When Robert Kraft spoke with reporters last week, he touched on a wide variety of topics. One of his most noteworthy statement, however, came when he spoke about the New England Patriots’ recent success in finding contributors through the draft: the team has not picked college talent as well as it should have, leading to its recent free agency spending spree.
Kraft noted that a winning team cannot be built solely through free agency, but rather the more cost-effective draft.
“The teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good,” he said. “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.”
At that point in time, how the new approach Kraft mentioned looked like was anybody’s guess. The change atop the personnel department from Nick Caserio to Dave Ziegler, who took over after Caserio’s departure to the Houston Texans, played a substantial part in it. However, according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated, New England’s scouting changes seem to extend beyond just Ziegler’s promotion:
The Patriots have employed a “different approach” this year. My sense right now is that has translated inside the building in a more collaborative Belichick, who’s listening not just to his top guys, Dave Ziegler and Eliot Wolf, but also those rising through the organization, like national scout Matt Groh. Now, I don’t know if it’ll change the Patriots’ luck on draft day. Or if Belichick will pull back on it when we get there. But for now, it feels like a good positive step for them.
In years past, the Patriots’ pre-draft process looked different from that of other teams and essentially saw the college scouts build the foundation throughout the year with Belichick and the coaching staff taking over from February on. At that point, most of the scouting department would be excluded with only a handful of its members still actively involved in the search for college talent between February and late April.
That structure worked well during much of the 2000s and through the first half of the 2010s. The Patriots’ Team of the 2010s is a perfect example of that: 20 of 27 players were either drafted by the organization or signed as rookie free agents.
The success was not sustained into the second half of last decade, though.
Even though the Patriots did have some hits over the last few years, 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 since their arrivals. Missing on six of 15 players picked in the first three rounds since 2017 is certainly not a recipe for success, and one likely reason why Kraft has been calling for a different approach.
Will a “more collaborative” Bill Belichick and some other structural changes bring the success the team owner is hoping for? That remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Patriots identified an issue and are actively trying to resolve it.