New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick just made his top pick of the 2016 NFL Draft a healthy scratch for the second straight game. 2nd round rookie CB Cyrus Jones, the 60th overall pick, wasn’t alone as a surprise healthy scratch. Belichick also made his 2015 2nd round pick S Tavon Wilson a healthy scratch.
Needless to say, these aren’t the ideal contributions from your 2nd round picks.
Add in that QB Jimmy Garoppolo hopefully won’t be playing anytime soon (and I will add the caveat that he is a great player when he takes the field), LB Jamie Collins will be the Patriots only 2nd round pick of the past six years to contribute this week.
It’s still too early to pass judgment on Richard (although we have seen this story before) and Jones, and Garoppolo has his role on the team. But it’s pretty clear that the Patriots have three distinct types in the 2nd round.
2001: OT Matt Light, 2007 1st Team All Pro
2002: WR Deion Branch, Super Bowl XXXIX MVP
2009: OT Sebastian Vollmer, 2010 2nd Team All Pro
2010: TE Rob Gronkowski, 3x 1st Team All Pro
2013: LB Jamie Collins, 2015 2nd Team All Pro
When Belichick and company hit in the 2nd round, they hit in a major way. All of these players were or are major cornerstones for New England. Light is the best offensive 2nd round pick in franchise history (LB Andre Tippett gets the nod overall), while Vollmer, Gronkowski, and Collins have played key roles in the franchise success over the past five years.
When you hit on these players, you don’t let them go (unless they net you a 1st round pick, like in the case of Branch). This is the target production of every 2nd round pick.
The Solid Role Player
2003: DB Eugene Wilson
2009: S Patrick Chung
2010: LB Brandon Spikes
2011: RB Shane Vereen
These players last their rookie deals and then move elsewhere. All played roles as starters, but they were not multi-dimensional enough to be key players. Chung struggled to cover in his first stint with the Patriots. Spikes was a dinosaur run stuffer in a league moving towards non-stop passing. Vereen couldn’t run the ball.
Wilson was a good starter at free safety, but he suffered injuries in his final two years on the team and the Patriots added S Brandon Meriweather as his replacement in the 1st round of the 2007 draft.
This should be the absolute floor of a 2nd round pick- a low-end starter that flashes greatness from time to time. Spikes was the top run stuffer in the league, while Vereen was arguably the most dynamic receiving back; they brought weekly value to the team.
Perhaps they weren’t full time starters and they weren’t without flaws. But they were and are far better than the alternative.
The Total Bust
2000: OL Adrian Klemm
2003: WR Bethel Johnson
2004: DT Marquise Hill
2006: WR Chad Jackson
2008: CB Terrence Wheatley
2009: DT Ron Brace, CB Darius Butler
2010: ED Jermaine Cunningham
2011: CB Ras-I Dowling
2012: S Tavon Wilson
2013: WR Aaron Dobson
Dating back to 2002 (Branch), the only years the Patriots didn’t add a complete bust in the 2nd round were in 2007- when they traded their pick away for WR Wes Welker- and in 2005- when they traded their pick away to essentially move up to pick Chad Jackson in the 2006 draft.
Butler has gone on to be a solid contributor for the Colts, but he only played 2 seasons with the Patriots. I feel like he’d have been far more successful in today’s man coverage defense, than the zone-heavy approach when he was with the team.
The Patriots are fortunate that they been skilled enough to accumulate multiple 2nd round picks because this bust rate is awful. Teams should expect a third of their 2nd round picks to bust, while the Patriots bust rate is greater than 50%- and the rate might be climbing unless Richards can start contributing on defense.
It’s one thing to outsmart other teams by collecting draft capital (which is where the Patriots thrive), but that draft capital is converting to NFL talent at a lower rate than other teams. Part of the Patriots misfortune in the 2nd round is due to injury- but a lot of it has been self-inflicted.
"In the second round you find a lot of players with first-round talent but not first-round performance or production," Belichick explained in Michael Holley’s book The War Room. "The highest bust factor is in the second."
The bust-rate is highest in the 2nd round because Belichick takes bigger risks. He’ll swing for the fences to go after 1st round talent that has fallen into the 2nd round for various reasons. Some have fallen due to injury, like Gronkowski or Dowling (and 2015 1st round pick DT Dominique Easley could qualify in this category).
Others might not have been the best player at their position at their own college. Chung was drafted alongside FS Jairus Byrd, who was one of the top free safeties in the NFL for some time. Brace was overshadowed by B.J. Raji. Cunningham was not as well-regarded as Carlos Dunlap. Dobson was 3rd on his team in receiving yards before entering the draft.
However the Patriots scout their 1st round picks, that skill does not apparently translate into the 2nd round. Picks like Cunningham, Wilson, and Richards were head-scratchers at the time and the narrative never changed. Redemption for under-heralded players like Vollmer, or injured players like Gronkowski, seems to be the exception, not the status quo.
Outside of the 2014 selection of Easley- and I’ll always argue that he was a great player, he just didn’t have the mental approach that aligned with the Patriots- Belichick’s track record in the 1st round has been stellar. So why the discrepancy in success?
The expected value of a 2nd round pick is pretty flat, so a player taken 35th will be expected to have a similar career to one taken 60th- so the Patriots could continue to add quality players. But instead of following the same draft strategy of picking players “with the fewest questions,” as Belichick describes his first round targets in The War Room, he goes for the players with all the questions in the world.
How healthy is their back? Why did he not get invited to the combine? Why is his teammate more well-regarded? How come he did not produce in his final year? Why do the draft rating agencies rate him as a 7th round pick? What is his role in the NFL?
Some times the player, like Gronkowski and Collins, can remove all questions. More often than not, the Patriots are left looking for answers.