Patriots

Great Patriots Debates: Who's the best first-round pick in Patriots history?

Great Patriots Debates: Who's the best first-round pick in Patriots history?

The NFL Draft isn't like the NBA's, where in a good year you might be able to count the success stories on two hands. It's not like Major League Baseball's, where wins and losses are determined by how well you evaluated a teenager fresh off his high school graduation.

You're supposed to hit in the NFL Draft. At least in the first round, where sure things fly off the board quickly. That doesn't always happen. But that's the expectation. And it happens often enough, which is why if you scroll through any team's draft history, you'll be able to find some all-time talents taken early.

The Patriots are no different. Even well before Bill Belichick took over the football operation in 2000, for those of us who far too often leave that period of time out of big-picture conversations, there are franchise-altering first-rounders who made their way to New England. Pro Football Hall of Famers. Team Hall of Famers. Then once the page was turned on this millennium, Belichick and his staff added to the list of all-time first-rounders.

Today's Great Patriots Debate asks, simply, who's the best first-round pick in franchise history? There are loads of options so let's pare them down.

Back in the 1970s, the draft ran long. Real long. But it didn't matter how many rounds the thing lasted, the first round was still a gold mine. In 1977, Raymond Clayborn and Stanley Morgan — both Patriots Hall of Famers — were taken with the No. 16 and No. 25 picks, respectively. Russ Francis, in the conversation for the team's Hall of Fame, went in the first round in 1975. Yet there are so many home runs for us to choose from, those three don't make the final cut.

In 1987, the Patriots took another future team Hall of Famer, Bruce Armstrong. The guy made six Pro Bowls and started for 14 seasons. Fourteen! Yet he's not really in the running for best first-rounder in franchise history, either. Same can be said for Super Bowl champions with impressive résumés like Damien Woody, Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo, Nate Solder and Chandler Jones.

Now the list is a bit more manageable, but narrowing things down to No. 1 is no easy task . . .

JOHN HANNAH

That Hannah's bust would one day reside in Canton was really never in question. He started for 13 seasons, made nine Pro Bowls, and he was a first-team All-Pro a whopping seven times. He didn't win a title, as many of the other names on this list did. And he was the No. 4 overall selection out of Alabama in 1973 so it's not as though he was a relative unknown when he was chosen. But he has to be near the top of the list of best players in Patriots history as well as best first-round choices.

MIKE HAYNES

Three years after taking Hannah, the Patriots went with Haynes, who went on to a Hall of Fame career of his own. He made six Pro Bowls with the Patriots and continued his illustrious career with the Raiders, making first-team All-Pro twice while in Los Angeles. The No. 5 overall pick out of Arizona State was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1980s.

DREW BLEDSOE

The No. 1 overall choice in 1993, Bledsoe's selection — followed soon thereafter by Kraft's purchase of the team — helped turn things around for what was at the time a moribund franchise. In terms of individual and team accomplishments, Bledsoe doesn't stack up with some of the others listed here, but when the Patriots took him . . . things changed. And they continued to change for the better. Remember, they could've gone with Rick Mirer.

WILLIE McGINEST

The Kraft family's first first-round choice, McGinest helped the Patriots to their second Super Bowl in 1996 and he remained one of the team's stalwarts through their run of three titles in four years in the early oughts. He had just two Pro Bowls to his name, but what he brought to the team as a leader — and how he helped Belichick establish a winning culture — enters him into this conversation. The No. 4 overall pick out of USC was part of the foundation of players that established the longest-running dynasty in league history.

TY LAW

Recently voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Law has an argument as the most talented player in the Belichick era not named Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski. He was critical in New England's first two Super Bowl wins and would've only helped make things easier as the Patriots rode to Lombardi No. 3 had he not been injured. That he was the No. 23 pick in 1995 — by no means a surefire all-timer — helps establish this pick as one of the best in team history. Maybe the best.

RICHARD SEYMOUR

Belichick's first-ever first-round pick (he didn't have one in 2000) was one of his best. Seymour was the No. 6 selection out of Georgia, but he was by no means a slam-dunk selection in the eyes of some prognosticators who focused on his 1.5 sacks as a senior at Georgia. He turned out to be one of the most dominant defensive linemen of his era, earning five Pro Bowl berths with the Patriots and three first-team All-Pro selections. "I do not believe we would have won three championships without him," Belichick wrote in a letter supporting Seymour for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

VINCE WILFORK

In Belichick's letter supporting Seymour, he couldn't help but pay Wilfork — the No. 21 overall choice in 2004 — a significant compliment: "Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork are the two best defensive linemen I have coached," Belichick wrote. Wilfork won two titles with the Patriots 10 years apart, proof of his long-term effectiveness and his unique career in helping the Patriots bridge the gap from one version of their dynasty to the next. At his best, Wilfork was among the best in the league at his position, making five Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro nod. Like Law, the fact he was taken near the end of the first round might make his selection one of the best in franchise history.

