I don’t think there’s going to be any controversy or discussion on No. 1? Good. The reality that he’s going to finish his career wearing a uniform that’s pewter and gold in a climate that’s reminiscent of a closed mouth is too damn bad. C’est la vie.
Why is Vince Wilfork No. 2 with fewer Super Bowl wins than everyone else in the top 10? Time served and league-wide excellence. Wilfork was a terrific player the minute he got here in 2004. By 2010, he was one of the best players in the league regardless of his position and he stayed that way through about 2013.
But the reason Wilfork is way up here is the intangible of culture cultivation. From learning alongside Bruschi, Vrabel and Seymour, Wilfork took on the mentor role after 2008 when all those players went away. He kind of indoctrinated the next group of high-level leaders -- Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater -- and brought them along to where they could understand what the “program” was about and those players could then lead in their own way.
The next three in the top five are Perfect Patriots. Tedy Bruschi first because of big-game impact in each Super Bowl run (his being plunked down at MLB in the 2001 playoff run was a key move for the SB36 crew).
Julian Edelman next because he’s the second-best postseason receiver in NFL history. Troy Brown third because -- splitting hairs, but we have to -- his postseasons were more modest after 2001 and 2003 and he wasn’t as much an offensive focal point after 2002.
I battled on Rob Gronkowski. Irrespective of who was in the wrong when he got sideways with Bill Belichick beginning after the 2017 offseason and carrying through 2020, Gronk made things hard for the Patriots. He delayed his 2019 retirement decision and that kind of cost the team a shot at a free agent replacement, Jared Cook. Then when he came out of retirement to go to Tampa, he held a figurative gun to the Pats head to force the trade. But I was disabused of my Gronk hesitation (I wanted to leave him at 9) by almost every person I consulted. So up he goes to No. 6.
Matt Light and Richard Seymour came into the league next to each other as first and second-round picks in 2001. They are on this list next to each other. Seymour was obviously the more decorated player and will -- hopefully -- be enshrined in Canton. But Light was one of the league’s best tackles as well and he was another bridge guy like Wilfork, who carried the culture forward along the offensive line and handed it off to the Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly crew. But I couldn’t in good faith drop Seymour from No. 8.
Great debate to close out the top 10. McCourty has been an absolute ironman. He’s missed five regular season games in 11 seasons. He’s played in 23 playoff games. All you need to do is listen to Belichick to appreciate the innumerable ways McCourty has backboned this franchise on the field and off.
And then there’s Mike Vrabel. We got a guy who had 606 tackles, 48 sacks, 13 forced fumbles and 11 picks in 125 games over eight seasons. In 17 playoff games he was even better with eight sacks, 88 tackles, three forced fumbles, one clubbing of Kurt Warner that led to Ty Law’s SB36 pick-six and two playoff touchdown catches. He had 10 career catches, 10 career touchdowns on 13 targets. Greatest receiver of all-time? You can make the case. (Just kidding).
1. Tom Brady
Years in NE: 20 | All-Pro: 3 | Pro Bowls: 14 | SB wins: 6 | SB appearances: 9 | 2015 rank: 1
"Why aren’t you going 50 to 1 with this list?! Makes no sense!!!" Well, folks, I love a little drama, a little debate, a little sword-crossing. And how much drama surrounds the “debate” over who the No. 1 player under Bill Belichick is? Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history with a resume that will prove to be as unapproachable as Cy Young’s 511 career wins. Thanks for playin’.
2. Vince Wilfork
Years in NE: 11 | All-Pro: 1 | Pro Bowls: 5 | SB wins: 2 | SB appearances: 4 | 2015 rank: 2
When you trace the Patriots' cultural DNA back through the years, the player most responsible for making sure the, "This is how we do things around here ..." mindset was carried across the bridge from the early 2000s into the 2010s was Vince Wilfork. The things he learned from players like McGinest, Seymour and Law passed through him and on to the Mayos, McCourtys and Hightowers. Not only was he indispensable in carrying out Belichick’s message -- and giving him pushback as well -- he was one of the best players in the league at any position from 2009 to 2013.
3. Tedy Bruschi
Years in NE: 13 | All-Pro: 0 | Pro Bowls: 1 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 5 | 2015 rank: 3
Leading off the Holy Trinity of Perfect Patriots is the team’s Lazarus. That may seem a flip comparison given the stroke Bruschi was stricken by after the 2004 Super Bowl. But Bruschi’s football career was done as far as most everyone was concerned when he moved haltingly from the exit of MGH to a waiting car. That he came back from that to play 53 more games for the team, starting all 16 games in the 2007 season at 34 shows his toughness. Anyone who remembers his reckless athleticism, playmaking genius and infectious intensity knows exactly why he’s here at No. 3.
