Ryan L. Fox
Since former Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli departed from the New England Patriots after the 2008 season to take a General Manager job with the Kansas City Chiefs, a majority (if not the entirety) of the roster building fell to de facto general manager of the team, Bill Belichick (who also happens to be the head coach as well). This also included scouting and drafting college players. From 2009 to present day, Belichick has drafted players that have been instrumental in the second half of the Patriots Dynasty (i.e. S Patrick Chung & WR Julian Edelman in 2009, FS Devin McCourty & TE Rob Gronkowski in 2010, LB Dont’a Hightower in 2012, G Joe Thuney in 2016).
But with every good draft pick, there have been others that have failed expectations where they were drafted, a bust. Whether it they couldn’t click with the Patriots, were underperforming, or kept frequently getting injured, or any other circumstances, things didn’t work out as both sides had hoped.
So after careful deliberation and going over careers, here are some of the top draft busts since 2009, the year Belichick took over the entire operation.
As a disclaimer, we’ll only be focusing on the first two rounds of the draft since the expectations to perform at a high level are greater for somebody drafted in the first or second round rather than somebody taken in the later rounds.
WR Aaron Dobson (2nd round, 59th overall in 2013)
Needing some depth at receiver, the Patriots took Dobson out of Marshall in the 2013 draft. In his rookie year, Dobson caught 37 catches for 519 yards and 4 TDs playing in 12 games (starting in 9) with the Patriots. But afterwards, he couldn’t replicate his early success. Dobson spent half of the 2014 season as a healthy scratch before landing on IR with a hamstring injury. Then in 2015, he was sparingly used throughout the season before landing on IR with a high ankle sprain. Dobson was released during final roster cuts of the 2016 season.
Four picks later in the same draft that the Patriots took Dobson at 59, the Kansas City Chiefs selected TE Travis Kelce out of Cincinnati. Pretty sure Kelce's NFL career turned out a lot better than Dobson's, just saying.
DT Ron Brace (2nd round, 40th overall in 2009)
The first draft that Bill Belichick did without the assistance of Scott Pioli. After selecting S Patrick Chung at 34, the Patriots took Brace out of Boston College at 40th overall six picks later. Brace was primarily used as a rotational player at NT to spell Vince Wilfork but had little impact playing. He then went through a tumultuous 2010 NFL season that opened with him miss a majority of training camp after failing his conditioning test and had him miss playing time due to injury as well as lose his starting role. After the 2010 season, Brace was sparingly used in the 2011 and 2012 seasons before ultimately being released on December 29, 2012.
Two picks later in the 2009, the Bills selected FS Jairus Byrd out of Oregon who made 3 Pro Bowls in his first 5 years in Buffalo.
5. OT Isaiah Wynn (1st round, 23rd overall in 2018)
Going into the 2018 NFL Draft, the Patriots had 2 first-round picks (the 23rd overall pick after trading WR Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams and their own pick at 31st overall). Even though there was a glaring need at wide receiver to help QB Tom Brady, Belichick elected to take G Isaiah Wynn out of Georgia. Right out of the gate, the pick blew up in the team’s face. In the second game of the 2018 NFL preseason, Wynn tore his Achilles and was put on IR effectively ending his first season in the NFL. Then in 2019, Wynn suffered a toe injury in a Week 2 win against the Miami that forced him to miss half of the season. Then in 2020, Wynn suffered a knee injury in a Week 11 loss to the Houston Texans and missed the remainder of that season.
To add insult to injury, right after the Wynn pick the Carolina Panthers selected WR D.J. Moore out of Maryland, who has back-to-back 1,000+ yards receiving in 2019 & 2020. Then two picks later after the Moore pick, the Atlanta Falcons selected WR Calvin Ridley out of Alabama, who had 10 receiving TDs in his rookie year (along with 821 yards on 64 catches) as well as 1,300+ yards receiving in 2020.
4. DT Dominique Easley (1st round, 29th overall in 2014)
This was a headscratcher to say the least. Although a decent player in college at the University of Florida, Easley had suffered two torn ACLs during his collegiate career including his senior season prior to the 2014 NFL Draft. But even with that injury history, it didn’t deter the Patriots from selecting Easley 29th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. He spent his rookie season, rotating in and out of the lineup to give the starters some rest. For the 2014 NFL season, Easley played in 11 games (2 starts) and had 10 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 1 pass defended, and an interception before ultimately being placed on IR with a knee injury and missing the rest of the regular season and postseason (including the team’s 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX).
Then in the 2015 NFL season, Easley was named a starter after DT Vince Wilfork departed via free agency. But again, injuries reared their ugly head as he suffered a quadriceps injury in a Week 14 victory over the Houston Texans that shelved the Patriots defensive lineman for the remainder of the 2015 NFL season. The team ultimately released Easley during the 2016 NFL offseason.
