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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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