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Top 50 Patriots Under Bill Belichick

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Bill Belichick is entering his 16th season in charge of the Patriots. His teams have played in six Super Bowls and won four of them. They’ve gone to the AFC Championship Game eight times. They’ve won the AFC East 12 times.

The Patriots have done this in a league that drags successful teams back to mediocrity. Free agency, the salary cap and injuries make excellence fleeting. What the Patriots have done -- and are still doing -- will be almost impossible to match.

So many times after a win you’ll hear Belichick say, “The credit goes to the players . . . ” So, who are the best 50 Patriots of the Belichick era?

I used these criteria:

  • First, level of play. How good was the player in his tenure with the team?
  • Next, impact. How consequential to the team’s success was his presence? Did he make improve the play of the players around him? Was he a player opponents had to specifically concern themselves with?
  • Next, team success. How much did the player contribute to outstanding teams? How many outstanding teams was he a part of?
  • Finally, Patriotism. It’s a “know it when you see it” kind of thing. A combination of game intelligence. versatility, the ability to perform well in big games and not giving a crap who gets the credit. Hard to measure.

50. Brian Waters

Years with Patriots: 2011 | Starts: 16 | Playoff Games: 3 | Honors: Pro Bowl (2011)

Brian Waters wasn’t here for a long time. He wasn’t here for a good time either, as it ultimately turned out. Waters’ lone year with the Patriots was 2011, when New England lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. But the 34-year-old Waters had a Pro Bowl season in '11, playing right guard for the only time in his outstanding 13-year career. Waters joined the Patriots late in the summer of 2011, the week of the season opener. He signed a two-year deal, but when he and the Pats couldn’t agree on what kind of bump to give his scheduled $1.4 million salary in 2012, he stayed home. The Patriots put him on the reserve/did not report list, and then released him after the 2012 season.

 

49. Anthony Pleasant

Years with Patriots: 2001-2003 | Games: 37 | Playoff Games: 3 | Honors: Two-time Super Bowl winner

If Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli were going to push their program forward after the demolition/renovation season of 2000, they needed to get players who understood what the hell they were trying to do.

Enter Anthony Pleasant.

The 6-foot-5, 280-pound defensive end/tackle flourished under Belichick during his time in Cleveland, with 23 sacks in three seasons from 1993-95 and an absurd six forced fumbles in Belichick’s last year in Cleveland. Pleasant was also with the Jets when Pioli and Belichick were there under Bill Parcells.

48. Otis Smith

Years with Patriots: 200-2002 | Games: 45 | Playoff Games: 3 | Honors: Super Bowl winner, 2001

Otis Smith actually had two tours of duty with the Patriots. In his first brief run in 1996, he was a big-play guy in the secondary for Bill Parcells and his position coach that year, Bill Belichick. 

47. Christian Fauria

Years With Patriots: 2002-2005 | Games: 64 | Playoff Games: 8 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004)

In 2002 and 2004, the Patriots spent first-round draft picks on tight ends. But despite the high draft collateral spent on Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, Tom Brady’s most trusted tight end in the passing game during that stretch was Christian Fauria.

Signed by New England as a free agent in 2002 after seven seasons with the Seahawks, Fauria was a blend tight end -- above average as a blocker, above average as a receiver. His versatility in that regard made him a tremendous asset in an offense that -- when compared to the offenses the Patriots have generally trotted out since 2007 -- was based more on toughness and efficiency than explosiveness.

There were a lot of third downs on which Brady’s first option was going to be Fauria, because he was the most reliable big target the Patriots had. At that point in his career -- Fauria came to New England at the age of 31 -- he wasn’t as athletic as he’d been in Seattle. But he had the most sure hands on the team.

One of Fauria’s best games as a Patriot was in the lost classic from 2004: The sub-arctic win over Tennessee in the AFC Divisional Playoffs at Gillette. In brutal conditions, Fauria had three receptions for 42 yards and factored in heavily blocking against the Titans front that included Jevon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth and Kevin Carter.

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Dont'a Hightower ranks 46th according to Tom Curran's Top 50 patriots of the Bill Belichick era

46. Dont'a Hightower

Years With Patriots: 2012-2014 | Games: 42 | Playoff Games: 7 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)

We can talk about Darrelle Revis and Tom Brady and Malcolm Butler and all the players who leap quickly to mind as either being responsible for getting the Patriots to Super Bowl 49 or winning it. But believe this: The Patriots weren’t in Arizona for that game without Dont'a Hightower.

Statistically, Hightower’s just getting warmed up. He’s only got 11 sacks in three years and he has yet to top 100 tackles in a season. Honestly, as recently as the middle of 2013 he was a media punching bag as he struggled to replace Jerod Mayo in the middle of the Patriots defense.

 

By the end of that season, however, Hightower had improved as rapidly as any defensive player I can remember. He was the best defender on the field for the Patriots in the 2013 playoffs.

When 2014 began, Hightower was going to be used more liberally in the pass rush, not dropping in coverage and stuffing the run. But Mayo got hurt and Hightower went back to the middle of the defense and -- with the team running a 4-2-5 -- he and Jamie Collins were Pro Bowl-level players. On the play preceding Butler’s Super Bowl saving pick, Hightower jammed up Marshawn Lynch at the Patriots 1. It’s a play few will recall as time passes, but it deserves notice. Especially since Hightower made it with a torn labrum, an injury he suffered in Green Bay and played with for weeks.

45. Jarvis Green

Years With Patriots: 2002-2009 | Games: 121 | Playoff Games: 15 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004)

Over the course of his eight-year NFL career, Jarvis Green only started 46 of 121 regular-season games and four of 15 playoff games for the Patriots. He wasn’t a starter. He was a situational pass rusher. And a playmaker. Green’s name isn’t well-remembered nationally. And even around here, a play that Green couldn’t complete is one he’s indelibly linked to. It was Green that had ahold of Eli Manning’s jersey on the David Tyree Helmet Catch play in Super Bowl 42. Green holding on with a fist and his fingers while Manning furiously pumped his legs until he broke free and blindly threw downfield. The rest of that play was history and it took an emotional toll on Green. "When I first got home [to Louisiana]," Green said in 2012, "I couldn't sleep for two or three days. My wife said I was mumbling in my sleep about the game. She might pinch me or hit me to make me stop, and I'd be drenched. Just soaking wet from night sweats. That went on for weeks. I'd call out defensive plays.”

The Patriots may not have even had a perfect season to be snatched away if it weren’t for Green making a huge play three months earlier against – ironically – Eli’s brother. It was Green who came up with the strip sack of Peyton Manning that ended the Week 9, come-from-behind win for the Patriots in Indy when both teams were unbeaten. Green was Kryptonite for Manning. In addition to that 2007 play, Green also rolled up three sacks in the 2003 AFC Championship Game and was a beast for the Patriots in the 2004 Super Bowl run.

44. Ben Watson

Years With Patriots: 2004-2009 | Games: 71 | Playoff Games: 9 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2004)

Benjamin Watson is most easily recalled for his superhuman chase-down of Champ Bailey in the Patriots Divisional Playoff loss to the Denver Broncos in the 2005 playoffs. The play was remarkable but the game was even more significant in that it snapped a 10-game playoff winning streak for the Patriots. The team wouldn’t go perfect in the playoffs again until 2014. But we’re not going to overlook players who were very good for a consistently very good franchise in the seasons the Patriots wandered in the desert seeking another Lombardi. Watson was one of those players. A first-round pick out of Georgia, Watson began making an impact in 2005 with 29 catches for 441 yards and four touchdowns. The 15.2 YPC shows how explosive an athlete Watson was back then. In 2006, when the Patriots offense was gutted, Watson became one of Tom Brady’s top weapons, catching 49 balls for 643 yards and another 10 catches for 81 yards in the playoffs. He had 87 catches in his final three years with the Patriots and was a very good blocker – as a guy who could bench 535 pounds coming out of college would be. Watson left to join Cleveland in 2009 as a free agent and, in an offense with fewer options, put up his biggest numbers as a receiver.

 

43. Bobby Hamilton

Years With Patriots: 2000-2003 | Games: 64 | Playoff Games: 6 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001, 2003)

Bobby Hamilton couldn’t start for Bill Parcells and the New York Jets. From 1996 through 1999, the 3-4 defensive end was a decent situational player, but not good enough to get on the field and stay there.

When Bill Belichick broke away from Parcells and took over the Patriots in 2000, he brought Hamilton with him. And Hamilton played miles better than anyone could have predicted that a Jets special-teams castoff would.

In 2001, he was a force. He had seven sacks, five batted passes and 52 tackles -- big numbers for an interior defensive lineman. The Patriots’ defense was the driving force behind it winning three Super Bowls in four seasons, and Hamilton was a mainstay for two of them.

He left as a free agent to play in Oakland in 2004 and resurfaced with Eric Mangini in New York in 2006, never again playing at the level he did while with the Pats when he was an indispensable warrior in the trenches.

42. Daniel Graham

Years With Patriots: 2002-2006 | Games: 63 | Playoff Games: 8 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004)

Daniel Graham wasn’t the best pass-catcher the Patriots have had at tight end during Bill Belichick’s reign; in fact, “hands like feet” was a description attached to him when he arrived. But he could block the snot out of you. And the hands got better, too.

A first-round pick in 2002, Graham was at his best in his second year, when he caught 38 passes -- four for touchdowns -- and was arguably the best blocking tight end in the league. In the 2003 regular season, Graham had a huge game in Houston with a long reception down the seam and then the game-tying touchdown during a last-minute Patriots comeback. Back in Houston a couple of months later for the Super Bowl, Graham repeatedly devastated Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, clearing space for Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk in New England’s Super Bowl 38 win.

 

Graham had another very good season in 2004 with seven touchdown receptions and 30 catches, but injuries began to chew into his time in 2005 and 2006 and he signed with the Broncos after his rookie contract expired.

41. Aqib Talib

Years With Patriots: 2012-2013 | Games: 19 | Playoff Games: 4 | Honors: 2013 Pro Bowl

This is an impact selection. Without Talib, the Patriots wouldn’t have made it to the AFC Championship Game in either of the two seasons he was here. Any illusions that wasn’t the case was removed in those games. Talib got hurt in both 2012 against Baltimore and 2013 against Denver, and the Patriots were immediately meat.

Picked up at the trade deadline in exchange for a fourth-rounder on November 1, 2012, Talib was still on a drug-policy suspension when he got to Foxboro. But in his first game, a demolition of the Colts, Talib broke a 14-14 second-quarter tie with a pick-6 of Andrew Luck. His presence settled the secondary, and it played at a level it hadn’t approached in years. But a hip flexor injury in Week 14 against Houston nagged him down the stretch and when he hurt it early in the title game against the Ravens, the Patriots were cooked.

At the start of 2013, Talib was playing as well as any New England corner since Ty Law. But the hip flexor got him again in October. He was able to play at a high level in spite of it and had a Pro Bowl season. But when he got demolished by a Wes Welker pick in Denver in the AFC Championship Game, Talib was done . . . and so were the Patriots.

Even though there was no Super Bowl payoff, Talib’s level of play and the way his presence impacted the rest of the team gets him the 41st spot.

40. David Givens

Years With Patriots: 2002-2005 | Games: 53 | Playoff Games: 8 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004)

A seventh-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2002, David Givens was a rock-solid weapon for the Patriots in some of their biggest games. Givens wasn’t tall but he was jacked -- 6-feet, 212 pounds -- and his ability to use that solid frame to make catches in traffic was vital to the success of two Super Bowl champions. How important was he in the playoffs? He caught a touchdown pass in seven of the eight playoffs games he played for the Patriots.