LOGAN MANKINS

More than three decades after the Patriots took one of their toughest players of all-time in Hannah, they got another in this guard out of Fresno State. Mankins, who was taken at No. 32 overall in 2005, was the victim of some bad timing — and a helmet catch — in that he just missed being a Super Bowl champion. He was drafted after the Patriots won their third, and he was traded just before the start of the 2014 season when they won their fourth. That's no indication of his dominance, though. He made seven Pro Bowls and started every year he played in New England. 

DEVIN McCOURTY

McCourty was taken as a corner with big-time special-teams ability when he went to the Patriots with the No. 27 overall pick out of Rutgers. That began a steady stream of Scarlet Knights headed to Foxboro as Belichick continued to look for versatile, athletic defensive backs with leadership traits. McCourty was always the best of the bunch, though. He settled at safety early in his career and provided a stabilizing force in the secondary as a captain (2011-18) on defenses that won three titles. The Patriots passed on an opportunity to draft Dez Bryant by taking McCourty — a move that looks more and more prescient as time goes by.

DONT'A HIGHTOWER

Belichick is known for trading down in the draft to acquire capital and earn a few more rolls of the dice. But in 2012 he traded up in the first round . . . twice. He selected Chandler Jones at No. 21 when he dealt No. 27 and No. 93 to the Bengals. Belichick later dealt No. 31 and No. 126 overall to the Broncos move up six spots to No. 25. That's where he took Hightower, who ended up being a linchpin to his front-seven in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 Super Bowl-winning runs. Hightower doesn't have the Pro Football Hall of Fame resume others do on this list. But you'd be hard-pressed to come up with defensive players who have authored as many signature postseason moments as this Alabama product. Law is also definitely in that conversation.

If you're asking me, Hannah — who has an argument as perhaps the best to ever play his position — deserves serious consideration as the No. 1 first-round pick in team history. 

But if you're factoring in rings as well as where the player was taken in the first round, making it a more impressive pick if it came late, then the choice for you likely comes down to Law or Wilfork. I'd go with Law because of the value of the position he played, even in an age that wasn't as centered around the passing game as this one. You certainly couldn't be blamed if you went with Wilfork, though, since his longevity, leadership and level of play makes him one of the most valuable Patriots of the Belichick era.

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Patriots on controversial calls in loss to Chiefs: 'A tough pill to swallow'

Patriots on controversial calls in loss to Chiefs: 'A tough pill to swallow'

FOXBORO — Bill Belichick wasn't thrilled. He stood at the podium in the belly of Gillette Stadium, his team coming off of its second consecutive loss, and he was peppered with questions about the officiating. This after he'd said in his opening remarks, "A lot of other circumstances in the game; no point in talking about those."

The officiating queries came anyway.

"You'd have to talk to them about that," he said. "I'm not going to speak for them."

Asked if calls made by Jerome Boger's crew impacted his team's ability to sustain any momentum: "I don't know," he said.

In all, there were 15 penalties called for 161 yards in the game, and penalties were among the calls garnering attention after the fact. But the calls that generated the most buzz in the Patriots locker room weren't penalties. The headliner was the call that took points off the board for Belichick's team early in the fourth quarter.

Tom Brady hit rookie N'Keal Harry with a short pass that he took down to the goal line. Diving into the end zone, it appeared as though Harry had scored a touchdown. He celebrated as though he had. Replays showed he remained in bounds. But one official marked him out of bounds at the three-yard line.

The Patriots weren't able to challenge the play — they were out of challenges after losing a pass-interference challenge earlier in the game — and they kicked a field goal three plays later to make the score 23-16.

"We still had a chance to win," Brady said. "Wish we could have scored there at the end."

A touchdown and an extra point would've made the score 23-20, meaning on the final Patriots drive of the game, where they entered deep into Chiefs territory, they would've been able to kick a chip-shot field goal to tie it.

"I thought it was a touchdown," said Harry, who left the game with a hip injury. "I'm pretty sure everybody else thought it was a touchdown. It's something that's out of our control, out of my control.

"It's definitely frustrating, but at the end of the day I was always told to control what I could control. I felt like I did that. I felt like my effort was good. That's all I can give."

ESPN's Mike Reiss, serving as the pool reporter, spoke to Boger after the game about the call.

"What led to it was the covering official on the wing was blocked out by defenders," Boger said. "The downfield official who was on the goal line and looking back toward the field of play had that he stepped out at the three-yard line. So, they got together and conferred on that. The final ruling was that he was out of bounds at the three-yard line."

