Everyone knows about the first-round studs that have had long and successful careers in New England -- Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, etc. But despite what Forbes Magazine may lead you to believe, the Patriots have had more than their share of success throughout all stages of the draft, including in the late rounds. And with the understanding that a true late-round success story can only come from pick No. 150 on, here’s our Top 5 late-round bargains in franchise history:
Sixth round (199th overall), 2000
Brady is the gold standard for late-round draft value. Everyone knows the story -- the Patriots take a skinny kid out of Michigan to be a fourth-string quarterback. He plugs away as a rookie, making the scout team and biding his time until he gets his chance in the fall of 2001. That’s when Mo Lewis knocks Drew Bledsoe sideways, Brady enters the starting lineup and becomes an NFL MVP and three-time Super Bowl champion.
To their credit, both former Patriots’ GM Scott Pioli and coach Bill Belichick have sloughed off any idea they thought Brady was going to be as good as he was. “If we thought he was going to be this good, I don’t think we would’ve waited for the 199th pick to take him,” Pioli would later say. “We definitely don’t have things figured out. Trust me.”
After Brady was selected, no one asked anything about him in the post-draft press conference. That afternoon, even Belichick offered no more than a mere thumbnail sketch of the man who would become the new crown prince of the NFL: “The value board at that point really just clearly put him as the top value. [Tom] 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 do. ... we’ll just put him out there with everybody else and let him compete and see what happens.”
Yeah, I’d say that’s worked out OK.
Guys the Patriots took before Brady: Offensive tackle Adrian Klemm (second round), tight end Dave Stachelski (fifth round).
Eighth round (198th overall), 1993
If Brady is the gold standard for late-round draft value, the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Brown is the silver. The undersized receiver/return man was an eighth-round afterthought when he was taken in 1993, and when he got to camp, he certainly didn’t look like the kind of player who could hang around for the next 15 seasons. (As a rookie, he liked to talk, so much so that annoyed veterans Ben Coates and Bruce Armstrong once put him in a barrel and rolled him down the ramp at Foxboro Stadium.)
But after being waived -- he was the final cut in 1994 out of training camp, but eventually re-signed on Oct. 19 that year -- Brown eventually carved out a niche for himself in New England as a pass catcher who also contributed mightily on special teams. He really started to flourish after Belichick came on board in 2000, becoming an integral part of the Patriots’ three Super Bowl teams. He became one of Brady’s most dependable targets, and he endeared himself to Belichick on several occasions, including a stretch in 2004 where he served as defensive back.
“Troy Brown,” Belichick once said, “is a football-playing dude.”
He ended his career after the 2007 season as the Patriots’ all-time leading receiver with 557 career receptions, and is second all-time in franchise history in overall receiving yards with 6,366.
Guys the Patriots took before Brown: Kicker Scott Sisson (fifth round), defensive back Lawrence Hatch (sixth round).
Fifth round (164th overall), 2003
The Boston College product was part of an impressive draft haul that made an immediate effect on the team -- Koppen, Ty Warren (first round), Eugene Wilson (second round) and Asante Samuel (fourth round) all made an impact as rookies in 2003. But Koppen and Warren have had the most staying power. Because of injuries, Koppen stepped right into the mix as a rookie, starting the final 15 games (as well as all three postseason contests) of his first season in the NFL. Since then, the 6-foot-2, 296-pound Koppen has made the Pro Bowl and become a stabilizing force on the offensive line.
Koppen’s selection is a good example of Belichick’s familiarity with college programs and coaches. While Tom O’Brien isn’t a traditional member of the Belichick coaching tree -- like Nick Saban, Charlie Weis, Pat Hill and Kirk Ferentz -- he was a ubiquitous presence around Foxborough while he was the head coach at Boston College. And so when the time came to select Koppen, Belichick knew O’Brien would give him the straight dope when it came to any inside info. It’s a formula they’ve gone to time-and-again: between 2002 and 2005, seven of the 31 players drafted by the Patriots came from schools where a former Belichick assistant or close friend like O’Brien was the head coach.
Guys the Patriots took before Koppen: Wide receiver/kick returner/space cadet Bethel Johnson (second round).
Seventh round (230th overall), 2005
Many considered Cassel something of a bust until last season, but the USC product stepped up after Brady’s knee injury and guided the 2008 team to an 11-5 record in Brady’s absence. He ended the season playing the best football of his career, ending up with 3,693 passing yards, a 63 percent completion rate and 21 touchdowns.
“I don’t think anybody is surprised about what Matt’s done,” Belichick said late in the 2008 season. “As he has played, as he’s continued to improve and continued to be consistent, I think that he’s gained a level of confidence and the team has gained a level of confidence in him that, through no fault of his own, he just didn’t have in the beginning of the year because he hadn’t had the opportunity to do it. Once you have done it, gone out there and done the things he’s done, it is just natural that he would feel more confident in doing them and all of his teammates would feel more confident in him doing them as well.
“Not that it was ever the other way, but it was more of, ‘OK, he’s had his chance to do it and he’s done it.’ I really don’t think anybody at the beginning of the year felt like he just couldn’t play. I don’t know if there was some sentiment of that outside of this building, but I don’t think there was any sense of that from the players and coaches that work with him.”
At the end of the season, the seventh-rounder was slapped with the franchise tag before getting shipped off to the Chiefs -- along with linebacker Mike Vrabel -- for Kansas City’s second-round pick later this month.
The selection of Cassel is a good example of a drafting pattern the Patriots have developed under Belichick. Since 2000, New England has frequently decided to take a quarterback in the later rounds, no matter how stable the position may be. It was true in 2000, when the Patriots had a Pro Bowler in Bledsoe at the position, but decided to select Brady in the sixth round. With Brady at the height of his powers, New England took Kliff Kingsbury out of Texas Tech in the sixth round of the 2003 draft and Cassel late in the 2005 draft. And last season, the Patriots took Kevin O’Connell out of San Diego State in the third round.
Guys the Patriots took before Cassel: Linebacker Ryan Claridge (fifth round).
Eighth round (215th overall), 1978
Another USC guy, this time a running back/fullback. Tatupu started in more than five games only once in his career with the Patriots, but his work as a reserve/special teams ace made him invaluable throughout his 13-year career in New England. Still one of the most popular players to wear a Patriots uniform, Tatupu made the Pro Bowl in 1986 for his efforts, and was recently named to New England’s All-Decade team of the 1970s and 1980s as a special teamer, only one of a handful of players to be honored across two decades.
For his career, he finished with 2,415 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. It’s rare for a special teamer to have such sticking power, but Tatupu was a valuable, durable member of the franchise who clearly grew to love the area. (He’s coached high school and college football in New England for several years.) In addition, ownership risked a bad PR move by cutting or trading him: Tatupu had his own fan club, “Mosi’s Mooses.”
“They are great fans, but just to have your own section is an honor,” he told The Boston Globe in 2004. “I am sure if everybody had their own fan section like I did they would play just as hard as I tried to play. It inspired me to play harder because they were cheering for me and backing me up.”
Guys the Patriots took before Tatupu: Linebacker Mike Hawkins (seventh round), guard Terry Falcon (eighth round).
Just missing the cut/honorable mention: Tight end Ben Coates (fifth round, 124th overall/1991), quarterback Steve Grogan (fifth round, 116th overall/1975), cornerback Asante Samuel (fourth round, 120th overall/2003), running back Curtis Martin (third round, 74th overall/1995).
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for WEEI.com. Got a mock draft you think he should see? E-mail him at email@example.com.