With the 2013 draft looming, we decided to take a look back at the 18 finest selections of the Bill Belichick era in New England. The rules for inclusion are fairly standard -- a player had to be drafted by the Patriots from when Belichick took control in 2000 until the present day.
In putting together the rankings, we took several things into account. One, impact on and off the field. While production clearly figures into the rankings -- and is the first and most important measuring stick -- many picks (particularly guys like Matt Light, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork) would go on to demonstrate terrific leadership skills, and as a result, become cornerstones of the franchise. Two, overall draft value. Some later-round picks are ranked higher on our list than first-rounders, because it says something about a late-round pick if he exceeds expectations. (That’s why you’ll see so many fifth-, sixth- and seventh-rounders near the top.) And three, something we’ll call intangibles. It could mean a consistent ability to produce in big moments or simply rise above an unfortunate situation to succeed in the NFL.
Oh, and we’ll have the worst draft picks coming Wednesday.
With the understanding that the jury still is out on the overall development of the class of 2012, here’s our list.
18. Stephen Gostkowski (4th round, 2006): The only player of impact the Patriots drafted in 2006 or 2007, the kicker out of Memphis was taken 118th overall and stepped into the shoes of the legendary Adam Vinatieri. He’s led the NFL in points scored twice, reached the Pro Bowl once, and was named first-team All-Pro in 2008. Still active.
17. Devin McCourty (1st round, 2010): Taken 27th overall out of Rutgers, this defensive back made a big splash as a rookie, coming away with seven interceptions and making the Pro Bowl (and getting a second-team All-Pro nod) in his first year. He struggled in his second season, but bounced back -- predominantly as a safety -- this past year and figures to be a big part of the New England defense going forward. Still active.
16. Jerod Mayo (1st round, 2008): Taken 10th overall by the Patriots in 2008, the Tennessee product has become a tackling machine -- he led the Patriots in total tackles in each of his first three seasons -- while becoming Defensive Rookie of the Year (2008), a Pro Bowler (in 2010 and 2012) and first-team All-Pro (2010). He’s durable (he’s missed four regular-season games in five seasons in New England) and he’s a leader (he’s served as a defensive captain multiple seasons). Honestly, the only reason he’s not higher here is the fact that he was taken 10th overall. Still active.
15. Matt Light (2nd round, 2001): Taken 48th overall as part of a draft that also included Richard Seymour, the Purdue product ended up stepping into the left tackle job as a rookie and managed to make the Pro Bowl three times in 11 seasons while protecting Tom Brady’s backside from the likes of Joey Porter, Jason Taylor and Dwight Freeney. Retired following the 2011 season.
14. Matt Cassel (7th round, 2005): Cassel was a career backup at USC, but New England took him 230th overall in 2005. After three years of working as a backup to Brady, Cassel stepped in in 2008 after a season-ending knee injury to the starting quarterback and helped guide the Patriots to an 11-5 mark while throwing for a career-best 3,693 yards. New England ended up dealing him to Kansas City for a second-round pick. Still active.
13. Richard Seymour (1st round, 2001): The highest pick of the Belichick era -- he was selected sixth overall in 2001 -- Seymour spent eight seasons with the Patriots and emerged as one of the most talented defensive linemen of the 21st century. (Like Mayo, the only reason he’s not higher is because he’s a top-10 pick.) He was a part of three Super Bowl champions and compiled a laundry list of personal accomplishments with New England, including five trips to the Pro Bowl and three spots on the AP All-Pro first team. Still active.
12. Sebastian Vollmer (2nd round, 2009): A converted tight end who didn’t play much football before enrolling at the University of Houston (he didn’t get an invite to the combine), the big German has managed to make himself into one of the better offensive tackles in the league. Drafted 58th overall in 2009, he recently signed a four-year, $17 million deal to return to the Patriots. Still active.
11. Julian Edelman (7th round, 2009): A former college quarterback out of Kent State, Edelman and Matt Cassel are likely in a dead heat for the honor of best seventh-round pick in the history of the franchise. In the last 10 years -- starting with the 2003 draft -- the Patriots have selected eight receivers, and Edelman has the best numbers of any of them with 69 career catches. (That includes a career-best 37 as a rookie.) Edelman also has displayed tremendous special teams value as both a punt and kick returner. Recently re-signed with the Patriots, inking a one-year, $765,000 deal to stay with the team. Still active.
