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?
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.
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In this edition, we tackle the 2017 draft, which included just four picks — none of which came in the first two rounds.
Their first-rounder and a third went to the Saints in a trade for Brandin Cooks and a New Orleans fourth. Their second-rounder went to the Panthers in a trade for Kony Ealy and a third. One of their fourth-rounders went to the Colts in exchange for Dwayne Allen and a sixth. The other went up in smoke because of Deflategate.
Derek Rivers, EDGE, Youngstown State (Round 3, Pick 83)
You got a pretty good indication of how the Patriots felt about this draft once they traded their first-rounder to New Orleans for Brandin Cooks. Then they traded down and out of the second round for Kony Ealy and Carolina's third-rounder. (Ealy didn't make the 53-man roster out of training camp.) Then they traded down 11 spots from that Carolina third and picked up an athletic, undersized pass-rusher from an FCS program.
Rivers was coached by Belichick acolyte Bo Pelini and brought intriguing physical gifts to the table. But in the Patriots scheme, he wasn't really stout enough to take on regular defensive duties and looked like more of a pass-rushing specialist. Three years later, because of injuries, we're still waiting to see what he offers in that regard.
He tore his ACL during a special teams drill in his rookie training camp and missed the entire season. He was available in 2018, but played in just seven games and saw 97 total snaps. Last season, he landed on injured reserve before the season began. Going into the final year of his rookie contract, he has his work cut out for him to earn a role.
Who they could’ve had: Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State (Round 3, Pick 84)
Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy (Round 3, Pick 85)
Two picks later, the Patriots traded up to get their man. Dealing away the No. 96 and No. 124 overall picks, they snagged Garcia. Like Rivers, he profiled as yet another light (he measured in at 6-7 and around 300 pounds), small-school prospect with some upside. Like Rivers, Garcia ended up missing the entirety of his first season.
Blood clots in his lungs prevented him from doing anything more than participating in his few training camp practices with New England. He was released the following spring after the Patriots drafted Isaiah Wynn in the first round and traded for Trent Brown.
Who they could’ve had: Kenny Golladay, WR, Northern Illinois (Round 3, Pick 96)
Deatrich Wise, EDGE, Arkansas (Round 4, Pick 131)
Looking to lengthen their depth chart on the edge, the Patriots did exactly that in drafting Wise. There were few longer players in the class than the 6-5, 274 pounder. His height, weight, arms (almost 36 inches) and hands (10.5 inches) all actually stacked up pretty well with Chandler Jones (6-5, 266, 35.5-inch arms, 9.75-inch hands) when Jones was coming out of Syracuse in 2012.
Wise wasn't the same type of athlete (4.92-second 40-yard dash, 33-inch vertical), but he was athletic enough to log the third-most snaps (544) on the defensive line for New England in 2017, behind only Trey Flowers and Lawrence Guy. When his rookie year was all said and done, he'd racked up 7.0 sacks. He remained a key piece on the defensive line in 2018 (431 snaps), but took a step back in terms of his role last season as the Patriots shifted to more of a 3-4 style of defense.
That shift made Wise somewhat of a 'tweener,' and he ended up playing 229 snaps, struggling at times when asked to be a hold-his-ground 3-4 end. Unless another shift in front-seven deployment is coming in 2020, Wise looks destined to be a role player.
Who they could’ve had: George Kittle, TE, Iowa (Round 5, Pick 146)
Conor McDermott, OT, UCLA (Round 6, Pick 211)
The Patriots went into the draft with a roster that was loaded across the board. Especially offensively. Their quarterback room was the best in the league with Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. They had Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen at tight end. They added Brandin Cooks to a group that already featured Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola at receiver.
They also had four tackles on the roster — Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle — who ended up starting games and performing well that season. When the Patriots added Antonio Garcia on draft weekend, that group theoretically got even deeper.
When they added Conor McDermott, a big body with impressive athleticism, it was almost just a safeguard against a run of injuries at the position. Otherwise, there seemed to be very little way he was going to make the team out of camp. He didn't.
But he has kicked around the AFC East since then, landing with the Bills after the Patriots waived him in 2017. He was waived by Buffalo in October, subsequently claimed by the Jets, and he remains on Adam Gase's roster.
Who they could’ve had: Austin Ekeler, RB, Western State (Undrafted)
The Saints ended up taking offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk with the No. 32 overall pick they acquired in the Cooks trade. He was named a first-team All-Pro last season and a second-team All-Pro in 2018. ... The Patriots traded down from No. 64 overall to No. 72 overall to acquire Ealy. At No. 67 overall, the Saints took Alvin Kamara. At No. 69 overall, the Rams took receiver Cooper Kupp.
The Patriots sent the No. 103 overall pick to New Orleans as part of the Cooks trade. Running back James Conner went to the Steelers at pick No. 105. ... The No. 137 overall pick went to Indy in the Dwayne Allen trade. ... The fourth-round pick that was docked because of Deflategate originally belonged to New Orleans but it made its way to New England in the Cooks deal. ... The Patriots sent a fifth-rounder to Buffalo to have the right to sign restricted free-agent back Mike Gillislee.
That fifth-rounder was used by the Bills to draft Boston College linebacker Matt Milano. ... The Patriots sent another fifth to Cleveland for linebacker Barkevious Mingo. ... A third fifth-rounder went from New England to Kansas City in exchange for tight end James O'Shaughnessy and a sixth. ... In 2016, the Patriots sent a sixth-rounder to Detroit in exchange for Kyle Van Noy and a seventh. Worked out well for them. The Lions ended up drafting Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya with the New England sixth-rounder.
Key undrafted add
The Patriots have two players remaining from the 2017 draft class on their 2020 roster: Rivers and Wise. But in the running as their best rookie pickup from that offseason is Vanderbilt's Adam Butler, who arrived as an undrafted player.
As an interior pass-rusher, he was in on eight sacks in 2019 and 26 total pressures overall, per Pro Football Focus. Former Patriots defensive line coach Bret Bielema lauded Butler for his ability to rack up "assists" on the defensive line, helping his teammates tally sacks by wiping out blockers beforehand.
"If they counted assists in football," Bielema said last season, "[Butler] does more things to draw the attention or create a blocking scheme that frees up another player repeatedly within our schemes, and that’s a true testament to him."
Of the three rookies from that season remaining on the roster, Butler looks like the best bet to end up as a core piece moving forward, in large part because of the way in which Wise's role was dialed back in 2019.