Givens’ emergence began in 2003, when the Pats started their NFL-record 21-game winning streak. He finished the season with 34 catches for 510 yards and caught another 17 passes in three playoff games, including a touchdown in the Super Bowl win over the Panthers. In 2004, he had his best season as a pro with 56 catches for 874 yards. Again, he was a focal point in the playoffs with 12 catches in three games, including an outstanding catch in the back right corner of the end zone on a dart from Tom Brady against the Eagles.

Givens had another 54 catches for the 2005 Patriots, who were dumped from the playoffs by the Broncos. He then went to Tennessee on a lucrative free-agent contract, but caught only nine passes for the Titans before knee problems ended his career. He later would file suit against Tennessee, arguing the Titans gave him poor medical advice and allowed him to play on an injured knee.

 

While his contributions seem a long time ago, Givens is just 34 years old.

39. Asante Samuel

Years With Patriots: 2003-2007 | Games: 75 | Playoff Games: 14 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004), 2007 Pro Bowler and All-Pro

It took about a week of practices in the summer of 2003 to realize that the Patriots wispy fourth-round pick was dangerous to throw near. Combining great anticipation and burst with confidence and flypaper hands, Asante Samuel became one of the best corners in football in his five Patriots seasons. Samuel was the Patriots third corner as a rookie behind starters Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, but took over as a full-time starter in 2004 midway through the season. Samuel and Randall Gay were the starters in Jacksonville when the Patriots took down the Eagles 24-21 for their third Super Bowl win in four years. Samuel picked off 19 regular-season passes over the next three seasons and another five in the playoffs including a pick-six of Peyton Manning in the ill-fated ’06 AFCCG. That play staked the Patriots to a 21-3 lead which they couldn’t hold. Samuel’s other indelible moment had no upside. Samuel was in coverage on a second-and-5 with 1:20 remaining when an Eli Manning pass crashed off his hands. He could have sealed the perfect season right there with a pick. In the re-telling, the play is made to sound simpler than it was – Samuel had to get up pretty high for the throw – but it was a play that he (like Wes Welker four years in the future against the same team on the same stage) would make most of the time. On the ensuing play, Samuel threw his motor into idle when he was covering David Tyree, leaving Rodney Harrison in lone coverage for a key third-down conversion you may recall as well. Samuel, who was franchised in 2007, left for Philly as a prized free agent in 2008.

38. Ted Johnson

Years With Patriots: 1995-2005 | Games: 125 | Playoff Games: 14 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001, 2003, 2004)

Getty Images
Linebacker Ted Johnson played 10 seasons with the Pats

For a span, Ted Johnson was the hardest-hitting middle linebacker in the game. Even though it was just a little more than a decade ago, the game was played a lot differently. For a linebacker, being able to take on centers, guards, fullbacks and ballcarriers in the hole wasn’t a niche role. It was THE job. Johnson always went forward and his helmet-cracking (literally) collisions eventually took their toll in the form of concussions and periods of depression. But his presence at the second level was a huge deterrent for a long time in New England. Even though Johnson was a three-time Super Bowl winner, I’ll acknowledge a case could be made that I have him too high on this list. But I was a big Ted Johnson guy for what he gave on the field and off to the Patriots and the NFL.

 

37. Nate Solder

Years With Patriots: 2011-Present | Games: 63 | Playoff Games: 10 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)

Time for a tortured metaphor. A very good left tackle is like a very good hot water heater. You don’t spend time gushing about the hot water heater when it’s doing its job. You just luxuriate in that warm water. And NFL fans don’t generally spend much time high-fiving over the protection afforded by their left tackle. They just enjoy the damn passing game. When the hot water heater goes out, there’s hell to play. When the left tackle is beaten, same thing. Since his rookie season in 2011, Nate Solder’s been a very good left tackle. Not elite. Not quite Pro Bowl-level. But he’s played on the perimeter well enough to start in two Super Bowls in his first four seasons and win one. As a rookie, Solder started 13 games in Matt Light’s injury-plagued final season with the team. In 2012 and 2013, after taking over for Light, Solder was an ascending player who went from a kinda spindly 6-8, 310-pounder to a powerful and rock-solid left tackle. The occasions where he was beaten by blind-side rushers with a collection of moves who were a half-foot shorter shrank. The 2014 season didn’t start well for Solder. Without Logan Mankins next to him at left guard, the entire offensive line seemed lost. But as the season progressed and the line improved, Solder’s confidence and performance followed. Having already played 10 postseason games in four seasons (and missing just one game overall), the reliability of Solder and the difficulty of his job in turning away some of the planet’s best athletes make him a critical player in the Belichick Era.

36. Sebastian Vollmer

Years With Patriots: 2009-present | Games: 74 | Playoff Games: 8 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014), AP All-Pro second team (2010)

Nobody knew who Sebastian Vollmer was when the Patriots took him in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. “Great. Another ‘We’re smarter than everybody else . . . ’ pick” was the hyena screech from those predisposed to lift their leg on the team.

To be fair, there were a few second-round picks in those years that deserved a leg-lifting. But Vollmer hasn’t been one of them. He’s one of the best run-blockers in the NFL since 2010 and has been an absolutely stand-up part of the Patriots locker room.

Like one of his offensive-line predecessors, Stephen Neal, Vollmer took raw power and athleticism and let it be molded by the coaching staff. He’s now got a Super Bowl ring to validate everything he’s done. 

35. Matthew Slater

Years With Patriots: 2008-present | Games: 103 | Playoff Games: 12 | Honors: Pro Bowler (2011-14), Super Bowl winner (2014)

Being a great special-teams player isn’t merely a matter of want-to. You need the physical tools -- speed, agility, lateral quickness and strength -- combined with a preternatural ability to process the chaos unfolding in front of you as you sprint toward collisions. And you have to want to.

 

As the premier gunner in the NFL for the past five seasons, Slater is double-teamed on every punt. Hammered, redirected, grabbed, pushed and pulled by two players whose only job is to keep Slater off their return guy, he still gets there. Slater has 68 special-teams tackles over the past four seasons. The yards saved for the Patriots in the kicking game by Slater can probably be found in a Patriots database somewhere. Suffice to say, it’s a lot.

The Patriots put more emphasis on special teams than most franchises and pay Slater handsomely to chase down returners. A team captain who followed perfectly in the footsteps of his special-teams predecessor Larry Izzo, Slater has also spread the mentality that special teams is vital to young players as they come into the program. And the year-end stats always show that it is.

34. Larry Izzo

Years With Patriots: 2001-08 | Games: 103 | Playoff Games: 17 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001, 2003, 2004), Pro Bowl (2002-2004), All-Pro (2002, 2004), Patriots All-Decade Team

Larry Izzo missed one regular-season game in eight seasons with the Patriots and -- over the course of a three-team career -- recorded nearly 300 special-teams tackles. Like the guy at No. 35, Matt Slater, Izzo did his work on the plays that a lot of fans don’t pay attention to. But the importance of special teams to Bill Belichick -- who started his NFL coaching career on “teams” -- can’t be overstated.

And Belichick’s reverence for Izzo and Slater was articulated a couple of year back when he said, “In my time here I’ve been very fortunate to have two outstanding, I mean exemplary, players at leadership positions on special teams with Larry Izzo and Matt Slater. I thought that when we had Larry here that there’d never be another one like that, that that was so rare. Matt’s different than Larry but I think in his own way is equally effective."

There was no other place for these special teams brothers-in-arms to be placed on this list other than side by side on the Top 50 list.

33. Joe Andruzzi

Years With Patriots: 2000-2004 | Games: 72 | Playoff Games: 9 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001, 2003, 2004)

t was 2001 and Tom Brady was two starts into his NFL reign. The Patriots ripped the Colts in Brady’s first start, then got blasted in Miami. Heading into the Week 5 game against San Diego, were still tenuous for everyone in Foxboro. The team was 1-3 and Bill Belichick’s overall record in New England was 6-16. There was media chortling after Brady’s performance in Miami, still wondering why Belichick hadn’t gone with the more experienced Damon Huard when Drew Bledsoe got hurt. And the Patriots were banged up. As of Wednesday, Joe Andruzzi was on crutches and out for the game. Sunday, he played. The Patriots won that game, 29-26 in overtime.

 

Andruzzi’s wire-to-wire participation didn’t please the Chargers. Guys don’t go from “out” to “active.” It surprised Belichick who said at the time he’d never had a player do that before. It also led Belichick to say this soon after, “After what Joe did two weeks ago, it's hard to even put him on the injury report. It looks like if he's walking, he's playing. He came back from a back injury [in training camp] sooner than people thought he would. He played with a back brace and looked uncomfortable doing it, but he did it.

“When you talk about leadership, you can't get any more leadership than he has shown by playing with these injuries,” Belichick added. Some guys give a team speech, but to go out there when things aren't going well for you, that shows leadership, a commitment to the team and your teammates. ... He's a pretty impressive guy.''

Andruzzi didn’t go to any Pro Bowls and there are no advanced statistics showing where he ranked during his five-year career relative to other guards in terms of effectiveness. If there were, he probably wouldn’t have been real high on them. Andruzzi’s on-field strength was strength. An absolute bull. Add in dependability, leadership and the three rings he owns from being a starter on those Patriots teams and you see why he’s on our list.

32. Stephen Neal

Years With Patriots: 2002-2010 | Games: 86 | Playoff Games: 12 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004)

The time will never come when Bill Belichick tires of talking about the success story that was right guard Stephen Neal. Almost every time a player’s development is discussed -- especially when that player is learning something new -- Belichick invokes the name of the former college wrestler turned NFL mainstay. Neal, Belichick will say, is on the high end of learning. To illustrate how raw Neal was, Belichick toggles between describing Neal as “not even knowing how to put pads on” and “not even knowing how to get to the practice field.”

Signed by the Patriots in July 2001 even though he never played college football, Neal was released at the end of that camp and spent the early part of 2001 on the Eagles practice squad before the Patriots scooped him back up in December 2001. It wasn’t until the fifth game of 2002 that he made his first start. In that game, Neal separated his shoulder. But even in doing that, he earned Belichick’s praise. Neal was the only Patriot chasing down a screen pass that fell incomplete and was actually a lateral. Hence, the 2002 team got bashed over the head with the fact the only guy who knew what to do on the play was the guy who just started playing.

 

Neal came to football with tremendous raw strength and a wrestler’s understanding of the advantages leverage and quickness bring when combined with power. That shoulder injury was the start of a battle he’d have with that arm for the next nine seasons. Neal bridged the time between the early 2000s Pats and the reboot that followed the 2009 season. When Neal retired before the 2011 season, Belichick said in a statement, "They don't come any better than Steve Neal. In terms of improvement and development as a player, Steve may have accomplished more than any player I have ever been around. His toughness, intelligence and competitiveness were at rare levels and all contributed to him going from being a champion in an individual sport to being an integral part of championship teams. I congratulate Steve for an incredible career and thank him for everything he did for me personally, our team and organization."