Calling the play a touchdown and then using replay to the crew's advantage — since all scores are reviewed — was not discussed as an option, Boger explained.

"Not really. Those two officials who were covering it, they look at it in real time," he said. "This case was unique in that the guy who would have ruled touchdown had him short. So maybe if that ruling official on the goal line had a touchdown, we could have gotten into that, but he thought that that guy stepped out of bounds. The goal line wasn’t in the play."

The reason the Patriots couldn't challenge the Harry play was because they'd had a challenge fail earlier in the contest. Late in the third quarter, Belichick threw his red hanky when on a third-and-4 play Stephon Gilmore got picked by Travis Kelce, allowing a catch to Sammy Watkins. Watkins was tackled right near the line to gain,  and so Belichick was challenging both the pass interference and the spot of the ball.

The challenge failed, which meant they'd have just one more challenge for the game, even if that next challenge succeeded.

Later in the third quarter, on a third-down pass to Kelce, Devin McCourty punched out the football and Gilmore recovered it quickly with a good deal of open space in front of him. The play was whistled dead.

The Patriots challenged and won. It was a momentum-shifter, but the fact that they had to use their challenge at all — on a play that was clearly fumbled upon review, no guesswork there — bothered the Patriots after the fact.

"It sucks because at the end of the day, we felt like those were plays that were gonna help us change the momentum of the game and put us in a good spot to eventually win the football game," safety Duron Harmon said. "It was taken away from us. I know the refs, they have a hard job. I'm not going to sit here and say obviously  their job is easy. 'Just make a better call, and do this better.' At the end of the day, we all have a job. We all get paid money to do the job and do it well."

Harmon added: "I just feel empty. We played a good team and had a chance to win. We didn't win. Like I said, I'm not going to just sit here and blame the refs. The Chiefs probably feel some calls could've gone their way, didn't go their way, but at the end of the day when you got two touchdowns taken away from you, that's always a tough pill to swallow."

The Patriots finished the game going 1-for-3 in the red zone. They were 3-for-15 on third and fourth down. They averaged — including three sacks — just 4.6 yards per pass. They averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the first half against a defense that was allowing over 5.0 for the season.

There was plenty they could have done to help themselves. But it's not hyperbole to say that final drive — which resulted in a fourth-down pass breakup on a Brady attempt to Julian Edelman — should have been an opportunity for them to tie the game with an easy field goal.

"You don't wanna blame officiating," Harmon said, "because at the end of the day, we still had an opportunity to win."

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Chiefs' Chris Jones reveals his reason for trash talking with Tom Brady

Chiefs' Chris Jones reveals his reason for trash talking with Tom Brady

FOXBORO -- Trash talking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady doesn't sound like a good idea, but Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones had a reason for getting into it with the six-time Super Bowl champion Sunday.

Jones and Brady came helmet-to-helmet with 2:59 left in the first half and Kansas City leading 17-7. The Chiefs defense had just forced an incompletion from Brady to bring up fourth down, and Jones tried his best to frustrate the 42-year-old quarterback as much as possible.

"Just crap-talking," Jones said of his exchange with Brady. "Tom is a heck of a quarterback, a Hall of Famer. Any time you're able to talk crap, you gotta affect him any type of way. I got much respect for Tom Brady, man. He's definitely a GOAT in my eyes, one of the greatest. Any time you're able to affect his game any type of way, whether it's talking, whether it's hitting him, whether it's getting him uncomfortable, you got to."

Does Jones think all of that had any effect?

"I mean, you see the score."

The Chiefs won 23-16 to secure the AFC West title and take another step closer toward earning a top-two seed in the AFC playoff race.

It's hard to imagine any kind of trash talk having a negative impact on Brady's performance. He's one of the most mentally tough players in league history. What we do know is this Chiefs defense is much better-equipped to slow down the Patriots' offense than last season's unit.

The Chiefs, from a physicality standpoint, made an effort to stand up to the Patriots, and that was quite apparent when Kansas City wide receiver Sammy Watkins got tangled up with New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore on the visitors' sideline in the second half.

"You got two good players going up against each other in heated moments," Watkins said. "I know him from (the Buffalo Bills), so I was like, this is my opportunity to take a shot, and I did, and he took his shots also."

The chippiness made for a playoff-like scene in Foxboro, and you can bet all of the trash talk and physical play won't be forgotten if these teams meet again in January.

"First play of the game I knew it was more of a playoff atmosphere, a playoff game," Watkins said. "It definitely was probably one of the hardest battles since last year, and that's what we look forward to. It's going to be the same way in the next six or seven weeks, so we just gotta continue to come out and play with each other and play hard, strong, and keep fighting."

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