Patriots

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Patriots

Bill Belichick may not always get credit for it, but over the course of his 20 years with the New England Patriots, he has been pretty good about finding talent via the draft.

Sure, he's had some high-profile misses. And his struggles in Rounds 2 and 3 of the draft certainly deserve some scrutiny. But when it comes to finding productive players in the first and late rounds of the draft, there are few that do it better than Belichick.

There's a reason that the great Gil Brandt, one of the greatest team architects in the history of the NFL, recently called Belichick the league's best drafter. He just has a way of finding talent.

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And that's part of why the Patriots rank as the second-best drafting team in the NFL since 2000 by Pro Football Reference's AV metric, as ESPN's Mike Reiss pointed out in a recent article. The only team that has fared better than them is the Green Bay Packers, who long held a draft-and-develop process while avoiding big-name free agents under Ted Thompson.

Over the course of the 20 drafts during the Belichick era, he has found top-flight talent in every round. Picking the best pick for each round wasn't easy given Belichick's high-level success, but these are the results that we came up with.

 

Round 1: Richard Seymour, DL, 2001

The Patriots have landed quite a few talented players in the first round over the course of the Bill Belichick era. But none had quite as big of an impact on the Patriots as Seymour did.

Seymour was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft. Coming out of Georgia, the hope was that Seymour would turn into a game-changer as a versatile piece on the defensive line. And that's exactly what he did.

As a rookie, Seymour quickly emerged as a well-rounded starter, finding success as a pass rusher and run stopper. He also displayed immense versatility and played any and every position on the defensive line. He helped the Patriots win their first Super Bowl and continued to grow as time went on.

From 2002 to 2006, Seymour made five straight Pro Bowls and racked up three consecutive First-Team All-Pro nods as well. He won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and recorded 39 sacks, 359 tackles, and six forced fumbles during 111 regular season games with the team. And in the playoffs? He added another 51 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

Seymour really helped establish the Patriots' defense in the early stages of their dynasty and was a tone-setter for the team. He deserves recognition as Belichick's best first-round pick — and had he not been traded to the Raiders for the pick that ultimately became Nate Solder, he would've put up even bigger numbers during his Patriot days.

Honorable Mentions: DT Vince Wilfork, OL Logan Mankins, S Devin McCourty, LB Jerod Mayo, LB Dont'a Hightower, DE Chandler Jones

Round 2: Rob Gronkowski, TE, 2010

The 2010 NFL Draft was a mixed bag for the Patriots. But it's safe to say that their first two picks, Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski, were smashing successes.

Gronk was considered to be one of the best tight ends in the 2010 class, but he was also considered a risk. He had dealt with back injuries in college that had limited him to just 22 total games. And while he was a great playmaker on the field, there were some concerns about whether he'd be able to stay healthy at the next level.

Belichick decided to take the chance on Gronkowski with the 42nd overall pick and one of his three second-rounders. And it turned out to be one of the best decisions he ever made.

Gronkowski turned into arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history. Injuries were, at times, an issue for him, but he held up enough to put up monster receiving seasons. Gronk turned into one of Brady's favorite targets and could out-jump and out-muscle almost any player for a 50-50 ball. He was impossible to tackle, blocked very well, and was a matchup nightmare for opponents during his heyday.

 

Gronk logged four 1,000-plus yard seasons and five in which he notched double-digit touchdowns. He made four All-Pro teams, won three Super Bowl rings, and was critical to the team beating the Los Angeles Rams in what turned out to be his final NFL game.

Though Gronk only played nine years, he's likely the best tight end to ever play the game. He helped to revolutionize the position and made tight end an even more important part of NFL offenses than it already was. He'll surely be enshrined in Canton someday, and that fact makes him far and away Belichick's best second-round selection.

Honorable Mentions: OT Matt Light, WR Deion Branch, S Patrick Chung

Round 3: Joe Thuney, OL, 2016

Historically, it would appear that the third-round of the draft has been Belichick's worst. There were only a few options over the course of 20 years that made sense for this pick, and Joe Thuney ended up getting the nod.

