New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft highlighted the Patriots up-and-down draft results in recent years as justification for the team’s all-out acquisition approach to the 2017 season. The Patriots traded a first round pick for WR Brandin Cooks, moved down a handful of spots for EDGE Kony Ealy, and shipped away a fourth round pick for TE Dwayne Allen and a sixth rounder.
"The draft gives you young people that you can basically control your costs for four years or five years as a first-round draft pick. But we've gotten some younger players who are known entities," Kraft said, via the Providence Journal. "We've made some draft picks high up, and they haven't performed well. So having known value versus not being sure — I think Brandin is 23, Gilmore is 26, [Dwayne Allen] is  — so there's a risk-reward analysis there."
The Patriots made the active decision to give up a lot of their draft capital in exchange for proven NFL players based on poor early drafting and retention of talent in recent years, as well an analysis of the current roster make-up. The Patriots made 10 picks in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft from 2012-2016, and have had varying degrees of success in each round.
After hitting a double-whammy in the 2012 first round with EDGE Chandler Jones and LB Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots whiffed in the second round with S Tavon Wilson. In 2013, the Patriots traded out of the opening round and acquired LB Jamie Collins in the second round, seven picks before selecting WR Aaron Dobson. While Collins ascended to the top of the league, Hightower is the only player from those listed that remains with the team.
The 2014 draft yielded the worst first round pick under head coach Bill Belichick in DT Dominique Easley; not for lack of talent, but because Easley just never bought into the program and was released after two seasons. QB Jimmy Garoppolo came in the second round and showed a lot of potential.
In 2015, the Patriots found a solid rotational player in DT Malcom Brown, but offered an exact copy of the 2012 draft with a miss on a second round safety in S Jordan Richards. Then came the 2016 draft where the Patriots didn’t have a first round pick and didn’t receive much contribution from CB Cyrus Jones in the second round.
The Patriots supplemented the first two rounds with quality role players and solid starters in the third and fourth rounds, with the likes of CB Logan Ryan, FS Duron Harmon, RB James White, EDGE Trey Flowers, OG Shaq Mason, OG Joe Thuney, and WR Malcolm Mitchell- but the fact is that the Patriots haven’t found as many contributors in the first two round as they would have hoped.
Only three of the ten players selected in the first two rounds- Hightower, Jones, and Collins- have reached the top of their leaguewide positional group rankings with Brown a solid contributor, while Garoppolo is still to be determined. But when you think of it, how many great years did the Patriots get out of their first and second round picks?
Collins was great in 2014 and 2015, Jones was great for the first eight games of his four seasons in New England, and even Hightower needed some time to find his footing despite starting all five years. All three players needed time to develop as rookies and offered a handful of good years- so if you’re only going to get a couple great years from a player on a rookie contract, why not use the first round pick to acquire two seasons of a proven player like Brandin Cooks?
And this brings us to the other point: the value of rookie contracts. Typically, a player on a rookie contract will have a year or two to develop and see the role expand before starring in their last two seasons; Jamie Collins is a perfect example of this.
Collins served as the top back-up linebacker in 2013 behind Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes, before an injury to Mayo thrust him into the lineup. Collins played just 26% of snaps as a rookie before emerging as a starter in 2014. Collins provided value as a back-up as a rookie and progressed into a larger role.
But what if the Patriots have no need for rookie back-ups?
The Patriots have young back-ups on affordable contracts throughout the roster. There’s Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell at receiver; Ted Karras, Cameron Fleming, and Tre Jackson on the offensive line; Vincent Valentine and Lawrence Guy on the defensive line; Jonathan Freeny and Elandon Roberts at linebacker; and Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, and Duron Harmon in the secondary.
Head coach Bill Belichick has built a roster with plenty of cap space that is young and developing, while still ready to compete now. We all know Tom Brady is old, but the only other starters on offense and defense that are 30 years or older are EDGE Rob Ninkovich (33) and WR Julian Edelman (31 in May). Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Patriots used their first and second round picks to acquire younger versions of Ninkovich (Ealy) and Edelman (Cooks).
note: technically the contract of Alan Branch (32 years old) is not yet official. You can add him to this list, even though Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, and Lawrence Guy are all young back-ups.
But the rest of the roster is young. Both FS Devin McCourty and SS Patrick Chung turn 30 in August. LT Nate Solder, RT Marcus Cannon, and WR Chris Hogan will all be 29 at the start of the upcoming season. This means that 14 or 15 of the offensive and defensive starters with be 28 or younger, depending on whether Hogan is even a starter after the acquisition of Cooks.
Belichick and the Patriots front office analyzed the roster, saw that there was no real need for developmental talent, and decided to trade away the early draft picks for proven players to improve an already strong roster.