Ryan L. Fox
Ah yes, the NFL Draft. The one time of the year that everybody is an ‘expert’ and can ‘predict’ who and how NFL teams will draft. A good draft will set a franchise up for success for an extended period whereas a bad draft can put a franchise in a never-ending loop of subpar and mediocrity. And no round is more key than the first round.
For the New England Patriots during the Belichick Era, this is the time of the year where either they go into the draft either having a first-round pick or have it been taken away due to cheating during the previous season. Now a stereotype with the Patriots is that they always trade out of the first-round for later round picks. But on occasion when they keep their first-round pick, they've picked players that have helped the franchise for many years.
Honorable Mention: MLB Jerod Mayo (10th overall in 2008)
Drafted 10th overall out of the University of Tennessee during the 2008 NFL Draft, Mayo made almost an immediate impact for the Patriots defense. He started every game his rookie year while recording 128 tackles, 4 passes defended, and 1 fumble recovery while winning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, becoming the 2nd Patriots player in franchise history to win that award (CB Mike Haynes won it in 1976). Mayo went on to have an 8-year career with the team, recording a career 802 tackles, 11.0 sacks, 19 passes defended, 8 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, and 3 interceptions while making 2 Pro Bowls, 1 First Team All-Pro, the Patriots 2010s All-Decade Team, and getting 1 Super Bowl Trophy.
5. LB Dont’a Hightower (25th overall in 2012)
Another key building block in the Patriots defense during their 2nd surge of championships. Drafted out of Alabama with the 25th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Hightower was plugged in as a starter day one at outside linebacker. In his rookie campaign, he had 60 tackles to go along with 4.0 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries, and 1 defensive touchdowns. Then prior the 2016 season, Hightower was moved to middle linebacker and was also named a team captain. Overall, Hightower has been with the Patriots for 9 years (playing 8 while opting out of the 2020 NFL Season due to COVID-19 concerns). He’s amassed career totals of 505 tackles, 25.5 sacks, 1 INT, 5 fumble recoveries, 17 passes defended, and 2 defensive touchdowns. He also has 3 Super Bowls, 2 Pro Bowls appearances, a Second-Team All-Pro appearance attached to his name as well as being named to the Patriots 2010s All-Decade Team.
4. FS Devin McCourty (27th overall in 2010)
Taken 27th overall out of Rutgers during the 2010 draft, McCourty became a foundation piece in the Patriots defense that help propel the team into success during the 2nd part of their dynasty. McCourty was originally drafted out of Rutgers as a cornerback and has a successful rookie year (82 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 7 INTs, 17 passes defended) and made the 2010 Pro Bowl. Following the 2012 season, McCourty was switched from CB to FS after the team’s starting FS Patrick Chung left via free agency. The result was him becoming one of the league's top free safeties. McCourty was also an instrumental part in the team’s championship runs in 2014, 2016, and 2018 as well as be the model of consistency (only missing 5 regular season games during his 11-year playing career with the Patriots).
During his playing career, McCourty has 840 career tackles, 28 career INTs, 92 career passes defended, and 3.0 career sacks. . To go along with his 3 Super Bowl rings, McCourty has 2 Pro Bowls appearances, named Second-Team All-Pro 3 times, was named to the Patriots 2010 All-Decades Team, and was named to Pro Football Focus’ 2010’s All-Decade Team.
3. NT/DT Vince Wilfork (21st overall in 2004)
theIf there was a more beloved figure within the Patriots organization, it was big ol’ #75. Drafted 21st overall out of the University of Miami in 2004, Wilfork split playing time during his rookie season that year with fellow NT Keith Traylor. He ended up having 42 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 3 passes defended, and 2 fumble recoveries while playing in all 16 games that year (6 starts). Not too mention that Wilfork ended up starting in Super Bowl XXXIX for the Patriots in the teams 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Wilfork was then moved into the starting NT role in 2005 full-time, entrenching himself as starter on the Patriots defense for many years to come.