Some of the players that were still on the board that played in the same position as Easley were DeMarcus Lawrence from Boise State (a 2x Pro Bowler with the Dallas Cowboys who selected him 34th overall in the 2nd round) and Stephon Tuitt out of Notre Dame (who has 34.5 career sacks, including 11.0 in 2020, with the Pittsburgh Steelers who drafted him 46th overall in the 2nd round).
3. WR N’Keal Harry (1st round, 32nd overall in 2019)
After missing out on drafting a quality receiver in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Belichick relented and decided to select one in the 2019 NFL draft. The Patriots then took the 6’4’’ N’Keal Harry out of Arizona State with the 32nd overall pick to conclude the first round of the draft. It seemed like an ideal match since Harry gave Brady a big wideout to through to. But during training camp, Harry suffered an ankle injury that forced him to miss half of the 2019 NFL season. When he did play, Harry couldn’t build a connection with Brady, who seldomly looked his way. Harry ultimately finished the year with 12 catches for 105 yards and 2 TDs in 7 games (5 starts), paltry numbers to say the least.
Then in following 2020 NFL season, Harry’s total numbers increased with more playing time (9 starts in 14 games played) but it wasn’t anything noteworthy (33 catches for 309 yards and 2 TDs). He also struggled routinely to get separation from the defender and could not take advantage of his height difference from defensive backs covering him, even get knocked down a few times. Now in 2021, Harry’s future with the team is in doubt as his agent has recently requested a trade.
Funny enough, the trade request wasn’t the slap in the face to Pats nation. It was the fact the next few notable receivers that were taken after Harry were as followed:
Deebo Samuel at 36th overall (2nd round) out of South Carolina by the 49ers (went 57-802-3 his rookie year and is a physical receiver)
A.J. Brown at 51st overall (2nd round) out of Ole Miss by the Tennessee Titans (back-to-back 1,000 + yards receiving and 20 total TDs in 2 years and was a Pro Bowler in 2020)
Mecole Hardman at 56th overall (2nd round) out of Georgia by the Kansas City Chiefs (had 500+ receiving yards and 4+ touchdowns each season made the Pro Bowl as a return man in 2019)
D.K. Metcalf at 64th overall (2nd round) out of Ole Miss by the Seattle Seahawks (had 900 receiving yards and 7 TDs in 2019 & 1,303 yard and 10 TDs in 2020 and is basically the same size as Harry but much faster)
Diontae Johnson at 66th overall (3rd round) out of Toledo by the Pittsburgh Steelers (59-680-5 in his rookie year and then 88-923-7 in the 2020 NFL season)
Guess for all his ‘football knowledge’, Belichick cannot draft or develop capable receiver outside of Julian Edelman. I bet Brady would have stayed if the team draft Metcalf instead of Harry.
2. CB Cyrus Jones (2nd round, 60th overall in 2016)
Ah yes, the 2016 NFL Draft. What was notable about this draft for the Patriots was the fact that they had to forfeit their 1st round pick after being nabbed for tampering with equipment and deflating footballs back in the 2014 AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts. So, the top pick they had remaining was their 2nd round pick, 60th overall (they had the 61st pick overall in that same draft from Arizona Cardinals as part of a trade for DE Chandler Jones).
When it came time to make the draft pick, the Patriots used it to select CB Cyrus Jones out of Alabama. Many draft analysts were taken back by the selection as they had felt that Jones was a reach at 60. Many draft experts projected Jones to be more of a back-up/nickel corner with some ability to play on special teams as a return guy.
He didn’t exactly have the ideal shuttle drill time, vertical leap, and bench press rep at the NFL Combine but he did have a good 3-cone drill time (under 7.00 seconds), which showed he had good footwork and apparently that’s a big plus in Belichick’s book. Plus being from Alabama, there was the Nick Saban connection since him and Belichick go way back to their days with the Cleveland Browns during the early 1990s.
But instead of being slotted as a potential backup to then starting CBs Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler or even used as a potential nickel/slot corner, Jones was used mostly as a return specialist instead because...well...Belichick thought that would be the perfect use for him. Turns out that was a giant mistake.
in his rookie year, Jones appeared in 10 games and had 7 total tackles for the year. He also had 8 kickoff returns for 180 yards to go along with 11 punt returns for 46 yards. He also had 5 fumbles as well, including 3 lost. To put that in perspective, Jones fumbled almost once for ever 4 returns he was back there for. He ultimately was benched during the Patriots' Super Bowl LI, being a healthy scratch for all 3 postseason games.