31. David Patten

Years With Patriots: 2001-2004 | Games: 54 | Playoff Games: 6 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001, 2003, 2004)

ASSOCIATED PRESS
David Patten was huge for the 2001 Patriots

“Chief.” That was the nickname Patriots of a certain vintage had for wide receiver David Patten. They called him that because that’s what the 5-10, 192-pound bundle of work ethic called everybody else. A devout Christian, Patten didn’t proselytize religion at his locker but he did thump the Belichick bible. Hard work, work hard, hard work, work hard, do what the coaches want me to do. That was the message he stuck to. Patten is on this list ahead of guys who played for the team longer and in bigger games because of work he did on the foundation of the Patriots dynasty. In 2001, Terry Glenn drama caused him to make just a five-game a cameo on the field. Patten was the Patriots’ only downfield threat. A guy from Western Carolina who’d offloaded coffee beans, worked as an electrician and landscaped in between college and latching on in the NFL owned the Patriots 2001 playoff highlights. In the Snow Bowl, the final game at Foxboro Stadium against the Raiders, Tom Brady targeted Patten 16 times. He caught eight for 153. The next week, on the road at Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game, Brady had to leave the game just before the half with an ankle injury. The Patriots led 7-3 at the time. The Patriots ran four plays before the half. Three were passes from Drew Bledsoe to Patten. Patten pulled in throws of 15, 10 and 11 yards – the last one a leaping touchdown – from Bledsoe in Bledsoe’s last flicker of Patriots’ glory.

And the following week in New Orleans, Patten made a similar touchdown catch on a throw from Brady late in the half against the Rams in the Super Bowl to again stake the Pats to a 14-3 lead at the break. In four seasons with the Patriots, Patten caught 165 regular-season passes for an average of 15.2 yards per reception. Patten played for the Redskins and Saints after leaving the Patriots as a free agent in 2005, but returned to the team for training camp in 2010. Even though he appeared to still have some gas left, he retired that August. In a press conference, Bill Belichick said, “He's meant a lot to this team, a lot to this organization, again going back to '01, '02, '03, when we were getting the program started. The toughness and the attitude and the leadership that he brought to our football team in a kind of quiet, Troy Brown kind of way. He just did his job, worked hard, just set the pace for everybody else to keep up with, including the coaches. He'd outwork us, too.

 

“The rags to riches story coming off of unloading coffee bags or beans or whatever it was, to the NFL career that he's had, it's just a tremendous story and very deserving of the type of person and the type of player that David was for the New England Patriots and throughout his career in the league.”

30. Darrelle Revis

Years With Patriots: 2014 | Games: 16 | Playoff Games: 3 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014), All-Pro (2014)

How good was Darrelle Revis in 2014? I felt he absolutely deserved to be in the MVP conversation. How much of an impact did he have on the Patriots defense? He allowed the team to change its scheme, playing press coverage on the outside, usually assigning Revis to one wideout with the express command to shut that guy down. That made every other secondary player’s job easier. How much does Revis have in common with the guys who immediately precede him on this list – David Patten and Stephen Neal? Not a lot. They were workaday guys, players grateful for the chance in New England and extremely team loyal because of it. Revis knew (and knows) his unique skill put him on different footing than most every other player in the league and he doesn’t have to be beholden to a club or a coach. He’s a mercenary. But in his one season here, he didn’t demonstrate a sense of entitlement or a “better than” vibe. He meshed perfectly with the other players in the secondary and on both sides of the ball. Selfishly, he was a pleasure to talk to because he was extremely open about his craft and surprisingly willing to take as much time with the media as necessary. He was only here one season, but the Patriots won a Super Bowl in that season. He was their best defender. He belongs right here.

29. Corey Dillon

Years With Patriots: 2004-06 | Games: 43 | Playoff Games: 8 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2004), Pro Bowler (2004)

In 9 of the 15 games Corey Dillon played in 2004, he rushed for more than 100 yards. In just one of those 15 did he average less than 4 yards per carry. Dillon’s 345-carry, 1,635-yard, 12-touchdown regular season was followed by a 65-carry, 292-yard postseason as the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

 

Acquired from the Bengals on the Monday after the 2004 draft in exchange for a second-round pick, Dillon brought baggage to Foxboro. He didn’t quietly go about his business as the perennially awful Bengals floundered in the first seven seasons of his career and by the end, he wanted to go and the Bengals wanted him gone. Dillon also had a checkered off-field history dating back to his youth in Washington on through Cincinnati.

Dillon was joining a Patriots team that had won two titles in three seasons and had a specific way of doing things. Tedy Bruschi told me that, after Dillon was acquired, the two men had a conversation about whether Dillon felt he could be on board with his new team. Dillon said all he needed was a fresh start and a good team to play for. He got a great one. Dillon’s signature games in that year were in the playoffs. He ran over the Colts in the Divisional Playoffs with 144 yards. His 25-yard, third-quarter touchdown run against the Steelers in the AFC Championship made it 31-10 and when he punctuated that run with a 90-mph heater off the wall in the end zone, New England exulted along with the guy many were slow to embrace.

In 2005 and 2006, Dillon battled injuries and his reps decreased. He also got a little surlier. He didn’t like seeing Heath Evans getting unabashed love for a 158-yard, two-game spurt in 2005 while Dillon was hurt (Dillon to me: “Are you the one that said Evans looks like John Riggins?” Me: “Yeah, but . . . ” Dillon: “(expletive)”), he became passive aggressive toward the coaching staff during infrequent media sessions, his face was a perma-scowl. Probably, he was having trouble coming to grips with the fact that -- at 32 -- he was no longer a force of nature. It was over.

But “bad” Corey Dillon never happened here in New England. He was an intelligent and amusing guy who just didn’t love the trappings of NFL fame as much as he did playing the game and being with a few friends. Tully Banta-Cain told me that, on the road, Dillon would bring his PlayStation with him and run to Banta-Cain’s room to play hours of video games every road trip. Dillon’s pretty much fallen off the radar since his retirement. But his work from 2004 through 2006 is worth remembering here. 

28. Lawyer Milloy

Years With Belichick's Patriots: 2000-2002 | Games: 48 | Playoff Games: 3 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001), Pro Bowl (2001, 2002)

Lawyer Milloy meant an incredible amount to the Bill Belichick Era Patriots. He just wasn’t here very long.

 

Obviously, he was part of the team for longer than the three years listed above -- he was the 36th overall pick in 1996 -- but this list is limited to contributions made when Belichick was head coach. So that meant just 48 games for the blood-and-guts safety before a contract squabble and a jaw-dropping release sent him to the Buffalo Bills.

When Belichick joined the Patriots in 2000, he knew Milloy well. He’d been the secondary coach in Milloy’s rookie season before fleeing to the Jets with Bill Parcells. When Belichick returned, he tapped into the passion and talent of Milloy, an emotional player who hit like a truck and was smart as hell. When Tom Brady arrived in 2000, Milloy slowly became a convert. In the week after Drew Bledsoe was injured in 2001, Milloy said, “Maybe a change will help us.” It did. With Milloy the soul of the defense and Brady’s biggest backer, the Patriots went on a tear in 2001.

Two things I remember about Milloy late in that season. The first? His fiery performance at the AFC Championship Game press conference in Pittsburgh. He and Brady went down early to represent the team, which was widely regarded as football's fluky Cinderella, lucky to be there and about to serve as fodder for the team-of-destiny Steelers. Milloy was asked if the team was focused. His answer: “Are you serious with that question? I’ve got to count to 10. I told myself that before I got mad up here with one of those questions. The reality of it is, I’m not here to lose. Our team is not a team of destiny. This team is trying to take advantage of being a good team. I know the focus is pretty much on the other three teams that have a chance to compete for that trophy at the end of the year. Our focus has always been on us. We haven’t let it seep outside of our locker room. We’re focused on the direction we’re heading in as a team and that’s what makes us good. Go ahead and overlook us all you want. We watch ESPN. We watch the playoff commercials. They have all the other teams on there and I don’t see one guy from our team on that commercial. They have guys on that commercial talking about playoff experience and the atmosphere, and it’s guys who haven’t even been in the playoffs before. That’s crazy.”

The second? About 10 days later, he and Belichick were embracing in the Superdome after the Patriots knocked off St. Louis.

It ended messily for Milloy and he wasn’t a fun guy to be around at the end, but he had as much to do with that first championship as absolutely anybody in the organization. 

 

27. Jerod Mayo

Years With Patriots: 2008-present | Games: 87 | Playoff Games: 7 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014), AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2008), All-Pro (2010), Pro Bowl (2010, 2012)

There's a line of demarcation in Bill Belichick’s run with the Patriots.

There are the players who came in 2000 and '01, and the program that was installed ran until 2008. After that season -- which Tom Brady missed because of a blown ACL -- Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi retired. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour were traded. Scott Pioli, who ran personnel for nine seasons, joined the Chiefs. In 2009, the team bottomed out in terms of attitude and coachability. It was a group of easily-led younger players suddenly being mentored by “I’m too old for this” veterans that came as close to tuning out Belichick as any team ever did.

But one critical addition from 2008 was able to soak up from the old lions some of the institutional knowledge of Belichick’s early years and bring it forward into the reboot: Jerod Mayo.

Drafted with the 10th overall pick in 2008, Mayo was everything Belichick wanted in a football player. A tackling machine and two-time captain at Tennessee, Mayo’s intelligence was exceeded by his work ethic. He bought a pickup truck and moved to a condo near the facility. He was a fixture. He had 126 tackles as a rookie and was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 2009, he got a look at how not to do things. In 2010, he was -- along with Vince Wilfork -- the leader of the defense, turning in a 175-tackle, All-Pro season. Mayo lost four games to injury in 2011, but was back for the Super Bowl and was again a Pro Bowler after the 2012 season.

The last two years have been marred by injury so Mayo’s on-field contributions are fading to most fans. But his importance to the Patriots was articulated during the 2014 training camp by Belichick: "I would say he’s really the guy that the team probably revolves around more than any other player. Not that there aren’t other players that are instrumental in that. But I think that he really touches pretty much everybody. Not just the defensive players, but all the guys. Not just the older guys, but the younger guys. He’s got a great work ethic, great presence on the football field, and great personality. In a very good way, professional but he also has a good rapport with all the players and coaches. As respected as any player in the locker room. One of the best overall team leaders, players, kind of glue chemistry guy.”

I asked Belichick that day if Mayo reminded him of Vrabel. He answered: “I would say more Bruschi [than Vrabel], but different. Tedy had a different personality, but a lot of the same characteristics."

Without Mayo, the success of the Patriots post-2009 -- No. 1 seed in 2010, Super Bowl appearance in 2011, AFC Championship appearance in 2012 and 2013 and a Super Bowl win in 2014 -- probably wouldn’t have happened.

 

26. Devin McCourty

Years With Patriots: 2010-present | Games: 77 | Playoff Games: 11 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014), All-Pro, 2nd team (2010, 2013), Pro Bowl (2010)

The best thing about Devin McCourty is that he does his job so well, his proficiency slips under the radar.

He’s got outstanding range. He tackles as well as any free safety in the NFL and doesn’t shrink from a trucking. He sets the secondary and coverages. He communicates and gives support to the Patriots' ever-rotating fleet of corners. He has enough ability as a cover guy to have been runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 (when he was also second-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler). And he has enough versatility to make the switch to safety and actually play even better over there.

On a defense that’s had its rocky moments the past five seasons but has played well enough to get to two Super Bowls, four AFC Championship games and, in McCourty’s rookie season, 14 wins, McCourty is the only constant in the back-seven. He’s been a captain for the Patriots since his second year in the league.

One of McCourty’s biggest strengths? Durability. He’s missed just three of 80 games.

A defense without McCourty at the back isn’t a prospect the Patriots relished. That’s why they re-upped him for five years this offseason. 

