The Patriots had Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Damien Woody and Tom Brady in 2001. They had Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Matthew Slater in 2010.
Under Bill Belichick, as the Patriots went from version 0.0 to 1.0 to 2.0, there was a young core in place that served as their pulse. As they went, the team went. Championships followed.
The outlook for version 3.0 is hazy. The young core is thin and rife with question marks after the Patriots went about maximizing Brady's last few seasons in New England. Who makes up the core now? How many core pieces are there?
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We're examining each of the Patriots' past four drafts to see how they got here, on the brink of a new era for the longest-running dynasty in modern NFL history, with an uncertain road ahead.
We'll start in 2016, a year in which the Patriots did not have a first-round pick as a result of Deflategate. (They were also docked a fourth-rounder in the 2017 draft.)
Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama (Round 2, Pick 60)
Jones was the definition of a Prototypical Patriot. He was a versatile defensive back who'd played in Nick Saban's defense. He'd be a perfect fit in Belichick's secondary, where roles could change from game to game, series to series and snap to snap. He had a ridiculous three-cone time. He was also touted as the top punt-returner in that year's class.
Fumbles and confidence issues plagued him as a rookie, though. He never became a regular part of the Patriots defense. In the preseason finale the following season, he tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve. He's bounced around the league — including a brief return to New England — since then, last landing on the Broncos injured reserve list in the fall. He is one of several second-round defensive backs (Jordan Richards, Ras-I Dowling, Terrence Wheatley, Duke Dawson) who have provided little in the way of a return for the Patriots defense.
Who they could’ve had: Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Maryland (Round 2, Pick 69)
Joe Thuney, G, North Carolina State (Round 3, Pick 78)
Home-run pick. Thuney was a stellar athlete as a lineman, and he played all along the Wolfpack offensive line during his career there. He was whip-smart. There should've been no doubt in anyone's mind this would be the pick when it came up. He'd end up the long-term replacement for Logan Mankins and, like Mankins, embodied toughness along Dante Scarnecchia's offensive line.
Thuney was a Day 1 starter and hasn't missed a game in his career. He's signed his franchise tag tender for 2020 and remains a candidate to be extended to a) keep him around for years to come and b) knock down his almost $15 million cap hit. In a rare statement after tagging Thuney, the Patriots said they hoped to use the tag as a way to buy themselves time to work out an extension, adding that Thuney "has been a model teammate and an essential element to our success."
Who they could’ve had: Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford (Round 3, Pick 81)
Jacoby Brissett, QB, North Carolina State (Round 3, Pick 91)
Brissett had every box on the list of intangibles checked off when he came off the board in 2016. Leader of men. Someone who drove to road games when he had to sit out the year at N.C. State due to transfer rules. (His college career began at Florida and NCAA rules prohibited him from traveling with the team during his year away from the field.) He showed promise as a rookie, having enough of a clue to help the Patriots win a game during Brady's suspension.
But going into his second training camp, his throws were scattershot. He'd hardly improved, it seemed, and he wasn't getting any reps behind Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo. He was dealt to the Colts in exchange for Phillip Dorsett. Brissett now appears to be a long-term, competent backup — a role he'll serve in Indy this year behind Philip Rivers.
Who they could’ve had: Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State (Round 4, Pick 135)
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Vincent Valentine, DL, Nebraska (Round 3, Pick 96)
We continue now our trudge through names who no longer find themselves on the Patriots roster. Valentine was a classic big-bodied defensive tackle at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds. He just wasn't particularly effective, and he was rarely used behind Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. He played just over 300 snaps as a rookie, spent 2017 on injured reserve, and was gone by the start of 2018.
Who they could’ve had: D.J. Reader, DL, Clemson (Round 5, Pick 166)
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia (Round 4, Pick 112)
Mitchell walked away from the Patriots locker room and toward the direction of his team's Super Bowl party a Boston sports cult hero. He was the kid with the injury history who slipped in the draft, fell to New England, and turned himself into a dependable option for Brady in the wildest comeback in the history of the sport's championship game. It was his final game.
