Of course you'd rather have hit on a player in the spot you took Chad Jackson. Maybe Santonio Holmes would've made a difference in the second half of the 2006 AFC Championship, but having expectations of draft prowess like that borders on ludicrous. Even the vaunted Colts just cut their left tackle of the future Tony Ugoh.

Look through the first 100 picks of the 2007 draft. How many guys on there below Brandon Meriweather turned out to be impact players? Maybe 15 out of 70? That means half the NFL teams made a bad pick, and I'd bet that the other half probably made a bad pick in the first round. So you can bash the Pats for having bad drafts, but you better bash every single other NFL team too.

However, what we do know for sure is that the Patriots stand apart from the NFL crowd with regards to their draft philosophy. It's an unending parade of trading up and down the board which ultimately results in two things: getting the players they most want, and acquiring additional picks for the future.

Not even the players they want most and believe in will pan out, but by having a multitude of picks they're far more likely to hit on some of them. In some cases, like 2009 and 2010, they even hit on more than they miss. We're seeing the effects of those drafts now.

To me this seems like simple logic. You're going to miss on some of your picks. It's a fact. Get over it and try to acquire as many picks as you can. As I said to Tim, if the Patriots miss of five of ten picks, and the Jets only miss on two of four the Patriots still got three more talented players than the Jets did. At the end of the day that's all that really matters.

Another thing that you must recognize with the Patriots is that they don't hold on to guys just to prove to people it was a good pick. Like with Maroney, if they don't think he's going to be a part the teams future they cut ties immediately, and get something in return. Then they move on and leave the bitching and second-guessing to those who get paid to bitch and second-guess everything they do.

During our twitter battle royale, Graham thought getting a 4th rounder back for a former 1st round pick was laughable. Well, it's certainly better than letting him walk scott free. And who knows, maybe that 4th round pick turns into another player with as much promise as Aaron Hernandez has.

When we look at the two picks selected a couple spots in front of Maroney both were traded for similar compensation (Dallas traded Bobby Carpenter for the second most penalized offensive lineman in the NFL from the Rams, and the Jets got Antonio Cromartie from San Diego for a 3rd rounder). 

It's not hard to look at any NFL teams' draft picks and criticize them for ones that didn't pan out. Believe me, there are hundreds to choose from.

But as the saying goes "the proof is in the pudding", and the Patriots defensive pudding is currently loaded with 1st and 2nd round picks who looked like a fast and physical group against the Bengals.

Even if some of those promising players don't pan out the Patriots continue to have numerous picks to fill those holes. Not all seven of the picks in the first four rounds of the 2011 draft will be stars. Heck, we all know they probably won't even use all seven of them, but what we can be assured of is that they'll continue to add more and more potential to their team, bit by bit, player by player. 

Those who don't pan out, or don't have what it takes, will be cast aside and replaced immediately without remorse or disappointment.

It's rare that someone runs the show at a professional sports franchise for as long as Bill Belichick has run the Patriots. Belichick now has the chance to rebuild an entirely new defense from scratch, with the players he hand picks.

With the multiple picks the Patriots have made in the past two years, and will make next year, they'll have a far greater margin for error than any other NFL team and that's what you need to build the core for a second dynasty through the draft.

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