History — and recent personnel losses — would seem to point to the idea of Bill Belichick drafting a defensive tackle or defensive back this spring in the first round. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Predicting how the Patriots will approach the draft can be a fool’s errand. But history tells us that when it comes to their approach with high-value picks — combined with the recent personnel losses of Darrelle Revis or Vince Wilfork — if they end up sticking with just one selection in the top 50, they’ll try and find a defensive back or defensive lineman.
Since Bill Belichick took over just prior to the 2000 draft, the Patriots have had 24 picks in the top 50, and they have spent half of those on defensive linemen or defensive backs — six each. (In addition, they’ve taken four offensive linemen, three tight ends, two wide receivers, two linebackers and one running back with those selections.)
Of that group of 24, you can easily count 10 players as being long-term starters: Wilfork, Devin McCourty, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, Chandler Jones and Nate Solder. You could also make an argument that three others (Benjamin Watson, Ty Warren and Patrick Chung) were in the league long enough to qualify as contributors.
While it’s unclear how that stacks up against the rest of the league — that’s a more in-depth blog post for another day — the fact that the Patriots have been able to hit on 42 percent of those picks is a good number. That stat is made all the more impressive considering the fact that New England has had just two picks in the top 10 in that span (Seymour at No. 6 in 2001 and Mayo at No. 10 in 2008). That’s second on the list of fewest top 10 picks in that span. By way of comparison, since 2000, the Lions and Jaguars have had the most top 10 picks (10 each), while the Colts, Steelers, Broncos and Giants have had the fewest (one each).
How does all this figure into this year? Ultimately, no one throws more curveballs on draft weekend than the Patriots, and the same should be true this time around. (It’s no surprise that no draft expert can seem to agree on what direction New England will go this time around.) But if you’re looking for the Patriots to utilize their 32nd pick on a defensive lineman, history tells us that’s usually a good thing: Of the six defensive linemen they have taken in the top 50, they’ve hit on four of them: Wilfork, Seymour, Warren and Chandler Jones. One was an undisputed miss (Ron Brace) and the sixth (Dominique Easley) gets an incomplete for playing roughly half of his rookie season before going on injured reserve.
However, as successful as they’ve been at targeting defensive linemen and plugging them immediately into the system following those high value picks, they’ve struggled when it comes to identifying and drafting defensive back, at least when it comes to those same high-value picks. McCourty and Chung are the only two defensive backs taken in the top 50 who have enjoyed successful careers — Eugene Wilson had one very good year before a slide in semi-obscurity, but Brandon Meriweather, Darius Butler and Ras-I Dowling have all made little to no impact at the NFL level, at least when they were in Foxboro.
Of course, when it comes to drafting and developing defensive backs, maybe the organizational philosophy is more about quantity than quality: Since 2000, the Patriots have used most of their picks at defensive back (26), while defensive line (22) and offensive line (22) round out the top three. They’ve drafted 17 linebackers, 13 wide receivers, 10 tight ends, eight running backs, eight quarterbacks, three fullbacks, two kickers (one, Owen Pochman, also worked sparingly as a punter), one punter and one long snapper.
In the end, no one is suggesting that the Patriots will be able to replace Revis or Wilfork with a rookie. There’s always a ton to consider when the pick is submitted — scheme fit, approach, playing style. And simply put, there’s no one in this draft class at either cornerback or defensive line who can have the impact on the 2015 Patriots that Revis or Wilfork would have had if he was still a part of the franchise. (That’s not to say that a player taken at that spot couldn’t eventually grow into that role — it’s important to note that Revis was taken 14th overall by the Jets in 2007, while Wilfork was selected 21st overall by New England in 2004.)
But when you consider their historical approach, combined with their recent personnel losses, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England lean on a semi-familiar formula when they’re on the clock this spring.