25. Ty Warren

Years With Patriots: 8 | Games: 106 | Playoff Games: 16 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004)

Talk about mainstays. From 2003 through 2007, Ty Warren missed just one out of 90 regular-season games. For a 3-4 defensive tackle, taking that kind of two-gapping pounding, the durability was remarkable. So was Warren’s ability. Playing next to Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour on the defensive line, the Patriots had three first-rounders (Seymour was No. 6 overall in 2001, Warren was No. 13 in 2003 and Wilfork was No. 21 in 2004) in their three-man front that occupied large humans and allowed Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer, etc., to make plays at the second level. Warren was overshadowed significantly by all the players around him on those outstanding Patriots defenses, but his presence was indispensable to the success of those teams. Hip injuries caused his productivity and availability to dwindle after the 2007 season and he was released by the team in July of 2011. He signed with Denver and only played one game for the Broncos in three seasons. Everything he had to give, he’d given to New England.

24. Holiday Interlude

Years With Patriots: Not that many | Games: Less than 1 | Playoff Games: Zip | Honors: Zero

It takes a special kind of stupid to set out to do a Top 50 list and realize halfway through that you only have 49.

How, how, how does that happen?!?!?! Like this:

You set out to make the list and come up with about 53 names. Whittle, whittle, whittle . . . finally, down to 50. But instead of locking in and getting all 50 in their spots, you decide it’s going to be fluid. Your boss raises an eyebrow and gives a reluctant okay; he knows you’ll stomp around if you don’t get your way. Then you drop a couple of guys (Damien Woody, Rosevelt Colvin, perhaps) and add a guy (one, not two).

 

Next thing you know, you’re getting ready to do No. 25, you look at your list . . . and you only have 24 players left.

What now?

You can jam Aaron Hernandez into this spot. (No, that’s a REALLY bad idea.) You can slip in Drew Bledsoe.

Or you can post this on July 4, tell everyone, “What do you want from me . . . I suck at math,” and move on.

Happy Fourth of July!!!! 

("Holiday Interlude" could be an actual name, couldn't it?)

23. Antowain Smith

Years With Patriots: 2001-2003 | Games: 45 | Playoff Games: 6 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001,2003)

After making just three starts for the Buffalo Bills in 2000, carrying for a measly 354 yards, it seemed like it was over for Antowain Smith. It was a decent run for a guy who didn’t get to the NFL until he was 25. Having been saddled with a load of family responsibilities coming out of high school, Smith worked two years in a material dyeing factory before going to junior college and then onto the University of Houston. At 6-2, 232 pounds, he ripped it up for the Cougars and was a first-round selection in 1997. The Patriots had a need in 2001. Kevin Faulk had been their lead back and he wasn’t suited for everydown work. Smith was. And then some. A plowhorse, he ran for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns during the 2001 regular season. His biggest contribution, though, came in the 2001 Super Bowl. You really have to take stock of the Patriots offensive weaponry in that game to appreciate what Smith did. A second-year quarterback making just his 17th start. Troy Brown and David Patten at wideout – most teams wouldn’t even consider them starters.

Rod Rutledge and Jermaine Wiggins were the tight ends. If the Patriots didn’t play brilliant defense and control the ball, they would get pounded. Smith carried 18 times for 92 yards against the Rams in that 20-17 win. There was a 9-yard gain on Smith’s first touch of the game. Consecutive 9 and 12-yard carries coming out of halftime. A 17-yarder midway through the third. Each one announced the Patriots were not going away and that the Rams weren’t getting the ball soon. Smith’s work dipped in 2002, but in 2003 he was again the postseason weapon that got the Patriots another Lombardi. He ran for 69 yards on 16 carries in the bitter cold against Tennessee.

Now 31 years old, Smith carried 22 times for 100 yards in the AFC Championship against Indy. He went for 86 yards against the Panthers in the Super Bowl. There wasn’t much nuance to Antowain’s game. He ran with a terrific lean and always, always, always fell forward. Where most backs would get 1, he’d get 3 or 4. That was what those Patriots needed. And Smith delivered. He left New England as a free agent in 2004 and went from Tennessee to New Orleans in the fading light of his career.

 

22. Dan Koppen

Years With Patriots: 2003-2011 | Games: 121 | Playoff Games: 14 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004), Pro Bowler (2007), All-Pro second team (2007)

Bill Belichick used to say of Dan Koppen, “His strength is his strength.” The reasonably-sized Boston College product played at a shade under 300 pounds during his nine seasons with the Patriots. But Koppen was a horse in the middle of the Patriots offensive line, season after season. And right from the start. A fifth-round pick in 2003, Koppen was dropped into the starting lineup and the Patriots just rolled on.

The center’s responsibilities are huge for any offense. For an offense as multiple as the Patriots -- one which went from a power game when Koppen was a rookie, to a more wide-open style in 2007, then to an amalgam of everything Belichick, Tom Brady, Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels and Bill O’Brien contributed -- Koppen had to be a computer to get the line calls and protections right and then execute against the Haloti Ngatas and Casey Hamptons of the NFL.

"He's as good as anybody I've been around at communication and identification and just being football smart," Belichick said in 2007. "Knowing what's going to happen and when to do the right thing, when to change something, when to leave it the same."

Said left tackle Matt Light, “Dan’s always been a rock. He’s a very cerebral guy. He understands the system, not just what he has to do, but what everyone else around him has to do. That’s a skill set most people take for granted in centers, but they don’t always have that. And our system isn’t the easiest thing in the world to work under, especially working with a snap count and everything else Tommy likes to do at the line of scrimmage. It takes a lot of concentration and knowing what you’re doing. That’s why Tommy has a lot of trust in Dan.”

Brady is close with a lot of teammates, but his kinship with Koppen was something special. Koppen never got the national recognition that would send him to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl a bunch of times. That was annually Kevin Mawae or Jeff Saturday. But people in Foxboro knew how much Koppen meant to the stability of the line in front of Brady.

21. Rob Ninkovich

Years With Patriots: 2009-present | Games: 95 | Playoff Games: 12 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)

Ask a bar full of Pats fans to name the three greatest plays of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win over Seattle and you probably won’t hear the name Rob Ninkovich mentioned. But every great play of the final quarter was set up in large part by a Ninkovich play with 14:19 left.

The Patriots trailed, 24-14, and Seattle had the ball at its own 39 facing a third-and-7. This was a must-have stop. Ninkovich, coming off the right side of the Seattle offensive line, came up with an eight-yard sack of the elusive Russell Wilson. The Seahawks punted and the Patriots put together two touchdown drives (and another white-knuckle defensive stop) to win their fifth Super Bowl.

 

More obscure from the same game? Third-and-one at the Patriots 8 with 11:51 remaining in the third quarter. Ninkovich stuffs Marshawn Lynch for no gain. Seattle settles for a field goal and has a little something to think about for later in the game.

You forget about Ninkovich sometimes, partly because he’s such a fixture. He’s missed one game since 2009. He played 95 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps in 2013, 94 percent in 2014. Defensive ends aren’t supposed to be able to do that. But Ninkovich does. And every year, you can write him down for 8.0 sacks (his total the past three seasons), close to 80 tackles, and fumble forces/recoveries. In 2012, Nink created five fumbles and recovered four, both near the top of the NFL.

The players who got New England’s early success started get a lot of love on this list. But we can’t overstate their accomplishments at the expense of the later guys. For instance, Willie McGinest -- who we still haven’t gotten to -- had 38.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions and 317 tackles from 2000 through 2005. From 2009 through 2014, Ninkovich had 35.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, 5 interceptions and 385 tackles. Different positions and they were different ages at the time, but you get the point (I hope).

No flash. All substance. That’s been Ninkovich.

20. Julian Edelman

Years With Patriots: 2009-present | Games: 78 | Playoff Games: 10 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)

Had I done this list at the end of 2012, Julian Edelman wouldn’t have been on it. Might not have been on it after 2013, either, even after catching 105 balls for 1,056 yards in the regular season and another 16 in two playoff games. His resume -- even though he's one of the most prolific punt returners in NFL history -- wasn’t long enough.

But now?

Accuse me of recency bias if you want, but Edelman’s 2014 postseason rockets him up to the top 20.

His backstory is typical Patriots. A college quarterback and seventh-round pick, he caught 8 balls for 98 yards in his first game -- a Week 2 pinch-hitting appearance for Wes Welker -- against the Jets.  He was boxed out by Welker from then until the final regular-season game, when Welker’s ACL went in Houston; Edelman stepped in and caught 10 for 103. In the Patriots’ mail-it-in loss to the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs Edelman was one of the few players who showed up, catching six passes and two touchdowns.

But Welker held onto the job in 2010 and '11. In 2012, Edelman looked ready to overtake him coming out of camp, but then broke his wrist against the Ravens in Week 4 and damaged his foot at Miami in Week 12, landing on injured reserve.

Deemed too brittle to rely on, Edelman wasn’t the first choice to replace Welker after the latter signed with the Broncos in 2013; Danny Amendola was. But when Amendola got hurt in the first game, Edelman got his shot . . . and he's been nothing less than the best slot receiver in the NFL ever since. And in the biggest games, he's been money.

 

In the Patriots' five postseason games in 2013 and '14, Edelman had 42 catches for 454 yards, two touchdowns (including the Super Bowl game-winner against the Seahawks) and a touchdown pass that changed the shape of the 2014 Divisional Playoff against Baltimore. In 2014, he returned 9 punts for 143 yards in three playoff games.

Also, Edelman’s punt-return accomplishments get overlooked: He’s fourth all-time in average yards per return (12.3), which ties him with Devin Hester. Every other guy in the top 10 entered the league prior to 1993. In other words, against more skilled punters and bigger, faster coverage groups, Edelman is getting it done at an almost Ruthian level.

Long, long, long after Edelman’s done, he’ll be forever running like a crazed dog in the 2014 postseason highlights. 

19. Stephen Gostkowski

Years With Patriots: 2006-2014 | Games: 136 | Playoff Games: 17 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014), All-Pro (2008), Pro Bowls (2008, 2013, 2014)

Adam Vinatieri was a placekicking deity. The forecast called for pain when Vinatieri left as a free agent in 2006 because no replacement could be as clutch and unflappable as Automatic Adam, the man who won two Super Bowls in the final minute with his right foot and delivered two of the most amazing postseason kicks in history in the Snow Bowl. I’m not saying Stephen Gostkowski is necessarily better than Vinatieri. I will point out, though, that both men made 243 regular-season kicks in the first nine seasons of their career. Gostkowski did that on 280 attempts. Vinatieri on 296. A Pro Bowler each of the past two seasons, Gostkowski has missed five regular-season field goal attempts in the past two years. That’s 73 out of 78. He hasn’t missed a postseason field goal attempts since 2009 and is 20 of 22 for his career in the postseason. The most impressive run of his career was in 2013 when he made eight kicks of great length at clutch junctures in Patriots wins. He hasn’t had many occasions in the postseason to nail big kicks – though he went 8-for-8 as a rookie in the 2006 playoffs – but his regular-season performances are annually the source of team-wide success. Being without a reliable kicker changes everything for a coaching staff. Since he’s coached the Patriots, Bill Belichick hasn’t really faced that feeling.

