There’s no rule that says you need to draft players just because you have picks available. It’s like getting a $100 Banana Republic gift card as a stocking stuffer and feeling compelled to make a purchase despite limited inventory on the shelves.
The New England Patriots don’t use draft picks “just because.” Every selection, every trade, is carefully crafted with an eye toward the future, even if that means stockpiling picks a year in advance.
The Patriots made only four selections this year, tying the 1995 San Francisco 49ers for the fewest draft picks by a defending Super Bowl champion, which somewhat makes sense given that most reigning title-holders enter the following season with few glaring needs. The nabbed two offensive tackles, Antonio Garcia of Troy and UCLA’s Connor McDermott (presumably as a replacement for free-agent-to-be Nate Solder), and a pair of defensive ends in Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers and Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise, Jr., specifically targeting needs.
That’s not to say, however, that the Patriots enter 2017 undermanned or empty-handed; the reason they entered draft weekend with so few picks is because they used them for their intended purpose – offseason trades for key veteran players who figure to provide immediate help without having to endure the usual rookie maturation process.
The real Patriots’ draft board looks like this:
Cooks, Ealy, Allen, O’Shaughnessy and Gillislee each cost the Patriots picks in this year’s draft, mostly via trades, some of which earned New England additional picks as part of the exchange. Gillislee, the former Buffalo Bills’ running back, signed as a restricted free agent, thereby costing New England a fifth-round pick. The multi-talented Cooks, a fourth-year receiver somewhat buried over the past three years on New Orleans’ depth chart, arrived in exchange for New England’s 32nd overall pick, a smart move considering Cooks is only 23 and is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and isn’t much older than the receivers who were drafted in this year’s opening round.
Since the Patriots recently exercised Cooks’ fifth-year option, he’s guaranteed to be in New England just as long as any rookie they could’ve drafted with their first-round pick, plus he’s already a proven commodity, a prime example of how draft picks should be used in years in which the draft class leaves a lot to be desired. A lot of pre-draft experts felt the receiving class was a bit suspect beyond the first three or four players on the board, so acquiring Cooks for the 32nd pick appears to be a steal entering 2017.
Also in early March, the Patriots traded their 64th overall pick to Carolina in exchange for Ealy, a 25-year-old pass-rushing defensive end, and the Panthers’ 72nd overall pick, which they later traded to Tennessee along with their 200th pick in exchange for the Titans’ 83rd and 124th picks.
Ealy is still a work in progress – he’s best remembered for his awe-inspiring performance in a losing effort in Super Bowl 50 – but the Patriots clearly needed help with their pass rush and he’s no more or less a guarantee to help solve the problem than any of the players New England could’ve acquired in this year’s second round.
The Patriots (namely defensive coordinator Matt Patricia) took some heat last year for a perceived bland attack defensively. They looked rather vanilla over the first month and a half, rarely attacking the quarterback and instead employing a prevent-style defense that yielded a lot of yards, but not too many points. The divide between whether it had more to do with a lack of personnel or a lack of confidence by the coaching staff eventually solved itself when the Patriots dumped Jamie Collins and brought in players who were a better fit in Patricia’s system.
The end result was a more aggressive approach in the second half and yet another Super Bowl title, part of which hinged on Dont’a Hightower’s clutch strip-sack of Matt Ryan during their improbable comeback against Atlanta, a play they might not have made during the early half of 2016.
Ealy had an up-and-down season a year ago, but could be another example of a player who ends up being a better fit in New England than anywhere else. The Patriots have a knack for bringing in discarded talent that other teams fail to utilize properly.
Ealy might fit that description. The same goes for tight ends Allen and O’Shaughnessy, who were acquired during the offseason in exchange for a fourth- and fifth-round pick, respectfully. They’ll provide insurance in the event Rob Gronkowski goes down again while competing to replace Martellus Bennett, who bolted via free agency.
The 27-year-old Allen spent his first five seasons in Indianapolis while O’Shaughnessy was caught in a logjam in Kansas City behind Travis Kelce. The Patriots also got back two sixth-round picks in those trades, which they used in other trades. The Kansas City pick (216th overall) was sent to Dallas in order to move up five spots to draft McDermott and the Indianapolis pick was part of the draft-day trade with the Titans in exchange for the 83rd pick they used to draft Rivers.
The last piece of the puzzle is Gillislee, another potential sleeper in New England whose arrival all but signals the end of the LeGarrette Blount era. Whether Gillislee can fill the void at the goal-line left by Blount’s presumed departure remains to be seen, but the Patriots have considerable depth at running back with Gillislee joining Dion Lewis, fellow newcomer Rex Burkhead and Super Bowl hero James White.
The Patriots are known for wheelin’ and dealin’ during draft weekend, but this year’s activity would’ve made anyone’s head spin. The Patriots not only traded each of their original 2017 draft picks (Nos. 32, 64, 96, 175, 215 and 250), they also shipped out five additional picks over the weekend (Nos. 72, 124, 200, 216 and 239).
They were supposed to draft at No. 72, but traded down 11 picks to grab Rivers and then swapped another pick with the Lions to move up to No. 85 to get Garcia, capping a wild Friday night. The moves may seem unorthodox, but it’s hard to knock their draft-day strategy. The Patriots targeted what little needs they have and enter 2017 with another solid mix of veteran leaders and promising rookies.
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