Knee injuries wouldn't allow him to continue the following year. He was waived in 2018. He's now retired. Super Bowl LI alone will make him one of New England's most beloved fourth-round picks of all time, and as the Patriots look to deepen their receiver corps, it's hard not to wonder how drastically Mitchell might've altered the picture there had he been healthy.
Who they could’ve had: Robby Anderson, WR, Temple (Undrafted)
Kamu Grugier-Hill, LB, Eastern Illinois (Round 6, Pick 208)
Grugier-Hill was a far cry from the massive humans the Patriots typically like to draft at linebacker. "Built like a safety, plays like a linebacker." He was drafted as a potential special teams standout, but he couldn't crack the roster with Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King, Jordan Richards, Barkevious Mingo, Jonathan Freeny and 2016 undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones holding down spots. Grugier-Hill was claimed by the Eagles and became the special teams stalwart he was expected to be. Coming off an injury that landed him on IR late last season, he signed a one-year deal to work with some familiar faces down in Miami.
Who they could’ve had: Cory Littleton, LB, Washington (Undrafted)
Elandon Roberts, LB, Houston (Round 6, Pick 214)
As an undersized run-first linebacker and special teams contributor, it's remarkable Roberts has had as much staying power as he has. Four years with the Patriots, and now he's on to Miami to reunite with Brian Flores on a new contract. He'll never be mistaken as one of Belichick's most important defenders, but he started 25 games combined in 2017 and 2018, and the coaching staff relied on him to bring a measure of toughness to the second level of the Patriots defense.
Roberts was named a captain last season, and though he was not a defensive staple, he took on the role of fullback when the team's top two options at that position hit IR. He didn't want the role, but he accepted it, and he'll now forever be able to tell his family he caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady.
Who they could’ve had: Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple (Round 7, Pick 246)
Ted Karras, OL, Illinois (Round 6, Pick 221)
After Thuney, there's not a player on this list who had a more sizable season-long impact than the one Karras had in 2019. To get that kind of dependability out of a backup offensive lineman in the sixth round is legitimate value. Could Karras execute everything the Patriots might normally execute with David Andrews in the lineup? No. But he helped hold things together well enough for Tom Brady to survive the season and win 12 games in the process. Starting every game at center, Karras allowed just 14 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Like Roberts and Grugier-Hill, he signed a contract to become a member of the Dolphins this offseason.
Who they could’ve had: Matt Skura, OL, Duke (Undrafted)
Devin Lucien, WR, Arizona State (Round 7, Pick 225)
A last-round dice-roll on a player from a program Belichick respects (he has a good relationship with former ASU coach Todd Graham), with good athleticism (4.49-second 40-yard dash), Lucien wasn't expected to make the roster when he was drafted. He spent his first season as a pro on the practice squad, then bounced around to five different teams before returning to New England briefly. In the last two seasons, he's spent time with the AAF's Arizona Hotshots and Memphis Express. He's currently rostered by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL.
Who they could’ve had: Geronimo Allison, WR, Illinois (Undrafted)
Belichick dealt Chandler Jones to Arizona for the No. 61 pick and guard Jonathan Cooper before the draft, then sent that pick to New Orleans for No. 78 and No. 112. Those became Thuney and Mitchell. ... Patriots sent a fourth-rounder to Chicago for Martellus Bennett and a sixth-rounder prior to the draft...They sent a fifth to Houston for receiver Keshawn Martin and a sixth...A sixth was traded to Chicago for Jon Bostic.
The Patriots have one player remaining from the draft class on their roster for 2020: Thuney. Their undrafted class that season included corner Jonathan Jones and running back D.J. Foster. Jones and Thuney are among the top players on the team — along with center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason, both rookies in 2015 — under 28 years old.