Wilfork ended up playing for the Patriots for 11 seasons (2004-2015), playing in 189 games (starting 179). He had 560 tackles, 16.0 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive TD, 27 passes defended, and 3 INTs (yeah, the big man can run). Not to mention that he was voted to the Pro Bowl 5 times, was named First-Team All-Pro once and Second-Team All-Pro 3 times, was named to both the Patriots 2000s and 2010s All-Decades Teams as well as the Patriots 50th Anniversary Team to go along with his 2 Super Bowl Championships.
2. G Logan Mankins (32nd overall in 2005)
At first glance, today’s casual Patriots fan will wonder why an offensive guard is considered the 2nd best first-round draft pick of the Belichick Era. Well for starters, being considered the best 32nd overall draft pick in NFL history in many NFL circles will help with that.
Drafted 32nd overall in the 2005 out of Fresno State, Mankins joined the team after they had just won Super Bowl XXXIX. Mankins played in 130 games with the Patriots, including a stretch from 2005 to 2009 where he played in every game including playoffs. He was also part of a 2007 offensive line that saw all its starters get elected to the Pro Bowl that year after the team went undefeated in the regular season and were setting new single season offensive records. Known for his physical blocking style as well as having a nasty streak, Mankins was one of QB Tom Brady’s top blockers as well as most reliable. In fact, during his tenure with the Patriots, they only ranked out of the top 10 in total offensive yards just once (11th overall in 2006) and out of the top 10 in points scored once (11th in 2005). He was also known to have played injured as during the 2011 season, he played in on a torn right ACL and even played in Super Bowl XLVI on a torn ACL and MCL.
Unfortunately for Mankins, he was ultimately traded away prior to the start of the 2014 NFL season to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 2015 4th-round pick and TE Eric Wright.
For his playing career with the Patriots, Mankins played 9 seasons with the team. He made 6 Pro Bowls while wearing the Flying Elvis, was a named to 1 First-Team All-Pro and 5 Second-Team All-Pro, was named to the NFL’s 2010s Decade Team, and was named to the New England Patriots All-2000s Team, All-2010s Team, and the 50th Anniversary Team.
1. NT/DT Richard Seymour (6th overall in 2001)
This was the highest pick selected during the Belichick Era. Following a 5-11 campaign in 2000, Seymour was selected out of the University of Georgia with the 6th pick overall in the 2001 NFL draft by the Patriots. Seymour was plugged in as a 4-3 defensive tackle on defense that year, playing in 13 games that year (missed 3 due to injury), and started in 10 regular season games as well as in every postseason game that year. He amassed 45 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 pass defended, and 1 fumble recovery his rookie year as he started to assert himself as a dominate force on the Patriots defense that would be the driving force of the Patriots early dynasty.
When the Patriots started to change from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 scheme, Seymour slid on over to the defensive end as his production (sacks and total tackle) began to increase as well. His best years came in 2003 and 2008 where he had 8.0 sacks and 50+ tackles in each of those years (56 tackles in 2003 and 51 tackles in 2008). He began to establish himself as a versatile player as well, playing on special teams where he was able to block a few field goals that got him nominated as AFC Special Teams player of the week a few times during his playing career with the Patriots.
But unfortunately, Seymour’s tenure Patriots ended on a sour note in an all-too familiar scenario (see Logan Mankins above). Prior to the start of the 2009 NFL Season, Seymour was traded to the Oakland Raiders for a 2010 First Round Pick.
Nevertheless, Seymour is still considered to be one of the best Patriots defensive linemen in franchise history. During his 8-years with the team, Seymour played in 111 games (starting in 105) and accumulated 359 total tackles, 39.0 sacks, 29 passes defended, 6 fumble recoveries, 2 INTs, 1 defensive TD, and a franchise record 6 blocked field goals. He went to 5 Pro Bowls with the Patriots, named First-Team All-Pro 3 times, named Second-Team All-Pro 1 time, won 3 Super Bowls with the team, was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, the Patriots All-2000s Team, the Patriots 50th Anniversary Team, the Patriots Hall of Fame, and was an NFL Hall-of-Fame Finalist 3 years (2019-2021) and an NFL HOF Semi-Finalist 1 year (2017).
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