18. Roman Phifer

Years With Patriots: 2001-2004 | Games: 59 | Playoff Games: 9 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001, 2003, 2004), Pro Bowl Alternate (2001, 2003)

 

After the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2001, Bill Belichick said, “''I feel good for a lot of people on our team,'' he said, ''but I don't think I feel as good for anyone as I do for Roman Phifer.'' It’s been 11 years since Phifer wore a Patriots’ uniform. But the brilliant and versatile linebacker – marooned on a bad Rams team from 1991 to 1998 and then with the Jets for two fruitless seasons – who got his late-career payoff when the Patriots signed him as a role player in 2001 has had a lasting impact. In 2004, Tedy Bruschi said, “I've seen a lot of linebackers play in this league, but if there's a guy I want to mold my career after, it's Roman Phifer, the way he physically and mentally prepares himself. He's a guy you don't talk about a lot. He doesn't get a lot of recognition, but he's always there and you know it." From Bruschi to Jerod Mayo, to the guys Mayo took under his wing and are now flourishing, Donta Hightower and Jamie Collins, Phifer set a linebacking standard. He didn’t put up crazy numbers for the Patriots. But he joined the team at 33 and rolled up 337 tackles playing inside in the Patriots’ 3-4. He was also excellent in coverage. Phifer was one of the Patriots that Belichick didn’t have to worry about. He knew his job and did his job. And guys such as Bruschi and Mike Vrabel – who hadn’t been a starter in Pittsburgh – drafted off Phifer’s example. Phifer worked out a deal with Belichick when he signed. He would be allowed to train on his own in the offseason and, after games, would frequently fly home to California then return to the team on Wednesday. He was that dependable. Said Belichick, "He's got this program he's on that exceeds what ours would be. We have other players who have trouble keeping up with what he does in the offseason." To describe Phifer, Belichick used an adjective you don’t often hear him employ. Amazing. 

17. Deion Branch

Years With Patriots: 2002-05 and 2010-12 | Games: 89 | Playoff Games: 14 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2003, 2004), Super Bowl MVP (2004)

USA Today

Deion Branch never had a 1,000-yard receiving season (he topped out at 998 in 2005). His high for receiving touchdowns was five. But the kismet between Branch and Tom Brady allowed Brady to see just how good he could be if he had a receiver with whom he shared an almost telepathic connection. When Branch arrived in 2002 as a second-round pick, the Patriots were still building their roster from the dregs Bill Belichick found when he arrived in 2000. Branch was a piece the Patriots didn’t have. Faster than Troy Brown, so that he could play outside or over the middle (where he was smart enough to hit the deck quickly), the precision of Branch’s route-running and sticky hands were immediate eye-openers. In his fourth NFL game, Brady threw to him 15 times and he caught 13 for 128 yards in San Diego.

 

He was a little injury-prone but he was there in the postseason. He could have been a two-time Super Bowl MVP. Against the Panthers, he had 10 catches for 143 yards. Brady was named MVP. The following year, he caught 11 of 12 for 133 against the Eagles and earned the honor. Two weeks before, he devastated the Steelers in the AFC Championship with 116 yards on four catches (including a 60-yard bomb from Brady) and a 37-yard touchdown run on a reverse. It ended messily in 2006 when the Patriots wouldn’t redo Branch’s rookie deal and Branch held out until he was dealt to the Seahawks in August. That standoff had ramifications.

The Patriots scrap-heap wide receiver corps in 2006 held them hostage all season. With Branch, the Patriots almost certainly would have gotten past the Colts in the AFC Championship and steamrolled the Bears in Miami. Branch had a New England reboot in 2010, though, and it was amazing to see his impact. The circumstances were ironic. Branch basically replaced Randy Moss. Moss (and Wes Welker) were imported in 2007 after the Patriots came up short in 2006. Moss had become unreliable. Pissed about his contract, shying from contact, the Patriots shipped Moss to the Vikings and dealt for Branch. In his first game back, Branch caught 9 balls for 98 yards. It was his second-highest regular season output.

The highest? The fourth game of his career in San Diego.

Branch caught 99 passes for 1,408 yards and 10 touchdowns in 26 games with New England in 2010 and 2011. He was done with the team after 2012 and, as an epitaph here’s what Belichick had to say in 2014. "Deion had a great career here. Very smart, professional player. Great leader. One of the top guys we've had here in terms of off-the-field work ethic, leadership, intelligence, preparation, all those things. He had some very productive seasons here. He's a tremendous person. He's had a great career."

16. Randy Moss

Years With Patriots: 2007-2010 | Games: 52 | Playoff Games: 4 | Honors: All-Pro (2007), Pro Bowl (2007)

In 2007, Randy Moss had one of the greatest seasons for a wide receiver in NFL history. The numbers were amazing enough: 98 catches for 1,493 yards and an NFL record 23 touchdown receptions. But the ripple effect of his presence was even more intriguing. Prior to 2007, Tom Brady’s highs for touchdown passes, yards and completion percentage were 28, 4,110 and 63.9. With Moss, Brady went to a then-record 50, 4,806 and 68.9 and put the hammer to the idea Brady couldn’t throw deep and was just a system quarterback. Moss also helped the Patriots go 16-0 and caught the go-ahead touchdown pass in Super Bowl 42 with 2:45 remaining in the game. That catch was the high point for Moss in New England. In 2008, Brady got hurt in the season opener. Matt Cassel relieved.

 

Moss made Cassel a very rich man, catching 69 balls for 1,008 yards and 11 touchdowns and opening things up for everyone else with his presence that season. But the Patriots missed the playoffs and, with Brady not there to prod Moss in 2008, Moss’ focus wavered. In 2009, as he started to sweat his contract – he had re-signed with the team after a brief free agent dalliance in 2008. He felt the Patriots low-balled him with a three-year, $27 million deal. He had a very good year statistically – 83-1,264-13 – but there was a team-wide malaise that Moss was at least a part of if he wasn’t the direct source. By the start of 2010, he was at a slow burn and entering a period of self-sabotage. He was passive aggressive with coaches and believed Brady had turned on him.

He felt he wasn’t appreciated. After the team’s season-opening win over the Bengals, Moss spent 16 minuteslamenting that he wasn’t appreciated and stating he was most likely done in New England at the end of the year.  The next week against the Jets, Moss’ effort on balls thrown his way was weak. He caught two of the 10 on which he was targeted in a loss. The next week, Brady threw to him just three times against the Bills. He made two receptions, both were touchdowns. In Miami, Brady froze Moss out, throwing to him just once. I watched Moss’ effort that game. It seemed as if he saw the writing on the wall and was trying to change minds.

He blocked and ran routes at a fever pitch. “I’m trying, man,” he told me after the game. Too late. A couple of days later, the Patriots shipped him out. Moss wouldn’t piss on a reporter if said reporter was ablaze. But I loved covering him because A) he’s the best deep receiver in NFL history, B) he was fascinating. Smart, funny, over-sensitive, arrogant and insecure, Moss was abrasive to those who could do him good (management, coaches and media) and sweet to those who could do nothing for him (young teammates, needy fans, peripheral team personnel). Moss checks in at 16 on this list. He wasn’t the “perfect Patriot” but he was compelling as hell.

15. Kevin Faulk

Years With Patriots: 1999-2011 (2000-11 with Belichick) | Games: 161 | Playoff Games: 19 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2001, 2003, 2004)

USA Today
Kevin Faulk almost made it a lot higher in Curran's rankings...

You have no idea how badly I wanted to put Kevin Faulk in my Top 5 on this list.

For the way he went from the being absolutely not trustworthy with the football in 2000 to the most clutch and reliable offensive player the team had later in his career. For the way he contributed to three Super Bowl championships. For the leadership that was part of the reason the Patriots had a successful reboot after the Nadir of ‘09. For being -- I believe -- arguably the best third-down back in NFL history.

 

For all that, I wanted to put him up there.

But the guys in front of him were just too good while on the field more often. Either that, or they made plays that -- without which -- rings wouldn’t have happened.

So here's Faulk at 15.

It took Faulk a few years to find his NFL niche. Used to being a workhorse at LSU, he was probably relied on a little too much by the Pats in 2000 when they had no other options. When they scaled back Faulk’s role, he excelled.

He was probably at his best in 2003 and '04 in terms of physical ability. Over those two seasons, he carried 230 times for 909 yards and caught 74 passes for 688 yards. In the playoffs those years, he ran it 36 times for 186 yards and caught 11 for 96.

But it’s not volume of numbers with Faulk. It’s singular plays. Like the two-point conversion run against the Panthers in Super Bowl 38. It’s hidden plays, like the genius he had for picking up blitzes. From 2005 until a blown ACL in 2010, he was their most consistent and dependable skill guy.

Faulk was just 5-foot-8 but absolutely jacked. He wasn’t fast, but if you put him in a phone booth with a linebacker, he’d still be tough to bring down. He had awful hands early in his career and one of the best pair of hands in football by the end.

When he retired, Bill Belichick said this:”I think the world of Kevin Faulk. He's been a very productive player for us, he's the ultimate team player, he takes great pride and professionalism in his job. He's a great example for all of us in terms of being a professional -- being team-oriented, and putting himself secondary to the team goals, and setting a great example, and doing everything he can to help the team win. I don't see how you can get a better example than that. He's along the lines of, you know, Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and many of the other players we've had like that. He's really at the top of that list. I think any player on the team -- or any coach on the team, for that matter -- that watches Kevin Faulk can see positives in Kevin and learn from it. He's an inspiration to all of us."

14. Logan Mankins

Years With Patriots: 2005-2013 | Games: 130 | Playoff Games: 17 | Honors: All-Pro (First team: 2010; Second team: 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013), Pro Bowler (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013)

One of the bittersweet aspects of the Patriots Super Bowl win last February was that Logan Mankins wasn’t around to experience it. He came to New England in 2005, the season after the third Lombardi was earned, and he was traded away at the end of camp in 2014, just before the Pats won their fourth.

It was a shocking move that the team weathered. Mankins was one of the best offensive linemen in football during his nine years in New England, with annual Pro Bowl honors to show for it. He brought a quiet meanness to the offensive-line group, imbuing it with an identity that said to defensive fronts, “We are smarter than you, we can withstand more punishment and -- in the end -- we will beat you.” Almost always, they did.

 

Three major exceptions came in the biggest games, though. Super Bowls 42 and 46 against the Giants were both pockmarked with offensive-line breakdowns when the Patriots front just got overrun. And the 2013 AFC Championship Game at Denver was another tough one to watch. A Patriots offense that was already outgunned at the skill positions in that game needed a big day from Mankins and his group. They didn’t get it.

But Mankins is here because of his annual excellence and the way he went about his business. He played the entire 2011 season on a torn ACL. Other franchises would have head coaches and teammates appealing to Congress for the guy to be given a Purple Heart while the season was ongoing. Mankins never shared the extent of his injury while he dealt with it.

On the day Mankins was dealt to Tampa Bay, Bill Belichick stated: "Logan Mankins is everything we would ever want in a football player. It is hard to imagine a better player at his position, a tougher competitor or a person to represent our program. He is one of the all-time great Patriots and the best guard I ever coached. Logan brought a quiet but unmistakable presence and leadership that will be impossible to duplicate. Unfortunately, this is the time of year when difficult decisions have to be made -- and this is one of the most difficult we will ever make -- but like every other decision it was made for what we feel is in the best interests of the team."

Of all the hard business moves the Patriots have made over the years, the Mankins deal is the least defensible. That everything worked out in the end with a championship doesn’t totally whitewash the fact that trading Mankins wasn’t really necessary in terms of the salary cap, the team didn’t make great use of the guy they got in return (Tim Wright), and the offensive line was a panic for four weeks after he left. It didn’t have to happen.

Mankins was the middle link in the offensive-line leadership chain that went from Matt Light and Joe Andruzzi and now is on to Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder and Bryan Stork. Even though Mankins won’t get a ring on his finger from 2014, he still had a hand in it.

