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What if the NFL had not stripped two of the Patriots’ first-round picks?

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New England Patriots Vs. Baltimore Ravens At M&B Stadium Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

SB Nation is having another theme week, and the topic this time is “What if...” — all week long, we will take a look at different scenarios, and we’ll kick things off with two of the most controversial decisions in NFL history.

Since the NFL introduced the salary cap for its 1994 season, 16 draft picks have been stripped by the league as punishment for rule violations. No team has been hit harder, and more often, than the New England Patriots: the organization has lost two first-round selections as well as a fourth-round pick as a result of its alleged involvement in the Spygate and Deflategate affairs of 2007 and 2015, respectively.

Whether or not the punishment actually fit the crime can very much be disputed in both cases, though, when looking strictly at the facts:

  • Spygate: The Patriots were penalized for ignoring a 2006 memo that regulated a team’s ability to videotape the opposing sideline and how to use that information. The phrasing of said memo, however, contradicted the NFL’s rules at the time — rules that can only be changed by ownership vote, which had not happened in this particular case. New England therefore went with its own interpretation of the rule, while trying to be in accordance with what was regulated by the NFL’s bylaws (that filming was allowed regardless of camera location as long as the material was not used in-game). The NFL obviously disagreed and stripped the Patriots’ 2008 first-round pick and fined the club $250,000.
  • Deflategate: Ahead of the 2014 AFC Championship Game, the Baltimore Ravens notified the Indianapolis Colts about a rumor that the Patriots were using deflated footballs to gain an advantage. What followed was the Colts reaching out to the league, and chaos: NFL officials hastily conducted measurements at halftime and drew premature conclusions that the home team had in fact cheated. The NFL’s subsequent multi-million dollar investigation and legal battle that followed, however, cast doubt on the league’s own report into the matter and the science to justify a penalty that included the forfeiture of two draft picks in 2016 and 2017 as well as a four-game suspension for quarterback Tom Brady.

Given that both scandals could have been handed a lot better by the league office, this week’s SB Nation Theme Week gives us a chance to look a bit deeper into how the penalties impacted New England: What if the NFL had not stripped two of the Patriots’ first-round picks? Let’s start with Spygate.

What if the Patriots had not lost a first-round pick in 2008?

Had the NFL not decided to strip one of New England’s first-rounders in 2008, the team would have had two selections to work with in the first round: the Patriots already entered the draft holding the seventh overall pick after a trade with the San Francisco 49ers the previous year. That pick was later used for a trade-down that ended with the team selecting linebacker Jerod Mayo 10th overall — a selection that worked out very well from the Patriots’ perspective.

The second first-round choice, on the other hand, would have been the 31st overall. With Mayo already in the fold to bolster the defensive front seven, New England would have had options both in terms of players available and potentially finding trade partners. While a trade very much could have happened — both the 29th and the 30th pick were traded before New England would have been on the clock again — one reasonable thought is that the team could have selected another defender to add youth to a unit that was among the best but oldest in football heading into 2008.

If the team had gone that route, some high-end talent would still have been available. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Phillip Merling, or linebacker Curtis Lofton, could have helped add further depth to the front seven, It seems plausible, however, that the Patriots would have added to their secondary considering that they eventually ended up drafting cornerback Terrence Wheatley at the end of Round Two.

Wheatley appeared in only 11 games for the club, and can be classified as a bust, but the Patriots could have had better options if not for the Spygate punishments. Fellow cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Tracy Porter would have made sense at the end of the first round, just like safeties Kenny Phillips and Tyrell Johnson. All four would likely have been upgrades over Wheatley. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, and New England’s secondary eventually turned into a weakness that would not be truly fixed until 2014.

What if the Patriots had not lost a first-round pick in 2016?

After finishing the previous season with a loss in the AFC title game, the Patriots would have been scheduled to draft in the 29th overall slot in 2016. Their first selection did not come until the bottom of the second round, however, when the team picked cornerback Cyrus Jones 60th overall. Jones, much like Wheatley, did not live up to his potential in New England and was eventually released after appearing in a mere 12 games — mostly as a mistake-prone returnman.

That said, the team could have had some intriguing options in Round One had it been allowed to pick. Xavien Howard would have been the top cornerback option available, but other spots might have been even more interesting from this hypothetical perspective. How about defensive tackles Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Butler or Chris Jones, for example? Or linebackers Jaylon Smith, Myles Jack and Deion Jones? Tight end Hunter Henry or wide receiver Michael Thomas also would have been available at the end of the first round.

New England was unable to get any of them, however, because they all came off the board between the 29th and the 60th overall selections. That said, the Patriots did still come away from that draft with a solid haul despite whiffing on Jones: Joe Thuney, who has started every game since his NFL debut, was picked in the third round; linebacker Elandon Roberts and offensive lineman Ted Karras were drafted in the sixth. Add Jacoby Brissett and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who both contributed to the team’s 2016 championship run, and you get a good draft even without a first-rounder.

Of course, that first-round selection would have helped the Patriots address some of the shortcomings on their roster and potentially add a starting-caliber player who still could be on the team to this day — unlike eight of the other nine players eventually picked (all but Thuney). New England just never had the chance to do that, because the league evidently didn’t pay attention in Physics 101.