Thuney has been the team's starter at left guard since they made him a third-round pick out of North Carolina State in 2016. Since joining the Patriots, Thuney has never missed a start, playing all 74 of the Patriots' games in the regular and postseason. Even more impressively, Thuney has played in at least 99.2 percent of the Patriots' snaps each season. And in 2018, he didn't miss a single snap.

Thuney also possesses positional versatility and could kick out to tackle if needed and likely has the skills needed to play center. He'll play on the franchise tag in 2020 but if the team can keep him long-term, that would go a long way to clearly establishing him as the team's best third-round pick of the Belichick era.

Honorable Mentions: CB Logan Ryan, S Duron Harmon

Round 4: Asante Samuel, DB, 2003

Some will argue that not reserving this spot for Stephen Gostkowski -- the team's leading scorer in franchise history with 1,775 points -- is a mistake. While Gostkowski had a long and impactful career with the Patriots, Samuel, in his prime, was a better player.

Samuel earned two Super Bowls with the Patriots in his first two seasons, emerging as a full-time starter during that second season. From there, he stayed in the starting lineup and became one of the best players on the Patriots' defense.

 

In his final year with the Patriots, Samuel was a First-Team All-Pro and certainly qualified as one of the top players at his position across the league. However, following that, Samuel would leave the Patriots in free agency and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. He continued to play at a high level, earning three Pro Bowl nods to bring his career total to four.

Samuel was a big-time ballhawk during his NFL career and averaged 4.6 interceptions and 14.9 pass defenses during his 11-year career with the Patriots, Eagles, and Atlanta Falcons. He is one of just six players to record 10 interceptions in a single season since 2001. And while he played less than half of his career with the Patriots, he still was the best overall player that Belichick picked in the fourth round.

Honorable Mentions: K Stephen Gostkowski, DE Trey Flowers

Round 5: Matthew Slater, WR/ST, 2008

Now special teams will get the love that it deserves. The Patriots don't have a lot of standout players who were selected in the fifth round under Belichick. But Matthew Slater has long been one of the league's best special teams players and that is why he is still with the team today.

Since being drafted by the Patriots, Slater has played in 173 regular season games and 24 playoff games. He has won three Super Bowls, been named to two All-Pro teams and has made eight Pro Bowls. He is part of the reason that the Patriots' special teams have routinely been good and his leadership has been an invaluable asset in the Patriots locker room.

Slater's presence will be even more important as a stabilizing force in the post-Brady days. That, coupled with his elite special teams ability makes him the pick here, though you could definitely make the case for a couple of offensive linemen getting the nod for the best fifth-round pick as well.

Honorable Mentions: C Dan Koppen, OT Marcus Cannon

Round 6: Tom Brady, QB, 2000

This should surprise absolutely nobody.

During his 20 years with the Patriots, Brady posted a 219-64 record, completed 63.8 percent of his passes, and averaged 4,186 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions per 16 games played. He's a three-time MVP, three-time All-Pro, and a 14-time Pro Bowler. And perhaps most impressively of all, he has won the Super Bowl MVP four times.

Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history. He has six Super Bowl wins and holds countless NFL records. And yet he was famously selected with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Looking back, it's remarkable that happened, but Brady truly was the greatest late-round gem Belichick found and is likely the greatest pick in the history of the draft.

Honorable Mentions: N/A

 

Round 7: Julian Edelman, WR, 2009

During his college days, Julian Edelman was a quarterback. He was more of a scrambler than a passer and as such, he didn't get a ton of attention in the lead-up to the 2009 NFL Draft. But Belichick saw something he liked and took a chance on the then-long-haired passer and turned him into a receiver.

After a slow start to his career — he made just 13 starts in his first four seasons — Edelman eventually replaced Wes Welker as the slot receiver for the Patriots. Since then, he hasn't looked back.

Edelman has enjoyed four seasons with 90-plus catches, he's topped 1,000 yards three times, and he has totaled 35 touchdowns since taking over as a primary starter for the Patriots. He also helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls as the team's top wideout and took home the MVP in Super Bowl 53 against the Rams.

Edelman has provided the Patriots with a lot considering his draft status. His leadership, chemistry with Brady, and toughness were all major parts of the Patriots' success over the course of the past decade.

Honorable Mentions: LB Tully Banta-Cain, FB Patrick Pass, QB Matt Cassel

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