Then in the following 2017 NFL preseason, Jones suffered a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus during the final preseason game against the New York Giants and was placed on IR. His last year the Patriots was in 2018 where he just recorded 1 assist tackle for the team and 5 punt returns for 45 yards. Jones then proceeded to alternate between playing for the Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens (signed and waived by both teams) before being ultimately waived Patriots on October 9 before their Week 6 contest against the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's definitely a headscratcher to some on why Bill selected Jones so high when he was projected to be a later round pick. Not to mention it's a black mark on the de facto GM's draft record considering there were a few quality players that went later on in the draft:
CB James Bradberry out of Samford University was selected 62nd overall (two picks after Jones) by the Carolina Panthers, who would develop into a shutdown corner and earn a 2020 Pro Bowl spot with the New York Giants.
CB Kendall Fuller out of Virginia Tech was selected by the Washington Football Team in the 3rd round (84th overall), who would win a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs and have 278 total tackles, 37 passes defended, and 10 interceptions in 5 years playing in the NFL.
LB Blake Martinez out of Stanford was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the 4th round (131st overall), who would have 4 consecutive seasons (2017-2020) of 100+ tackles with the Packers and New York Giants
LB Matt Judon out of Grand Valley State was selected in the 5th round (146th overall) by the Baltimore Ravens, who would be a 2x Pro Bowler (2018 & 2020) with 34.5 career sacks.
The Jones pick was a classic 'Bill trying to outsmart everybody' move that ultimately blew up in his face.
1. DB Ras-I Dowling (2nd round, 33rd overall in 2011)
When you think of defensive backs the Patriots developed during the Belichick Era, who is the first person that you think off? Is it Asante Samuel? Devin McCourty? Malcolm Butler? J.C. Jackson? What about Ras-I Dowling? Ever heard of him? Whenever the name Ras-I Dowling comes up in discussion, usually it’s when debating who is the worst Belichick draft pick of all time (WR Chad Jackson from the 2006 draft still leads that debate just an fyi).
Dowling checked all the boxes: good combine (4.40 40-yd dash, 19 bench rep), had the ideal size (6’1” 3/8 in, 198lbs), and was versatile (can play corner or safety). When the Patriots drafted him 33rd overall back in the 2011 NFL Draft out of the University of Virginia, many experts graded the pick as high as A and as low as B+. In their eyes, the Patriots got a player with "first-round talent" in the second round.
That being said, Dowling’s Patriots career fizzled out before it even took off.
Two weeks into the 2011 NFL season, Dowling suffered a hip injury in the team’s 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers. After being inactive for 4 weeks, the Patriots placed Dowling on IR prior to the team’s Week 8 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Overall, Dowling played in 2 games and recorded a mere 3 total tackles.
In 2012, Dowling looked to rebound from his injury-shortened season. In Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans, Dowling played in 57% of Patriots’ defensive snaps for the game, recording 4 tackles (3 solo and 1 assist) and it seemed like. But it was all down hill fast. Between coverage mistakes, missed tackles, and committing costly penalties, Dowling’s playing time decreased as he never played more than 30 % of the team’s defensive snaps. Then on October 26, Dowling suffered a torn thigh muscle during practice prior to the team’s Week 8 matchup in London, England against the St. Louis Rams. He was placed on IR, ending his 2012 season.
Dowling was ultimately let go during roster cuts during the 2013 NFL preseason just a couple weeks before the start of the regular season.
To understand how bad the Dowling pick was, here are a few notable defensive players that went after the Patriots’ selection:
CB Marcus Gilchrist to the San Diego Chargers with the 50th pick overall in the 2nd round out of Clemson (a 10-year veteran with 493 career tackles, 4.0 career sacks, 39 passes defended, and 14 interceptions)
LB Justin Houston to the Kansas City Chiefs with the 70th pick overall in the 3rd round out of Georgia (Houston would collect a total of 451 career tackles and 97.5 career sacks over 10 years and is still playing in the NFL)
DT Jurrell Casey to the Tennsesse Titans with the 77th pick overall in the 3rd round out of USC (a 5x Pro Bowler with 507 career tackles and 51.0 career sacks that would have helped the Patriots avoid drafting Dominique Easley in 2014)
But the biggest sin was the fact that the Patriots passed over CB Richard Sherman in the draft to pick Ras-I Dowling (Sherman ultimately went to the Seattle Seahawks in the 5th round, 154th overall). Yup, the Patriots past over a cornerback who would become a 3x All-Pro 1st Team, 5x Pro Bowler, a member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade, and a future Hall-of-Famer for somebody that would make 11 career tackles.
That's one draft bust under Belichick's watch that will never go away no matter how many championships he wins.
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