10. Deion Branch (2nd round, 2002): Perhaps no wide receiver represented not only terrific draft value (he was taken 65th overall) and overall ability over the last 12 years than Branch. The Louisville product played his first four seasons with New England (2002-2005), and had three years in which he caught at least 40 passes while going on to win MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX. After spending four-plus years in Seattle, he returned to the Patriots in 2010 and has been with New England ever since. In seven seasons with the Patriots, he has 328 catches for 4,297 yards and 24 touchdowns. Still active.
9. Stevan Ridley (3rd round, 2011): We wrote about Ridley’s impact here, but anytime you discover a running back in the third round who can hit the 1,250-yard mark before the age of 24, that’s quite a discovery. Taken 73rd overall out of LSU in 2010, he’ll likely be the closest thing to a lead back for the Patriots for the next several years, providing he can stay healthy. Still active.
8. Vince Wilfork (1st round, 2004): Taken 21st overall out of Miami, Wilfork has become the most indispensible part of the New England defense since he arrived in Foxboro. He’s made five Pro Bowls, been named second-team All-Pro on three occasions and first-team All-Pro once. (For what it’s worth, we believe he’s a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.) Wilfork also joined the Patriots as the result of some of Belichick’s finest draft maneuvering -- in 2003, he shipped the 19th overall pick for a second-rounder and Baltimore's first-round pick the following year. Belichick used the extra pick on Wilfork, while the Ravens drafted Kyle Boller. Welp. Still active.
7. Logan Mankins (1st round, 2005): It was a pick that left many several scratching their heads when it was first announced, but Mankins could be one of the finest 32nd overall picks of all time. The guard out of Fresno State has started 114 regular-season games out of a possible 128 over the course of his eight-year career with the Patriots -- the only reason he missed six of those was because of a contract issue in 2010. In all, he’s made the Pro Bowl five times, been a second-team All-Pro four times and been a first-team All-Pro once. Still active.
6. Dan Koppen (5th round, 2003): Selected 164th overall out of Boston College, Koppen stepped in as the starting center in his first season and never gave up the job. In nine seasons with the Patriots he started 120 games, made one Pro Bowl trip and served as the centerpiece of the New England offensive line. Still active.
5. Asante Samuel (4th round, 2003): Despite the fact that he had one very important ball slip through his hands at the worst possible time, Samuel was the finest defensive back drafted in the Belichick era. The 120th pick overall, the Central Florida product had 16 regular-season picks in his last two seasons in New England before he left via free agency for Philadelphia. Still active.
4. Rob Gronkowski (2nd round, 2010): Taken 42nd overall by the Patriots (after luminaries like Torell Troup and Tim Tebow), he likely slid in part because of his injury history. However, the Patriots jumped in on Gronkowski when they had the chance, and he’s been one of the best second-round values in recent NFL memory. Despite some injury issues, in his three seasons in the league he’s quickly become one of the best young tight ends in the game over the last decade. Still active.
3. David Givens (7th round, 2002): One of the greatest draft bargains in franchise history, the wide receiver was taken 253rd overall out of Notre Dame and spent four seasons in New England. Part of two championship teams, he had 149 catches in three seasons, including a career-best 59 in 2009. Signed a free agent deal with the Titans after the 2005 season and played only five games after that before calling it a career because of knee issues. Retired.
2. Aaron Hernandez (4th round, 2010): Like Deion Branch, Hernandez not only represents terrific draft value because of where he was selected, but he also has emerged as a tremendous offensive option in the New England passing game. Like Gronkowski, Hernandez has had some durability issues as of late, but he remains one of the most versatile offensive options in the league. The ultimate tribute to the two tight ends is that if you decided to hold a re-draft of the 2010 class, both Gronkowski and Hernandez would be no-doubt first-rounders. Still active.
1. Tom Brady (6th round, 2000): A no-brainer. To their credit, Belichick and former GM Scott Pioli disavow any knowledge that Brady might turn into TOM BRADY, SUPERSTAR. (Pioli used to keep a picture of Dave Stachelski -- who was taken one round before Brady -- on his desk as a reminder that he wasn't some sort of draft genius. Frankly, if they did know the quarterback would become the game-changer he ended up being, they wouldn't have waited until the sixth round to draft him.) Everyone knows the story, so we’ll just leave you with the quote from Beilchick shortly after the 2000 draft was completed on his new quarterback: “The value board at that point really just clearly put him as the top value. Brady is a guy who has obviously played at a high level of competition in front of a lot of people. He’s been in a lot of pressure situations. We felt that this year his decision-making was improved from his junior year after he took over for [Brian] Griese and cut his interceptions down. [He’s] a good, tough, competitive, smart quarterback that is a good value, and how he does and what he’ll be able to ... we’ll just put him out there with everybody else and let him compete and see what happens.”