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Why are the Patriots better at drafting in the later rounds?

The Patriots have a questionable track record on day two, but a stellar one in the fourth and fifth rounds.

While the New England Patriots might not have top draft capital, they are still in a position to find key contributors. The Patriots have done a shockingly great job of drafting the fourth and fifth rounds in recent seasons. While most players in these rounds either provide low-level depth on the roster or fail to make the team, the Patriots have found starters and stars.

Fourth Rounders

Starters: TE Aaron Hernandez (2010), C Bryan Stork (2014), EDGE Trey Flowers (2015), OG Shaq Mason (2015)

Rotational/Back-ups: RB James White (2014), OT Cameron Fleming (2014), OG Tre Jackson (2015), WR Malcolm Mitchell (2016)

Misses: WR Josh Boyce (2013)

Fifth Rounders

Starters: P Zoltan Mesko (2010), OT Marcus Cannon (2011), LS Joe Cardona (2015)

Rotational/Back-ups: N/A

Misses: TE Lee Smith (2011) (Smith has started 53 of 75 games as a blocking tight end for the Bills and Raiders, but he’s a miss as far as the Patriots are concerned).

The Patriots haven’t really had many fifth round picks since they traded them away for six straight years, but they still find valuable contributors.

Maybe players like Stork and Mesko weren’t long-term fixtures on the Patriots roster as starters, but the Patriots had roles in mind for these players and found a way to get them on the field, until a better option came along.

The Patriots have the 131st overall pick in the fourth round and the 163rd and 183rd overall picks in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, so it will be curious to see if the Patriots can keep their streak of success rolling.

And while the Patriots have been consistently strong in the fourth and fifth rounds, the second and third rounds have been much more hit-or-miss.

The second and third round includes high-level players like TE Rob Gronkowski (2010), LB Jamie Collins (2013), and CB Logan Ryan (2013), potential stars in QB Jimmy Garoppolo (2014) and LG Joe Thuney (2016), in addition to four quality contributors in LB Brandon Spikes (2010), RB Shane Vereen (2011), RB Stevan Ridley (2011), and S Duron Harmon (2013),

The other players include EDGE Jermaine Cunningham (2010), WR Taylor Price (2010), CB Ras-I Dowling (2011), QB Ryan Mallett (2011), S Tavon Wilson (2012), EDGE Jake Bequette (2012), WR Aaron Dobson (2013), S Jordan Richards (2015), and EDGE Geneo Grissom (2015). It’s too soon to call for 2016 draftees CB Cyrus Jones, QB Jacoby Brissett, and DT Vincent Valentine.

So why do the Patriots win in the fourth and fifth, yet have a lower success rate in the second and third rounds? Well that seems to be the million dollar question.

I think the Patriots draft for upside in the second and third rounds, while they draft players with high floors in the fourth round and players with specific roles in the fifth round.

Some players with injury histories work out (Gronkowski), while some do not (Dowling). Some players with big athletic upside work out (Collins), while some do not (Price, Dobson). Some players considered major overdrafts work out (Harmon), while most do not (Cunningham, Wilson, Richards, Grissom). It seems like the Patriots are shooting for the moon with these picks, and sometimes they strike out.

The players that seem to succeed in the NFL are the ones that were great players in college, but appeared limited from a physical standpoint. Spikes, Ryan, and Flowers were too slow in the 40 yard dash. Mason was too short. Yet all of these players were valuable contributors because they excelled in college despite their physical limitations- and they continued to excel in the NFL.

What can the Patriots learn from these picks?

While it’s great to highlight the times the Patriots bucked the draftniks and struck gold- like with Harmon or with OT Sebastian Vollmer- the draftniks were more often-than-not right in their evaluation of the greatly overdrafted players.

And where both the Patriots and the draftniks can get into trouble is with their infatuation with athletic potential over realized results. This isn’t to say the Patriots should avoid drafting top tier athletes, but that the prospects need to show that athleticism converts into production on the field, like how Jamie Collins used his athleticism to rack up 45 tackles for loss, 21 sacks, and 15 passes defended at Southern Mississippi; he was more than just an athlete.

Aaron Dobson was super fast and explosive, but he hadn’t exceeded 700 receiving yards in a single season since he was in high school. Logan Ryan ranked in the bottom 25% of both speed and explosion at the combine, but he recorded 7 interceptions and 30 PBUs over his final two seasons at Rutgers- those 37 passes defended were the most in college football over that time. One player failed to notch 700 receiving yards in his NFL career. The other just inked a contract for $10 million per season.

The Patriots have shown an ability to self-reflect and improve their drafting, as evidenced by last year’s selection of WR Malcolm Mitchell- the Patriots finally drafted a receiver out of a pro style offense that understood route concepts after wasting pick after pick on spread offense receivers- so maybe the Patriots will stop overdrafting certain players and focus instead on players with proven track records.