13. Wes Welker

Years With Patriots: 2007-2012 | Games: 93 | Playoff Games: 9 | Honors: All-Pro (2009, 2011), Pro Bowler (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), NFL Receptions Leader (2007, 2009, 2011)

Wes Welker is one of two players in the Top 15 of this list that didn’t win a Super Bowl with the Patriots. He came excruciatingly close. You could say he had one right in his hands. But it didn’t happen for that 2011 Patriots team and -- even though I’d have liked to wedge him in higher on this list -- here he sits at 13.

 

As I looked back on Welker’s six seasons here, I don’t think I ever really realized how much of a load the team put on his tiny body. Between targets, rushes and punt returns, Welker was the focal point of about 180 plays a year during his tenure. He’s 5-foot-9 (not really, but listed as such) and 190 pounds.

There’s a book called “Collision Low Crossers,” which documents a season in the life of the Jets under Rex Ryan. The content isn’t really important. The title is. It was chosen by the author because he thought it sounded cool and suggested a world of coach-speak that we don’t even know about. The meaning of the phrase is simple: Any receiver crossing shallow beyond the line of scrimmage must be drilled. The reason this phrase would be in active use in New York at that time would be Welker. He was the key to the Patriots offense and stopping him meant a better chance at winning the division.

Welker’s head was at the perfect height for concussive blows. He had to work inside in traffic, where he knew where the danger would be, as opposed to outside the numbers. He had to trust Tom Brady with his health on those crossing routes and -- even after Welker got lit up a few times -- he never lost that trust. And he did it every single season from 2007 through 2012.

In his final two years with the Patriots, he was targeted 173 and 174 times. That at the age of 30 and 31. His lowest output came in 2010, when he hurried back from an ACL and caught 86 passes for 848 yards. Every other year, he had at least 111 catches and 1,165 yards.

Lament the missed connection at Lucas Oil Stadium (I won’t call it a drop; I won’t call it an overthrow); Welker surely does. But also understand that in his nine playoff games with the Patriots, he caught 69 passes for 686 yards and returned 8 punts for 85 yards. That against the most fierce competition. As with the guy at 14 (and seven of the players in my Top 20), the end in New England wasn’t pretty. But Welker’s tenure and his performance as the best slot receiver in NFL history was something to behold.

12. Willie McGinest

Years With Patriots: 1994-2005 (2000-05 with Belichick) | Games: 87 | Playoff Games: 13 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), Pro Bowl (2003) (all numbers are for work done while Belichick was head coach)

So many big plays in so many big games. That’s why Willie McGinest is here. The fourth overall pick in the 1994 draft, McGinest’s career had a line of demarcation. The first portion, from 1994 to 1999 was underwhelming even with a Pro Bowl appearance in 1996. McGinest battled injuries. He was a locker room lawyer. He produced but not at a level corresponding to his draft status or the way he carried himself. When Bill Belichick returned to the Patriots as head coach in 2000, a page was turned. McGinest became a more positive leader and a more reliable and complete player. Belichick mined McGinest’s talent with praise and added responsibility.

 

The maturity and confidence McGinest may have gained from that turned him into a player that didn’t disappear in crucial spots but owned them. One of the hidden huge plays of Super Bowl 36 was McGinest’s 16-yard sack of Rams quarterback Kurt Warner with 4:32 left in the fourth quarter. The sack squelched a Rams’ drive that started at their 7 and reached the Patriots 38 when the score was 17-10. It followed a New England three-and-out. It was the drive after the Rams scored their first TD of the game.

It was the last decent defensive play the flagging Patriots D would make that night. The fourth-down, goal-line stop of Colts Edgerrin James is the play people remember from 2003, but McGinest made season-saving plays in that season’s epic Divisional Playoff game against Tennessee – dropping Titans tight Frank Wycheck for a 10-yard loss in the third quarter of a 14-14 game when the Titans were running a double pass; a sack of Steve McNair on second down on the ensuing drive – and the Patriots escaped. McGinest finished that postseason with five sacks. In the 2004 opener against the Colts, the Patriots were clinging to a 27-24 lead in the final minute and had third-and-8 at the Patriots 17. Peyton Manning, patting the ball and looking left like it was a 7-on-7 drill in the RCA Dome, got dropped by McGinest for a 12-yard sack. The yards meant plenty. Mike Vanderjagt missed the would-be, tying field goal. The career leader in postseason sacks, McGinest will go into the Patriots Hall of Fame this summer. He deserves to.

11. Rodney Harrison

Rodney Harrison was a huge free-agent signing by the Patriots

Years With Patriots: 2003-2008 | Games: 63 | Playoff Games: 9 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2003, 2004), All-Pro (First team, 2003; Second team, 2004)

The 2001 Patriots won a Super Bowl as a pack of gritty overachievers. They weren’t ready for what awaited in 2002 and they weren’t good enough to withstand every team’s best shot.

In 2003, they imported Rodney Harrison from San Diego.

The strong safety spent nine years playing with a ferocity that was right at the edge of propriety . . . and sometimes past it. When he got to New England, he was hungry in a way they 2001 Patriots may have been. He felt disrespected by the Chargers. He felt like he had something to prove. On the second day of training camp, he demolished Troy Brown and poked him in the eye. Brown whipped the football at him. A couple of days later, he hammered Brown again, then went head-high on Kevin Faulk. He and Matt Light grabbed facemasks after that and tussled and Tedy Bruschi came off the top rope to enter the fray. Everyone’s focus -- and intensity –-- had gotten a turbo shot courtesy of Harrison

 

I’m not sure what direction the Patriots franchise would have taken if it hadn’t added Harrison. But Bill Belichick gave an indication. After the AFC Championship Game takedown of Indianapolis -- just before the Pats won the Super Bowl by beating the Panthers, a game in which Harrison broke his forearm in the fourth quarter (and played another play, making a tackle after breaking it) -- Belichick embraced the veteran safety and said to him: “I sure am glad we got you.”

Harrison played 16 games in each of his first two seasons in New England, then, due to injuries and age, was only able to play a total of 31 regular-season games over his final four. But his performances in those first two seasons were the catalysts for both titles. He had four interceptions in the 2004 postseason, including an 87-yard pick-six against the Steelers and a game-sealing pick in the Super Bowl against the Eagles. He had seven picks in his nine postseason games for the Patriots.

When Harrison announced his retirement in June of 2009, Belichick said, "In the biggest games, in any situation and on a weekly basis, his production was phenomenal. Rodney embodies all the attributes coaches seek and appreciate: toughness, competitiveness, leadership, selflessness, hard work, intensity, professionalism -- and coming from Rodney, they are contagious."

10. Adam Vinatier

Years With Patriots: 1996-2005 (2000-05 with Belichick) | Games: 80 | Playoff Games: 11 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), All-Pro (First Team in 2002, 2004), Pro Bowl (2002, 2004) (all numbers are for work done while Belichick was head coach) It wasn’t just the field goals Adam Vinatieri made that created a Patriots dynasty under Bill Belichick. It was the ones he missed in 1999 that made it all possible. They are buried deep in the attic, those misses. Nobody talks about them. They include a 32-yard miss by Vinatieri in Week 5 of 1999 at Kansas City. The would-be game-winner doinked off the upright. The Patriots lost 16-14 and dropped them to 4-1. It would be a costly loss. In the second-to-last game of the season at Buffalo, Vinatieri missed three of his four attempts, including a 33-yarder to tie with six seconds left. That miss sealed the Patriots sixth loss in seven games and meant Carroll would miss the playoffs for the first time in three seasons in New England. A win in either game, the Patriots make the playoffs and maybe Bob Kraft (he was still “Bob” then) decides he can’t axe Carroll after another playoff appearance. And Belichick decides succeeding Bill Parcells in New York maybe is his best option. Funny how things work out because, barely more than two years after that chip-shot miss in Buffalo, Vinatieri was making the most impossible kick in NFL history. Arguably. I say that because I feel I should but is it really even arguable? It was 45 yards off a blanket of snow and with a crosswind. It forced overtime against the Raiders in the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff game, Vinatieri won the game in overtime with a 25-yarder and two weeks later striped a 48-yarder in New Orleans to win the friggin’ Super Bowl. The thing about Vinatieri was that, while he could miss the occasional chip shot (he and Stephen Gostkowski made the exact same number of field goals in their nine seasons with the Patriots but Gostkowski has done so on 20 fewer attempts), his nerves after 1999 were steel. In 2003, Vinatieri knocked through the game-winner against Tennessee in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, a 46-yarder with 4:06 left when the wind chill was 10-below and the ball was a brick (imagine what the PSI was in that game…). In the Super Bowl against the Panthers, he had a second quarter attempt blocked but came back to again kick the game-winner. The Patriots won Super Bowl 39 in much less dramatic fashion but still by the margin of a field goal. Vinatieri is another Patriots great whose finish in Foxboro was a bit contentious but that hatchet has long since been buried. Vinatieri went to the Colts and did for that franchise in 2006 what he did for New England in 2001 -- kicked them into the AFC Championship (five field goals in the Divisional Playoffs at Baltimore to save Indy’s season). Vinatieri will hopefully one day be a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He certainly will be a Patriots Hall of Famer.

 

9. Rob Gronkowski

Years With Patriots: 5 (2010-2014) | Games: 65 | Playoff Games: 8 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2014), NFL Comeback Player of the Year (2014), All-Pro (First team 2011 and 2014), Pro Bowl (2011, 2012, 2014)

So check this out...in May, Gronk turned 26. In his five-year NFL career he has 61 touchdowns in 73 NFL games (including playoffs). That’s .83 TDs/Game. In 189 games, San Diego’s Antonio Gates has scored 100 touchdowns (.53 TDs/Game). Surefire Hall of Fame Tony Gonzalez? He scored 115 in 277 games (.42). If Gronk can have their longevity – a large “if” for a player who’s been cut open way too much already – he won’t be threatening their tight end records. He’ll be a threat to get into the top five all-time and will retire the belt as the best tight end in NFL history.

That’s why Gronk is here in my Top 10 and players such as Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison with more rings and leadership are behind Gronk. They were not threats to the record books. Gronk is. And he hasn’t even been fully healthy for an entire season yet. In the 2011 playoffs, Bernard Pollard broke Gronk in the AFC Championship Game. There’s no telling the difference he would have made in the Super Bowl, but imagine Victor Cruz not playing for the Giants that day. In 2012, he broke his arm in December and then re-broke it in the playoff win over Houston. And the Patriots offense went from potent to putrid and got shut down by the Ravens in the AFC Championship.

 

The 2013 Patriots probably wouldn’t have won a Super Bowl even with Gronk – Seattle was that good. Denver too. But his blown ACL in December 2013 made the conversation moot. No injuries, how many rings would Gronk have added to the fingers of his teammates? Gronk’s ripple effect on the rest of the offense is significant. He is an outstanding blocker. The next-best tight end in the game Jimmy Graham couldn’t block an internet ad (HA!). And he attracts so much attention that the number of players defenses can allocate to wideouts is reduced. If a team wants to try and take its chances? Their chances are poor. See K.J. Wright in the Super Bowl. That’s not fair.

As far as my final criteria on this list, which is basically the extent to which a player is willing to put the team first, Gronk is interesting. Obviously, he labors as hard as any current professional athlete to cultivate his “brand” and it gets tiresome, predictable and sometimes uncomfortable, like when he supposes the president is drunk. But he serves as comic relief and – even the most skeptical among us – can’t deny that, when it’s time to play he plays. He’s the world’s friendliest, most loyal, most playful Bull Mastiff. An on-field force of nature. And he’s not even halfway done.

