The dust has settled on Super Bowl 52. Unfortunately for the New England Patriots offense, a record-breaking performance will be overshadowed by a truly horrendous defensive effort. In a sense, albeit depressing, it was a fitting way to bookend a 2017 season that opened with the Patriots’ defense getting torched by Kansas City.
Although the defense seemed to improve as the year progressed, unsustainable red zone performance was propping up a vulnerable roster. By the end of the season, the linebacker/edge depth chart looked more like the starting lineup of a fourth preseason game than a Super Bowl.
There were multiple factors that played a role in the poor defensive performance in the Super Bowl, but perhaps the biggest factor was simply the roster. New England entered 2017 with an already limited depth chart at linebacker and edge thanks to a retirement (Rob Ninkovich) and surprise roster cut (Kony Ealy). The depth chart was further emaciated by injuries before the season (Derek Rivers) and during the season (Dont’a Hightower). It’s no surprise the Patriots ended up giving heavy snaps to practice squad players and core special teamers.
The draft is the primary tool for roster building and the first place to look when analyzing roster deficiencies. Below is a look at New England’s recent draft blunders, beginning in 2014. I chose 2014 because players chosen in 2014 were theoretically on the final year of their rookie contracts (first round picks have the possibility of team extensions for a fifth year). I also added some players that the Patriots could have drafted instead of the selections they chose.
I do want to add a caveat: I think that Bill Belichick and the Patriots do a great job of drafting and roster procurement in general. No team is perfect at drafting. Any fan of any team can analyze previous drafts and point out a bust. There are always great players every team wishes they drafted. Some teams pass on players simply because they don’t fit the scheme. This exercise isn’t to vent or complain about a few “what if” scenarios.
With that said, draft mistakes do have real consequences, especially if there are multiple mistakes made in consecutive years. Consider that the Patriots played in the 2014 Super Bowl with four defensive starters on their rookie deals that they drafted in the first or second round: Devin McCourty, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins. In 2017, they only had one: Malcom Brown. Good players on rookie contracts are the best assets in football. The Patriots whiffing on early round draft picks was a significant blow to the defense. Let’s look at the drafts:
The Patriots needed to add depth across the defensive line and took a flier on Dominique Easley. Easley came with significant injury and character concerns, and both reared their ugly heads during Easley’s brief tenure in New England. The reasoning was sound: the defense was playing in sub packages more than ever and interior pass rushers like Easley were necessary. Unfortunately, the Patriots bet on the wrong horse.
Two players, in particular, were drafted in the second round behind Easley and were rumored targets of New England: Demarcus Lawrence and Stephon Tuitt. Mike Reiss even included both players on his list of “10 Perfect Patriots” leading up to the draft. Tuitt would probably have been the most realistic pick given his size, athleticism, and the Patriots’ need for interior defenders. He can play inside or on the edge and would have made a perfect complement to Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, and Rob Ninkovich at the time. Lawrence would have been behind Jones and Ninkovich, but we saw the Patriots add edge depth (Jabaal Sheard) in 2015, so the need existed. Lawrence would have also provided insurance for Chandler Jones’ impending free agency. Obviously, Jones ended up being traded and the Patriots have yet to fill the pass rushing void. It’s easy to imagine New England’s defensive line being much better with either on the roster, and either would have been playing in the Super Bowl on a rookie deal. Ouch.
The Patriots drafted pretty well in 2015. Malcom Brown fell into their laps at number 32, and the Patriots found steals in the fourth round with Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason. Geneo Grissom and Tre' Jackson didn’t work out as planned, but the middle rounds of this draft in general are looking poor as it ages, so walking away with two quality starters is a net positive.
The glaring mistake of this draft is Jordan Richards at the end of the second round. The selection was widely panned as a massive reach, which doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad pick. Belichick has “reached” before and come away with players like Duron Harmon and Sebastian Vollmer. But reaching for Richards seemed curious given the Patriots’ depth at safety at the time. There was a theory that Richards could eventually replace Patrick Chung, which obviously hasn’t happened.
Given the depth at the position at the time, I’m not sure the Patriots were desperate to take a safety. It’s more likely they really loved Richards and felt good about drafting him. If they did truly want to draft a safety, they would probably be much better walking away with Adrian Amos, who was drafted in the fifth round but was graded higher than Richards pre-draft. Amos has been excellent for the Bears, offers versatility in the run and pass, and Pro Football Focus named Amos as a first teamer on their 2017 All Pro Team.
The biggest disappointment with Richards in 2017 wasn’t that the Patriots needed help at safety, it was that the Patriots needed Richards to overcome deficiencies at linebacker. Even with Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots had limited linebacker depth. After losing Hightower, the Patriots had virtually nobody at linebacker who could cover consistently. Throughout 2017, New England needed Richards to be able to cover while adding run support. They got neither. Richards was especially exposed in the Super Bowl, offering little resistance to anything Philadelphia was doing offensively.
The Patriots didn’t need to draft a safety in 2015, but obviously felt compelled to draft Richards. Richards should have played a big role for the defense in 2017, but sadly couldn’t figure it out. The Patriots could have drafted a linebacker in 2015 given the impending free agencies of Hightower and Jamie Collins. Two useful linebackers, Jordan Hicks and Kwon Alexander, were both drafted after Richards.
Let’s not get too deep down the rabbit hole of the lost Deflategate pick, but its impact deserves acknowledgment. Losing a first round pick is a devastating blow for any team. The Patriots entered the 2016 draft with multiple needs on defense, especially at edge, linebacker, and corner. They had just traded Chandler Jones and were staring down the barrel of free agency for Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Logan Ryan. A linebacker who can cover and make plays from sideline to sideline sure would have helped in the Super Bowl, and one was available at hypothetical pick number 29: Myles Jack. Jack slipped because of injury concern, but he’s been terrific in Jacksonville. Alright, that’s enough Deflategate talk.
The Patriots did make a defensive selection in 2016, picking Cyrus Jones at the end of the second round. They drafted Jones in large part due to his potential contributions on special teams. Obviously, that hasn’t worked out yet. Jones’ injury ended his sophomore year before it started and maybe he can contribute in the future. But there were other corners available who projected as better coverage options, most notably Kendall Fuller, who was selected in the third round due to a knee injury. Pro Football Focus graded Fuller as the fifth best overall corner in the NFL in 2017, and the best slot corner in the league in terms of passer rating against.
It’s not fair to be too critical of a draft after just one year. That is especially true for a Super Bowl caliber roster like New England. The Patriots did seem to find a mid-round steal in Deatrich Wise Jr., who played well for a rookie. The big disappointment came in the form of injury with third round pick Derek Rivers. Last year’s draft was packed full of pass rushers, and Rivers would likely have gone earlier in a more depleted class. Given the lack of depth on the edge for the Patriots and his projection as an above average pass rusher, Rivers would have likely played a huge role for the defense.
So there you have it. In an alternate universe, the Patriots would have taken the field in the Super Bowl with Demarcus Lawrence, Myles Jack, and Kendall Fuller, all on their rookie contracts. Of course, every team has draft busts. Every fan can complain about the players they could have taken. It’s not realistic to expect a team to hit every pick. This scenario is more of a pipe dream.
However, this exercise does illustrate how a few poor draft decisions can significantly impact a roster. There are multiple reasons why the Patriots’ defense was so pathetic in the Super Bowl, and that includes a series of ill-fated draft picks and a bogus investigation.