One of the hallmarks of the Patriots dynasty that won three Super Bowls in four years was a homegrown defensive core drafted by Bill Parcells in the mid-90’s and coached by Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel. The Patriots continued that dynasty with a bunch of big draft picks such as Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson, and Jarvis Green were notable Patriots draft picks on the defensive side of the ball in the 2001-2004 seasons. That core was broken up by the start of the 2009 season when the Patriots traded Seymour, who was on the last year of his 2nd contract with the team, for a first round draft pick that turned into LT Nate Solder. Since then, the Patriots have struggled to draft and retain talent on the defensive side of the ball.
On the Patriots defensive side of the ball, the only high draft picks that have gotten a second contract with the team are Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty since 2009. Both were first round picks, Mayo went 10th overall in 2008 and McCourty 27th in 2010. Mayo’s career played out as well as you’d expect a Top 10 pick to go, as he instantly developed into the leader of the defense and it’s top tackler. McCourty started out at CB before circumstances forced him to move to the safety position, where he’s really shined. In both cases, the Patriots couldn’t afford to let either player walk and nearly let McCourty go before the Patriots upped the guaranteed money. You can argue Patrick Chung in this category, although I don’t consider it because the Patriots didn’t use him right in his cost-controlled years with the team and let him walk after it. It was only after he returned and was given a more ideal role for his talents that he became a key player.
Since 2005, the Patriots have had some notable misses. Some of the biggest busts include CB Ras-I Dowling, CB Terrance Wheatley, DT Ron Brace, CB Darius Butler not amounting to anything in Foxboro. Only Butler is still in the league as a nickel CB for the 3-5 Colts, although he might be their most consistent defender in their secondary. LB Brandon Spikes, ED Jermaine Cunningham, S Patrick Chung, S Tavon Wilson were high picks that the Patriots let walk after disappointing over their first four years with the team. Chung is the only player the Patriots brought back for a second stint, but that was a rare case where the team did a poor evaluation of their own player and rectified the problem.
Chandler Jones is considered a hit as he played 4 seasons in Foxboro before getting traded to Arizona, where he’s performing at a high level per usual in the first half. The Patriots let talented players go early in both DT Dominique Easley and LB Jamie Collins. Both were guys that would openly freelance instead of their job on the defense, which Belichick doesn’t tolerate. When it becomes a problem and a player goes rogue, Belichick cuts the cord. He doesn’t care about talent, he doesn’t care about fan sentiment, he doesn’t care how much the player thinks he worth, to him if a player isn’t coachable he’s worth $0.00 to the Patriots organization. In Bill Belichick’s world, reliability over ability, and Belichick has the ultimate authority in Foxboro which he has earned winning 12 games a season and 4 Super Bowl trophies.
Despite the Patriots failures with their high draft choices, they’ve had some notable hits later in the draft and in free agency. Malcolm Butler looks like a player the team should keep in the long term as their #1 CB, although his chances of returning in 2017 are nearly 100% as a restricted free agent if the Patriots give him a first round tender. Dont’a Hightower, despite some of his faults this year, has emerged as the leader and signal caller of the defense. The Patriots are going to be more interested in keeping him around with Collins now in Cleveland. Jabaal Sheard, while inconsistent this year, can impact the game as a pass rusher although he needs to step up his play as well in the second half. The Patriots aren’t bereft on talent on the defensive side of the ball, but the defense has underperformed standards the first half of the season with the Miami and Buffalo games being Exhibits A and B.
Of course, the same head coach is not without faults. The Patriots offense has been able to retain key players, but not on the defense. Part of that is a player not playing up to standards, others due to not being coachable, and the rest because of not being available in the first place. You can argue the Patriots inability to draft consistently on the defensive side of the ball has prevented them from winning more championships than the four they have now. Since 2007, Brady has been arguably the best QB in football, which makes up for some of the failures to build a defensive core. The best defense the Patriots have had since 2007 was the 2014 unit that gave up 0 TD in the 4th quarter for their last 11 games against some of the best offenses in the league. That unit relied on more veteran players like Darrelle Revis, Alan Branch, Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, and Brandon Browner although it had a few homegrown players in Hightower, Collins, McCourty, and Wilfork, whose last game in New England was Super Bowl XLIX.
I have no idea what the problem is, but clearly seeing the amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball and multiple high picks not panning out. The 2014 draft looks like a disaster with the team’s best contributor being a role guy in James White, who is the 2nd best player at his position on the team, and a backup OT in Cameron Fleming. 2013 was a promising draft before Collins’ poor play and subsequent trade this year, although Logan Ryan has been useful at times. Hightower is the only player remaining from 2012, although I put his chances of returning to Foxboro at 99.5% after the season and 75% chance it comes in the form of a long-term contract. I have to wonder if the problem with the draft is scouting or when Belichick has gone against the advice of his scouts. Collins and Easley were picks that Belichick overruled his scouts on and both players got an unceremonious exit for being uncoachable or doing things their own way instead. I personally don’t think Collins is uncoachable, but with the collective poor play from the defense I can’t imagine the freelancing he did was tolerated much longer by the coaching staff.
I very much understand that a team that’s been in contention for a championship basically every year since 2001 and has finished every season in first or tied for first place is going to lose players to free agency. However on the defensive side of the ball, the only casualty from the high draft picks was Chandler Jones, whose exit was controlled since the Patriots got a 2nd round pick instead of letting him walk for a 2018 3rd/4th round pick. The draft pick turned into an offensive building block in LG Joe Thuney and a developmental WR in Malcolm Mitchell, who is currently buried on the depth chart. The constant misses on defensive draft picks has me wondering what the problem is. Is it in scouting, utilization on defense, or both? I don’t know the answer to that question and will probably never get that answer, but it’s a question to ponder.