When spending time on internet sites concerned with the NFL — whether they be called Twitter, Facebook or Pats Pulpit — you can stumble across a peculiar statement with relative regularity: The New England Patriots under head coach/general manager Bill Belichick are not all that good at drafting. While the club has won six Super Bowls since Belichick’s arrival in 2000, its ability to select high-impact college players is considered a weakness by some.
Now before digging a bit deeper into the matter, it needs to be said that quantifying the success of a draft pick is difficult to do. There are obvious hits such as the selection of quarterback Tom Brady with the 199th overall selection during Belichick’s first draft with the Patriots, as well as easy-to-find identify — take defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who was drafted 29th overall in 2014 but released after just two injury-riddled seasons — misses.
However, a lot of player selections fall into a gray area that is not that easy to dissect. Take Cameron Fleming, for example, who was drafted 111 picks after Easley in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. While he never carved out a regular starting role along New England’s offensive line and left as an unrestricted free agent after four seasons, he still appeared in 56 games with 22 starts for the team and provided value as a backup swing tackle.
Judging players like Fleming on a hit-or-miss scale is difficult, because a lot of the results are formed by personal preference and opinion. One useful way to look at his case and that of all other draft picks is therefore by referring to statistics such as Approximate Value (AV) created by Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen. In its essence, AV compares players based on their contributions to a team from a numerical perspective — be it games, statistics or individual accolades.
Approximate Value “is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric” as Drinen himself explained in a explanatory blog post about creating the metric, but it does give some framework within which to evaluate players — and in our case draft classes. When using it therefore to evaluate which teams drafted better or worse versus the expectation, we can see that Belichick and the Patriots are among the best in football between 2000 and 2016:
The methodology on which this chart is based is pretty straight-forward. First, a look at expected Approximate Value per year for each of the draft pick slots is taken. Then, those numbers are compared to the actual AV per year earned by the selections made. The difference between the two numbers indicates whether or not a team drafted above or below its expectation relative to the draft slot in which it eventually ended up picking.
As can be seen, the Patriots have drafted above the expected Approximate Value in 10 of the 17 years over the 2000 to 2016 time span — and the last five straight during that stretch — for a combined average of 27.4 AV above expectation (AVaE). This ranks Belichick’s team as the fourth most successful in terms of drafting behind only the Indianapolis Colts (37.4 AVaE), Green Bay Packers (35.0 AVaE) and Seattle Seahawks (28.3 AVaE).
A closer look at the chart shows that New England was particularly successful in three of its drafts: 2005, 2015 and 2016, all of which resulting in an AVaE score of 10-plus. The reason for this is quickly found when looking at the players selected in each of the three years:
2005: OG Logan Mankins (1-32), CB Ellis Hobbs (3-84), OT Nick Kaczur (3-100), FS James Sanders (4-133), LB Ryan Claridge (5-170), QB Matt Cassel (7-230), TE Andy Stokes (7-255)
2015: DT Malcom Brown (1-32), SS Jordan Richards (2-64), DE Geneo Grissom (3-97), DE Trey Flowers (4-101), OG Tre’ Jackson (4-111), OG Shaq Mason (4-131), LS Joe Cardona (5-166), LB Matthew Wells (6-178), TE A.J. Derby (6-202), CB Darryl Roberts (7-247), LB Xzavier Dickson (7-253)
2016: CB Cyrus Jones (2-60), OG Joe Thuney (3-78), QB Jacoby Brissett (3-91), DT Vincent Valentine (3-96), WR Malcolm Mitchell (4-112), LB Kamu Grugier-Hill (6-208), LB Elandon Roberts (6-214), OG Ted Karras (6-221), WR Devin Lucien (7-225)
As can be seen, all three years brought some difference-makers or at least core contributors to the Patriots. From first-rounders Logan Mankins and Malcom Brown, who both played some solid football during their time in New England (with Mankins just recently being named to the NFL’s Team of the 2010s), to mid-round selections such as James Sanders, Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason, to late-round picks like Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras.
Sure, the Patriots have had some noticeable misses in those three years as well — former second-round pick Cyrus Jones stands out — but they generally did a good job adding talent to the team. The same also has to be said for other drafts in general: New England has had its ups and downs and hit a rough patch between 2006 and 2009, when its average AVaE was -6.18, but more often than not could feel good about the results.
For completeness’ sake, it also needs to be pointed out that players who are still on their rookie deals do not factor into the equation just yet. However, the Patriots still found some talent between 2017 and 2019 that could be counted as successful picks at this point in time and in relation to where they were selected. Of course, the upcoming seasons will ultimately decide how those three draft classes will be looked at in the future.
The Patriots are not perfect at drafting, that is obvious. That said, they are better than a lot of people give them credit for and have built their success over the past two decades in large parts because of their ability to find serviceable players through the draft. Add the fact that they are as good as any organization when it comes to identifying talent on the free agency and trade markets, and in terms of managing the salary cap, and you get the pillars for what is the most successful run in modern NFL history.