8. Richard Seymour

Years With Patriots: 8 | Games: 111 | Playoff Games: 15 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), Pro Football Hall of Fame All-2000s First Team, All-Pro (2003, 2004, 2005), Pro Bowler (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006)

After being named first-team All-Pro after the 2002 season, Richard Seymour explained how much more important that was to him than being a Pro Bowler. “It means you are the best at your position in the whole league. I want there to be no question about that. That’s my goal. Every year, just write me in as one of the top two.” For a period, that was the case. Seymour was – like the man behind him on this list, Rob Gronkowski – a force of nature. At 6-6 and 306 pounds, you had to see Seymour in the locker room in a state of undress to understand how absurdly powerful he was. No flab, no softness.

All muscle. Combine that size and strength with speed and quickness, an understanding of what offenses were trying to do to him and a switch that could flip from docile to vicious and you have a player who could take over games. And he did. Playing defensive end in the 3-4, tackle or end in the 4-3, Seymour couldn’t be blocked one-on-one. See the attached video to see what happened when the Rams tried it one time too many in Super Bowl 36. Or consider what happened when the Raiders had a 13-10 lead in the Snow Bowl with 2:24 remaining and tried to run Zack Crockett on third-and-1. Didn’t work. Seymour led the charge to stop Crockett, the Raiders punted. Tuck rule. Game-tying field goal. Overtime. Game-winning field goal. Etc., etc. Seymour wasn’t just a beast on regular downs, he made things happen in the kicking game. He had four blocked kicks in his Patriots tenure including a smothering of a would-be game-winner in Miami in 2003. After that block, the Patriots struck with an overtime touchdown pass to Troy Brown. It snapped a Miami losing streak for the franchise and kept a Patriots winning streak alive that became a record tear.

 

The Patriots won three Super Bowls in Seymour’s first four seasons. He was – along with Ty Law – their most talented player. He achieved the goal of being the best at his position. Over the next phase of Seymour’s Patriots tenure, he remained one of the best in the NFL but his relationship with Bill Belichick became more prickly. Seymour was a prideful guy. He didn’t like the micromanaging. He didn’t like the muzzling. He didn’t like the fact that injuries weren’t discussed because the player with slipping production never got a chance to explain what he was dealing with. He didn’t like the way players got lowballed at contract time or cast aside. Animosity ran high at times.

But Seymour remained among the best at his position and a player whose presence made it easier on those around him. When he was traded before the 2009 season, the timing was stunning but the move was not. The day he was dealt to Oakland, Belichick said of Seymour, "From nearly the day he arrived in 2001, Richard Seymour established himself as one of our premier players for nearly a decade. His presence has been felt as a force on the field, a respected man off it and a multiyear champion.” It may have been a complicated tenure for Seymour overall, but on the field, he was one of the very best

7. Ty Law

Years With Patriots: 10 (five under Belichick) | Games: 141 (69 under Belichick) | Playoff Games: 12 (6 under Belichick) | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), First Team All-Pro (2003), Pro Bowls (2001, 2002, 2003), Pro Football Hall of Fame Team of the 2000s Second-Team, Patriots Hall of Famer (2014).

If this were a list of my favorite guys to cover, you’d probably have to wait until No. 1 before we got to Tajuan. Absolutely out of his mind in the best possible way. Law didn’t subscribe to the Patriots conventions of what a player should or shouldn’t do or say. Believing Bill Belichick wasn’t being forthright in negotiations after the 2003 season, Law called him a liar. Told he couldn’t check Marvin Harrison in the 2003 AFC Championship Game, Law walked out to cover him anyway. And Belichick let him do it with the caution that, when he screwed up, he was coming off of him. Law had three picks. That’s the way Law recalled it during his Patriots HOF speech, at least.

 

It was a little less brazen in Law’s retelling of the scenario days after the game. But that was Law. One of the very best corners in the NFL for close to a decade, he was as much a showman as any player has been allowed to be under Belichick. Think about the Super Bowl 36 pick-six. He put the 14-point underdog Patriots up 7-3 with his 47-yard return. Halfway to the end zone, he raises a hand to the crowd. When he gets there, he embarks on a weird, double-stomp, sweep-the-turf dance. The Patriots might have embraced the role of underdog, but Law would never allow himself to think a wideout or another team was better than him. And in 2001, when the team was made up of scrubs, retreads and unprovens, Law’s confidence had a trickle-down impact.

He was also the most physically powerful corner in the league and he used that to his advantage until Bill Polian of the Colts used his NFL Competition Committee clout in 2004 to make sure officials tightened up on the manhandling Patriots defense, which kept sending Polian’s Colts home in playoff disgrace. Law’s last season with the Patriots was 2004 and that year ended in his hometown of Pittsburgh when he blew out his ACL in a loss that also snapped the Patriots NFL-record winning streak of 21 games. Law walked off Heinz Field that day, telling me later, “Not leaving the field in front of my family on a cart!”

He missed the playoffs and that third Super Bowl win, then was off to the Jets where he came up with 10 picks in 2005. He passed through Kansas City and Denver before dabbling with a possible Patriots return at the end of his career. All the business rancor from 2003 and 2004 was long buried. You couldn’t stay mad at Ty and Ty wasn’t going to stay mad at you. He’d say his peace – in extreme terms – and move on. He once bitched at me for not taking his side during his contract battles. I termed his media circuit as Ty Law’s Hungry Man Tour after he told the Boston Globe he had to feed his family. “Look how much Peyton Manning makes!”

Law hissed at me in the locker room. “Nobody complains about Peyton Manning! And Peyton Manning is gonna put me in the Hall!” Law may not get to Canton (he was a HOF semifinalist this year). But he’s got a permanent home here in Foxboro.

6. Mike Vrabel

Years With Patriots: 2001-2008 | Games: 125 | Playoff Games: 17 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), All-Pro (First-team 2007), Pro Bowl (2007)

 

There were Patriots players faster than Mike Vrabel. There were stronger Patriots and quicker Patriots. Some had softer hands or superior hand-eye coordination. A few could probably jump higher.

But no Patriot in the almost 20 years I’ve covered the team was as far above average in each of those physical categories than Mike Vrabel. I’ll get to the mental aspect of Vrabel’s game in a bit, but first I want to make sure that his physical ability doesn’t get short shrift.

He was like a decathlete, able to cross disciplines and excel in all of them. One of the simple pleasures of covering a game when Vrabel was a Patriot was seeing him on the field warming up before a game. He must have spent 20 minutes running routes and catching passes downfield. He didn’t just look like a tight end -- a position he moonlighted at -- but he looked like a very good tight end. And when he threw the ball back to whoever he was working with, it looked (based on arm strength) like he could draw a paycheck at that position, too.

The Patriots signed Vrabel in 2001 as a free agent. He spent the first four years of his career in Pittsburgh but couldn’t crack the Steelers’ 3-4 as an outside linebacker. The Steelers would come to rue letting him go.

The Patriots didn’t know what they had in Vrabel at first. By the end of his first year in Foxboro -- when Vrabel wasn’t charged with a single mental mistake the entire season -- they did. He would up playing in all but three regular-season games in eight seasons with the Patriots. He played outside linebacker, defensive end, inside linebacker and tight end. That he wasn’t a Pro Bowler can’t be held against him. Check out 2003, for instance. He played 13 games, had 52 tackles, 9 1/2 sacks, two interceptions, four pass break-ups and four forced fumbles. He had three more sacks in the playoffs and a late touchdown against the Panthers in the Super Bowl. In addition, his strip-sack of Jake Delhomme late in the first half led to a Patriots touchdown in that Super Bowl, the same way his pressure of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl 36 forced the pick-six thrown to Ty Law.

Both Vrabel’s parents were high school principals and he started out at Ohio State as a pre-med major. He was smart as hell. He was also confident as hell and a persuasive, abrasive, compelling leader. No Patriot -- not even Tom Brady -- assumed the same peer-like status Vrabel did with Bill Belichick. Part of that was Vrabel’s comedic timing that, when Belichick was grinding too hard, Vrabel could puncture. Most of the anecdotes are “you had to be there” ones, but here's an example:

When particularly disgusted by something, Belichick would often begin ripping by saying, “In my (insert length of NFL tenure here) years in the NFL, I never . . . ” During one practice, the Patriots were working on field goals. Somehow, an Adam Vinatieri attempt struck and stuck in the facemask of a defensive lineman. The split-second lull as everyone was processing what they were looking at was broken by Vrabel, who parodied Belichick’s disgusted voice and hollered, “In my 37 years in the NFL . . . ”

 

Belichick traded Vrabel to the Chiefs in 2009. That was one of a slew of departures that created a leadership void and really closed the book on the first nine seasons of the Patriots' run of excellence. When he was traded, Belichick said in a statement, "When Mike arrived in 2001, we knew we were adding a solid outside linebacker. But where Mike took it from there exceeded our highest hopes. Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, play-making, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level.

"Of all the players I have coached in my career, there is nobody I enjoyed working with more than Mike. In the same way people recognize guys like Troy Brown, we appreciate and thank Mike Vrabel. He is one of the very special Patriots champions."

5. Matt Light

Years With Patriots: 2001-2011 | Games: 155 | Playoff Games: 20 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), All-Pro (2007), Pro Bowler (2006, 2007, 2010)

Why in God’s name is Matt Light this high? Am I high? Ahead of Harrison and Vrabel and Seymour and Law?

To be honest, when I scrawled the names down and started stacking them, I had Light closer to 15 than No. 5. But when I dug deep and considered my criteria -- the combination of how long Light played left tackle for the NFL’s dominant franchise, how well he played it, and the fact he was there at the start of the run of excellence and continued through into Volume 2 -- I couldn’t put him behind guys who were done and gone before the Patriots post-'09 renaissance.

Light’s position wasn’t quite thankless but it was one in which merely providing a stalemate -- nothing spectacular like a sack or a pick or a diving catch -- could be an outstanding play. Especially when the stalemate was being sought against guys like Dwight Freeney, Jason Taylor, John Abraham, Shawne Merriman, Terrell Suggs, Joey Porter, etc. Think about this: In his final playoffs, Light was blocking rookies Von Miller and Jason Pierre-Paul. In his first one in 2001, he was going against guys like Jason Gildon and Trace Armstrong, who entered the league in 1988. Light played all 16 games seven times. In 2001 he missed two games. In 2011 -- at the age of 33, he missed one game.

He also played his career with Crohn’s Disease, a condition that attacks the digestive system. After the 2004 season, Light had 13 inches of intestine removed. Light explained to Mike Reiss in 2012, "I basically got to the point, over the 3-4 years of being diagnosed with Crohn's, that I couldn't handle the pain anymore. The pain became so difficult that in the offseason it just paralyzed me. I'd hit the ground. You can't wake up. You can't sit down. You can't do anything without this becoming a problem." Light had a complication after surgery. Nearly died. Went 30 days without eating. Made it back for training camp. Nobody knew in the media knew he had the condition until the week of his retirement.

 

A high-level player at his position who protected Tom Brady’s blind side in five Super Bowls and had an insane level of toughness that was belied by his sense of humor, Light was one of the very best.

4. Troy Brown

Years With Patriots: 1993-2007 (2000-07 under Belichick)  | Games: 192 (100 under Belichick). | Playoff Games: 20 (14 under Belichick)  | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), Pro Bowl (2001)

In Bill Belichick’s first three seasons in New England, Troy Brown wasn’t just a big part of the Patriots offense; he was the offense.

Brown came into the league in 1993, an eighth-round pick out of Marshall, then a Division 1-AA school. He was a nice little special-teams guy and a spare-part wide receiver. He started seven games in his first seven seasons. Made a couple of memorable plays -- a lying-on-his-back catch against the Giants in an AFC East-clinching win in 1996; an overtime pass breakup in Tuna Bowl I when Drew Bledsoe had thrown it to a Jet in 1997. But he wasn't seen as a front-line guy.

