New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did not become the most accomplished man in pro football history because he was following conventions or altering his core beliefs based on circumstance. Belichick — and to a lesser degree the people he surrounded himself with, such as Nick Caserio — instead reached his unprecedented level of success by sticking to his principles and not being afraid to zag when everybody expects him to zig.
In this sense, the Patriots’ 2020 draft can be described as quintessential Belichick. He and his organization may have lost one of the pillars of its two-decade long dynasty earlier during the offseason when quarterback Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the system that was built at One Patriot Place has in its theoretical foundation never been dependent on one player. The show had to go on, and over the last three days it did.
When looking at the draft in itself, New England’s decision-making did not look any different as it had when Brady was still a part of the team. Whether or not this is ultimately a positive or a negative remains to be seen, but Belichick certainly did not change his ways simply because the best player he has ever coached decided to take his talents elsewhere.
Trading out of the first round and then trading some more
After ending the 2019 season on wild card weekend, the Patriots headed into the draft holding the 23rd overall selection in the first round. But even though the board fell favorably from New England’s perspective — there was a run at cornerbacks and offensive tackles in the mid-teens — the team decided not to stand pat and make a selection, but rather to move down in order to acquire more assets on Day Two of the draft: the Patriots moved No. 23 to the Los Angeles Chargers for one pick each in the second and third rounds.
Belichick and company could have had one of the most intriguing linebackers in the draft such as LSU’s Patrick Queen or Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray, or maybe bolstered it offensive skill positions by picking a member of a deep wide receiver class, but the filling what was originally a 63-pick gap after the 23rd pick was seen as the preferable outcome. As a result, the Patriots did what they had done numerous times in the past: trade down, get more picks.
Trading in general was the name of the game for New England. Just take a look at this graphic comparing the team’s picks before Round One on Thursday and after the end of the draft on Saturday:
As can be seen, only four selections — 3-87, 6-195, 6-204, 7-230 — remained in place between Thursday and Saturday. The rest were all involved in a trade one way or another. In total, the Patriots moved down the board once when they traded out of the first round and later moved back again up four times. As always with Belichick at the helm, New England was trying to maximize value and also not afraid of using its assets to get coveted players.
Using a second-round pick on a defensive back
It has mostly turned into a running joke, but the Patriots indeed have an affinity for spending second-round draft picks on defensive backs: during Belichick’s first 20 drafts in New England, the team has invested in either a cornerback or a safety 10 times in Round Two. Belichick’s 21st draft was more of the same, as the team picked Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger with the 37th overall selection that was acquired in the aforementioned trade out of the first round.
While the pick itself was a polarizing one from a fan-perspective, Dugger was not a reach like the Jordan Richards or Tavon Wilsons of the world by any means: he was one of the most talented safety prospects available in this year’s draft and considered a second-round talent on the Big Board. While there were other attractive options available that would have filled more pressing needs on New England’s roster, the team certainly did not reach for him with the 37th overall selection.
The 24-year-old, after all, offers an intriguing athletic skillset: he has the length to play the safety/linebacker-hybrid role in New England’s defense that is currently occupied by a soon-to-be 33-year-old Patrick Chung, but also offers the impressive range to make an impact a deep fielder. The Patriots will find a way to make the most out of his versatile, and he could make an impact right away as either a nickel defender or core special teamer.
Not dipping into the deepest position because of value elsewhere
The wide receiver position was considered to be the deepest in the draft, and the numbers certainly reflect this: a total of 35 wideouts were selected, with 13 of them coming off the board in either the first or second round — a new record in the common AFC/NFC drafting era. While it remains to be seen how big of an impact all those pass catchers will eventually have on their teams, their potential cannot be denied. And yet, Bill Belichick and company decided to not dip into the pool at any point in the draft.
This came as somewhat of a surprise considering that New England’s wide receivers had their fair share of struggles during the 2019 season. And yet, the team is apparently confident that the group headed by first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry, Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and veteran trade acquisition Mohamed Sanu will get the job done — despite playing with a new quarterback following Tom Brady’s free agency departure.
Instead of investing in a wide receiver, however, the Patriots decided to play the value game at other positions. If plenty of pass catchers went off the board early, after all, some talented players elsewhere would start to fall — right? Whether or not this is logic is part of New England’s draft strategy is up for debate, but Belichick and company did again not do what everyone would expect them to do: they did not try to take advantage of the deepest position in the draft, at least not by picking one of its players.
Thinking beyond the upcoming season
The draft is not just a tool to get affordable talent on board and lay the foundation of a team for years to come, but also to address some needs. New England certainly did this at multiple positions: linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins were lost in free agency, but Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings drafted on Day Two to help fill their voids; the tight end position lacked quality options on all levels, but Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene were brought aboard as the potential one-two punch; Justin Rohrwasser was drafted in the fifth round as the team’s new place kicker.
Short-term needs are not the only ones that were addressed, however, which again has become a Belichick hallmark over the years. Take the aforementioned selection of Kyle Dugger as the best example: the Patriots know that they will have to replace Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung sooner rather than later, with both turning 33 over the summer. Adding Dugger gives them a high-upside option to groom behind the two veterans and to take over as a starter either by 2021 or 2022 — all while offering quality depth until that point.
This approach is not unfamiliar. The Patriots did the same at offensive tackle, for example, where they drafted Nate Solder in the first-round in 2011 to become Matt Light’s replacement, and later invested in Isaiah Wynn to fill Solder’s role after his eventual departure. New England took a similar route at other positions as well throughout the years — the selection of Dugger and developmental linebackers Uche and Jennings fall under the same category of thinking beyond the upcoming season.