4. Julian Edelman
Years in NE: 12 | All-Pro: 0 | Pro Bowls: 0 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 4 | 2015 rank: 20
Outside of the guy up at No. 1, there’s been no better postseason performer for this franchise in the past two decades. And that started right away when -- as a rookie -- he was basically the only guy to show up for the 33-14 beatdown by the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs. Edelman scored both touchdowns. It took him three more seasons to get an NFL toehold. But in his six seasons from 2013 through 2019 (Edelman missed 2017 and that SB loss) he rolled up a regular-season and postseason record that’s worthy of Canton consideration.
5. Troy Brown
Years in NE: 15 | All-Pro: 0 | Pro Bowls: 1 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 5 | 2015 rank: 4
Upon this rock the New England Patriots built their offense. We can split hairs over third-down backs, tight ends, slot receivers and the supernatural poise and brains of Belichick and Brady as being the real reason the Patriots are who they were. But understand this: if there were no Troy, it would have been hard to have a Tom. And if there were no Troy, would there have been a Wes? Or a Julian? And if not for those Troy descendants, would there have been a Gronk? Troy Brown is the Patriots' Carl Yastrzemski and 2001 was his 1967. Nod to the late great Nick Cafardo and his book, “The Impossible Team” on the SB36 winners.
6. Rob Gronkowski
Years in NE: 9 | All-Pro: 4 | Pro Bowls: 5 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 5 | 2015 rank: 9
Here we are at No. 6 and we have players taken in the eighth, seventh, sixth, third and first round. Here’s your damaged goods second-rounder taken at the tender age of 20 out of the University of Arizona in 2010 who went on to become the greatest tight end ever and a wholly authentic icon. Gronk against the Broncos in the 2015 AFCCG. Gronk against the Rams in the 2018 SB. Bottle those games and if anyone tries to Travis Kelce, George Kittle or Tony Gonzalez you, pour those out on their scalps.
7. Matt Light
Years in NE: 11 | All-Pro: 1 | Pro Bowls: 3 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 5 | 2015 rank: 5
What are the most important positions on an NFL team? Quarterback. Cornerback. Left tackle. You can squabble after that over edge rusher and interior defenders or wideouts but you’re not getting far without a good left tackle. And you’re not winning Super Bowls without a great one. Matt Light was a great one. He missed significant time twice in his career -- 2005 and 2009. Combined Patriots record those seasons? 20-12. Playoff exits? Earlier than normal. He was nasty, he was funny, he kept it light, he kept Brady clean and he passed it on to the next group just like Wilfork.
8. Richard Seymour
Years in NE: 8 | All-Pro: 3 | Pro Bowls: 5 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 4 | 2015 rank: 8
Bill Belichick’s first first-round pick. Bill Belichick’s highest first-round pick. And, if justice prevails, the first Patriot that Belichick picked that will land in Canton. I had Seymour eighth in 2015. I realize now that was too low. So even though two new guys have jumped in front of him, Big Sey 93 stays right where he oughta be. He had the shortest Patriots tenure of any guy in the top 10 but was an absolute force of nature.
9. Devin McCourty
Years in NE: 11 | All-Pro: 0 | Pro Bowls: 2 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 4 | 2015 rank: 25
All up and down this list are players with signature plays that immediately spring to mind. That’s not really the case with McCourty. What he’s done for this franchise, though, can’t be distilled into moments. It’s the whole career. The presence. He’s played in 168 of a possible 174 regular season games and 23 playoff games, starting every one. He’s been head of security at the back end of the defense for so long, he’s taken for granted. And 2020 was his capstone season in terms of leadership on so many fronts. Also, fast as hell, outstanding in coverage and a textbook tackler who rarely -- if ever -- makes a mistake.
10. Mike Vrabel
Years in NE: 8 | All-Pro: 1 | Pro Bowls: 1 | SB wins: 3 | SB appearances: 4 | 2015 rank: 6
In 2002, Bill Belichick was discussing Mike Vrabel’s first season with the team. I can’t find the transcript but I remember clear as day him saying, “Mike Vrabel didn’t have a single mental mistake last season.” Big brain, big skill. Maybe the best athlete in the top 10, Vrabel was a pass-rushing force, outstanding in coverage and a tremendous run-stopper. The tight end stuff was no novelty act either. Underrated for his whole career except here.
Editor's note: Tom E. Curran's Top 50 players under Bill Belichick, 2.0, will be released all this week right here on NBCSportsBoston.com.