If the Patriots had more abundant talent when Belichick arrived in 2000, Brown may have remained buried. But they didn’t. Brown, by default, got a bigger part of the offense under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Brown did the rest. In 2000 on a truly impotent offense, Brown caught 83 passes for 844 yards. In 2001, he caught 101 for 1,199 yards. In 2002, he caught 97 for 890 (it wasn’t a good year for downfield activity). Brown was targeted 402 times in those three seasons.

Belichick’s longtime consigliere, Ernie Adams, was asked during minicamp how high Brown should be on a list like this.

“He really did everything for us back then,” said Adams, with the emphasis on the word everything.

In addition to what he was doing on offense during that stretch, Brown was also bringing back punts. He led the NFL in yards per return in 2001 (14.2) and took two back for scores. In the playoffs, he was even bigger. In the Snow Bowl against the Raiders, Brown came up with a 27-yard return of a Shane Lechler punt just before the two-minute warning. The return preceded the Tuck Rule Play and Adam Vinatieri’s 45-yarder through the snowflakes. "Without the punt return to set that up and put us in field position where we could at least get in field goal range, I don't know if there ever is a kick," Belichick said on the day of Brown’s retirement. A week later in Pittsburgh, Brown took a punt back for a touchdown, scooped up a blocked field goal, ran a little and lateraled to Antwan (Puddin’) Harris to help account for 14 points in the AFC Championship win. In the Super Bowl, the key play on the game-winning drive was Brown’s 23-yard catch-and-run with 29 seconds left to get the Patriots on the cusp of field-goal range.

 

In the 2003 Super Bowl, Brown -- by then a lesser part of the offense but still a major contributor -- caught three passes for 39 yards on the Pats final two drives. The next season, he played a fair amount of cornerback (and played it pretty well) as the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

By 2006, the 35-year-old Brown was slowing down but still made a play for the ages to help the Patriots advance in the playoffs. His strip of Chargers defensive back Marlon McCree after McCree appeared to come up with a game-sealing pick led the way for the Patriots to survive and advance.

Brown was really the first embodiment of what Belichick was looking for from his players.

"You're talking about a leader on and off the field. He'd give you the shirt off his back,” said Vince Wilfork in 2008. “He's a helluva person, not just a football player. He's a great, great man and a helluva father. You hear people talk all the time about what it means to be a Patriot. He's a walking Patriot. Every example of what this organization stands for, that's Troy Brown."

3. Tedy Bruschi

Years With Patriots: 13 (1996-2008), 9 under Belichick (2000-08) | Games: 189 (127 under Belichick) | Playoff Games: 22 (16 under Belichick) | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004), Pro Bowl (2004), NFL Comeback Player of the Year (2005), All-Pro Second team (2003, 2004)

My first year covering the Patriots was 1997. That was Tedy Bruschi’s second year. Tucked in a corner of the Foxboro Stadium locker room next to Chris Slade and Willie McGinest, Bruschi was reliably difficult every single time he was asked a question. Kinda smug. Really condescending. One day, after yet another fruitless pass by his locker, I said to him, “Everyone in the media thinks you’re an ass----, but I think you just act that way and really could be good if you wanted to be.”

He didn’t get “good” right away with us, but he got better. And by the time he retired, he’d become the Patriot most able to articulate what that experience of being a Patriot during this period was like. That was the thing about Bruschi. Few players I’ve covered developed more drastically on the field and off in the way he did. He came into the NFL with no definable role – an undersized defensive end who’d been a collegiate force at Arizona – and got swallowed up when he tried to engage hand-to-hand from the defensive line. So he was a special teams thug for a few years and a developing linebacker. It was because he was so smart that he understood he had to evolve. And he did. It’s hard enough to go from defensive end to outside linebacker and understand the nuances of coverages and run-game responsibilities. Bruschi went from there to inside linebacker where everything is different.

 

One of the key junctures in 2001 was when Ted Johnson went down as the Patriots middle linebacker (the Pats were running a 4-3 mostly). Bruschi stepped in and played extremely well. One of the biggest plays in that run came against the Raiders in the Divisional Playoff when Bruschi stacked up Charlie Garner on a second-and-3 play in the fourth quarter. He was alone in the hole with fullback Jon Ritchie coming at him and Garner right behind and somehow made the stop that led to a Richard Seymour stop on third-and-1. "He stepped in there, he hit Ritchie, he tackled Garner and it was third-and-1. And I’m telling you, without that play, there wouldn’t have been a lot of other plays that happened that year (on the way to winning the Super Bowl),” said Belichick. “That was the biggest play of the season. He made a lot of the other ones, but that was one that I’ll never, ever forget.” By the end of that season, Bruschi was 29 and coming into his own as an NFL player and leader. In 2003 and 2004 he was at his best – a second-team All-Pro.

There were so many Bruschi moments in that period. His perfect interception on Thanksgiving against the Lions, the pick in the snow against Miami, playing with his kids on the field before Super Bowl 39, launching himself over blockers against the Dolphins. Most memorable to me was the strip of Colts running back Dominic Rhodes in the 2004 AFC Championship. When he got to the sideline, he held the ball out and gloated at the camera, “They’re looking for this. They don’t got it! They don’t got it!” That was another thing about Bruschi. He was Tedy Two Times, forever repeating phrases for emphasis.

There’ll be no repeat of Bruschi, though. Think you’ll see another player come back from a stroke to play four more seasons and in two more AFC title games post-stroke? Won’t happen. In late August of 2009, Bruschi held a retirement press conference. Bill Belichick spoke for close to nine minutes and he was close to tears when he said, “I’ve had the privilege of coaching a lot of great players and leaders in the National Football League, and I’ll just put Tedy up there with all of them and above all of them. There’s no player that I think epitomizes more of what I believe a player should be on the field, off the field, really, in every situation."

Belichick went on to describe Bruschi as “the perfect football player.” Who are we to argue?

2. Vince Wilfork

Years With Patriots: 2004-2014 | Games: 158 | Playoff Games: 21 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2004, 2014), All-Pro (First-team 2012, Second-Team 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011), Pro Bowl (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012)

 

Of the four Lombardis the Patriots won, the one from this past February may have been the most important. In New England, people may not have needed any convincing; nationally, the Patriots win over the Seahawks – the whole season – in a way validated their run of excellence. Qualifiers about the Patriots having not won since SpyGate, being unable to close in Super Bowls 42 and 46, all of it was muzzled with the win over the defending champion Seahawks. Of course, the vanquished cobbled together a couple of other gripes after losing which will serve as fuel but that’s beside the point.

The point as it relates to Vince Wilfork being where he is on this list is that had Wilfork was pivotal in helping the Patriots bookend their first three Super Bowls. To come back and play 75 percent of the plays at age 33 after blowing an Achilles in 2013 was remarkable. So was Vince’s level of play from 2007 through 2012. It was that level of play that set him apart from players like Bruschi, Brown and Vrabel. They were among the best at their positions. Wilfork was one of the best and most impactful players in the NFL from 2007 through 2012. He was at his best when he was nearing 30.

In 2011, Wilfork had two picks, three batted passes, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries to go along with 3.5 sacks and 52 tackles. In 2012, he knocked down six passes, forced three fumbles, recovered four, had three sacks and 48 tackles. He played defensive end in the 3-4, nose, defensive tackle and lined up in all kinds of fronts. And he was a leader. He had his issues with Bill Belichick and management during his tenure. He could be a little dramatic. But he never shirked the importance of mentoring the guys around him to perform on the field, regardless of the business that may have been impacting them off the field.

Having a role model who could show that difficult trick was possible mattered. Four Super Bowl appearances, incredibly durable, being deeply consequential during the first portion of the Belichick Era and still being a force during the second portion (the only other player to do that will be the guy at No. 1) sets Wilfork apart. Few players reached or will ever reach the special level of Vince Wilfork.

For Belichick too. When the team parted ways with Wilfork in March, Belichick released a statement saying, “Few players reached or will ever reach the special level of Vince Wilfork. He is a great champion and one of the classiest people I have ever been around – just a kind, genuine and giving person who was all about our team, football, winning and bringing joy to others.

There may have never been anyone at his position with as much strength, toughness, intelligence, instincts and athleticism.  He is the best defensive linemen I ever coached, an all-time great Patriot whose place on our team will be missed but whose remarkable career as a Patriot will be remembered forever."

 

1. Tom Brady

USA Today

Years With Patriots: 2000-present | Games: 209 | Playoff Games: 29 | Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014), Super Bowl MVP (2001, 2003, 2014), NFL MVP (2007, 2010), All-Pro First-Team (2007, 2010), All-Pro Second-Team (2005), Pro Bowl (2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014), Comeback Player of the Year (2009), Pro Football Hall of Fame Team of the 2000s. 

No mystery at all to this. Tom Brady isn’t just the best Patriot of the Belichick Era, he’s the best player the franchise has ever had.

He’s also the best quarterback of his generation, and his claim to being the best quarterback ever is stronger than anyone’s -- six Super Bowl appearances, four wins, a 6-3 record in conference championships, a 21-8 playoff record with a 53-26 touchdown/interception ratio and four drives in the closing minutes of Super Bowls that either gave the Patriots the lead (Super Bowl 42) or won the game. People can spout Joe Montana’s 4-0 Super Bowl record, but that would be ignoring the fact that Montana was 4-3 in conference championships and one-and-done in 1985, '86 and '87. Didn’t throw a TD pass in any of those games, and was picked off five times. Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Brett Favre were and are great passers, but their postseason meltdowns eliminate them. John Elway? Real close. And Aaron Rodgers is a step beyond Brady in combining accuracy and smarts with mobility, but he needs more pelts. But that’s really it.

When I first saw Brady in person, I wasn't thinking, "Hey, that will be the greatest quarterback in NFL history by 2015." In July of 2000, Brady was walking up to the Bryant College cafeteria and I thought he was a student there to take summer classes. T-shirt, shorts, backpack.

By the next summer, he was the most accurate, polished and capable of the three Patriots quarterbacks on the depth chart. The sand was running out of Drew Bledsoe’s hourglass right then. Mo Lewis’ hit only accelerated the inevitable and if you doubt that, you should recall that the Patriots tucked several options into the 10-year, $103 million deal they signed Bledsoe to in the offseason prior to 2001, one of which would allow them to convert the deal into a four-year, $14 million pact. Barely a year after Robert Kraft said he wanted Bledsoe to be like Bobby Orr and Larry Bird and finish his career in New England, Bledsoe was a Bill.

What was amazing about Brady even in his first few NFL starts was his confidence. Over the years, I’ve found Brady willing to share his feelings on the Fridays before games. The first time he did so with me was in 2001 before the Patriots were hosting the Dolphins. How did he feel? “We’re gonna kick their ass,” he said quietly. They did.

The funny thing is, I can’t recall a time when he didn’toffer a variation of, “We’re gonna kick their ass . . . ” It’s a mentality that lurks under the perfect camouflage of the dimpled chin and self-effacing podium demeanor. It’s the one he showed me on January 8 when I asked him how he would deal with the extreme cold anticipated in the divisional playoffs against the Ravens: “I’m a [bleeping] machine!”

 

He has been.

The gap between what he’s accomplished playing in the free agency era, in the Northeast with few skill position players that’s compare to what Manning and Montana recalls another “athlete” described memorably described as a machine. Secretariat.  Fifteen years, Brady has been a tremendous machine within the Belichick machine.

As good as it gets.