There were multiple factors contributing to the New England Patriots’ free agency shopping tour, but one of the more prominent was the club’s recent draft success; or better, the lack thereof. New England’s inability to consistently funnel playmakers to an aging team through the college player pipeline played a notable role in its issues over the last two seasons.
It also caught the eye of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Talking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, the 79-year-old touched on a variety of topics. One statement that did raise some eyebrows was his acknowledgement that New England struggled in the draft the last few years.
“If you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency. You have to do it through the draft,” Kraft said. “That’s when you’re able to get people of great talent — whether it’s Willie McGinest or Tom Brady — you get them at a price where you can build a team and be competitive. Once they get to their first contract, if they’re superstars, you can only balance so many of them.
“So really, the teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good. I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years, and I really hope — and I believe — I’ve seen a different approach this year.”
Kraft’s candid remarks are certainly noteworthy considering that the Patriots usually like to keep their cards close to the vest and not go too deep into certain developments. The recent free agency and 7-9 season raised some questions that Kraft did not shy away from answering, though.
The Patriots, of course, built their dynasty on their ability to draft and develop high-impact players. Whether it was first-rounders like Richard Seymour, Devin McCourty or Dont’a Hightower, or later-round picks such as Tom Brady, Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman, New England kept that pipeline flowing for much of the last two decades. The organization’s Team of the 2010s is a perfect example of that: 20 of 27 players were either drafted or signed as rookie free agents.
Recently, however, the Patriots hit a dry spell.
Highly-selected prospects such as Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Duke Dawson, N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams and Yodny Cajuste have had no or little impact on the team. Missing on six of 15 players picked in the first three rounds since 2017 is certainly not ideal, and one likely reason why Kraft has been calling for a different approach.
How said new-look approach looks like is anyone’s guess. The departure of former director of player personnel Nick Caserio and the subsequent promotion of Nick Ziegler might have played a role in some changes being made atop the scouting department, though.
But no matter what happens inside the building, Kraft knows that evaluating a draft can be tricky — especially when it comes to last year’s class.
“In the end, it all comes down to what happens on the field and how well people execute; and you really don’t know how good a draft is until at least two years. And especially in the environment we’re in now ... I think last year, younger players were really disadvantaged because they didn’t have the time to come and learn and be part of it,” he said.
The Patriots selected 10 players last year. While two — Day Three picks Justin Rohrwasser and Dustin Woodard — are no longer with the club, others like second-round safety Kyle Dugger and sixth-round offensive lineman Michael Onwenu already look like hits. In between, New England has plenty of unknowns which also contributed to their aggressive free agency and signing 13 players over the last two weeks.
The goal is now a simple one: get back into contention after a disappointing year.
“What happened here last year was not something to our liking, and we had to make the corrections and do the things,” he said. “In all businesses we’re involved in, we try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the market — in the paper business, in anything. Given that we were in a unique cap situation this coming year going forward, and it allowed us to try things.
“We missed to a certain extent in the draft, so [free agency] was our best opportunity. I don’t ever think the market over the next decade will be like this, unless, God forbid, there’s another pandemic. We lost $4 billion of revenue last year, and the cap went down. That hasn’t really happened since I bought the team, and we just happened to be in a unique situation.”
The NFL and the Patriots alike developed steadily since Kraft acquired the team in 1994. Last year, however, both faced a challenging environment: the league due to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent revenue loss; the Patriots because they experienced high-profile free agency departures and saw their recent draft misses catch up to them.
Add it all up, and you get why Kraft did not feel good about last year’s season — especially his team missing the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
“How did I feel? Well, I’m not going to use the word, but it was horrible,” Kraft said about New England’s 2020 season. “After my family, the Patriots are the most important thing in my life. ... The bottom-line here is winning, that’s what this business is. When we don’t, it’s not a good feeling.”
Bringing high-profile free agents aboard is the first step to consistently returning to the win column, but it will be for naught if the draft and quarterback questions cannot be answered as well.