This is the fourth installment of a multi-part review and grading of the previous drafts of the New England Patriots in the Bill Belichick era. As the NFL remains in the doldrums of the off-season calendar, the Patriots and other NFL teams are in a period of preparation and review until training camp kicks off in July. Now is the opportune time to look back and re-grade the previous drafts of the Bill Belichick led New England Patriots.
As a note, these draft grades take into account the player’s impact in New England weighed against the other players who were available at the time, as well as the the strength of the draft as a whole that season. Below is the revisit and re-grading of the Bill Belichick draft that played a key role in adding two consecutive Super Bowl championships in New England: the 2003 NFL Draft.
The Patriots ended the 2002 season on the outside looking in, as an inconsistent team struggled to a 9-7 record and missing the playoffs. One year after their amazing Super Bowl victory over St. Louis, the Patriots suffered a four game losing streak during the 2002 season, as well as losing two of their last three regular season games in uninspired fashion. The team needed an infusion of youth and playmakers, as the offense struggled to score at times and the defense repeatedly gave up crucial conversions.
The Patriots headed into the 2003 draft determined to show that previous seasons wheeling and dealing was a mere trifle compared to this year. Players deemed expendable were moved for draft picks that became pieces of moves by the Patriots up, down, and all over the draft board. The Patriots pre-draft day dealing included having the Buffalo Bills 1st round pick as part of their 2002 deal for former Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe, starting safety and former 1st round pick Tebucky Jones to the Saints for three picks (3rd & 7th round picks and a future 4th round pick in 2004), tackle Greg Robinson-Randall for a 5th round pick (to the young franchise Houston Texans), and trading back-up offensive tackle Grant Williams to the Rams for a 7th round pick.
Once the draft started, the Patriots continued to jump around, moving up in the draft, trading down and out of the draft, and stockpiling future picks. One of those future picks (not to steal the thunder from the 2004 draft), but the Patriots made two “future trades” that drive fans batty on draft day but often pay dividends: New England packaged their second 1st round pick (#19) to Baltimore for their 2nd round pick in 2003 (more about that pick later) and Baltimore’s 1st round pick in 2004; Also, New England traded one of their 3rd round picks (#78) to Miami for their 2004 2nd round pick. Those picks eventually turned into defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Cincinnati running back Corey Dillon, two key cogs in 2004 and beyond.
1st Round #13: Ty Warren, Defensive End:
The 2003 draft was notable for the depth on the defensive line as 8 of the first 18 picks were on the defensive line. Some were studs: (Kevin Williams, Minnesota at #9), but most were duds: (Dewayne Robinson, New York Jets #4; Jonathan Sullivan, New Orleans #6; and Jimmy Kennedy, St. Louis #12). Sitting at #14, the Patriots were looking for help on the defensive line to pair with young star Richard Seymour, and apparently got nervous as Jimmy Kennedy went off the board and the Chicago Bears got ready to pick. Throwing in a 6th round pick (#193), the Patriots jumped over the Bears to grab Texas A&M defensive end Ty Warren. All the Patriots got were two Super Bowl rings and an unheralded mauler opposite Seymour for the next seven years. The Bears, content to move down, took Penn State defensive end Michael Haynes followed by the Eagles taking underachiever Jerome McDougle to supplement their defensive line at #15 overall.
Should Have Drafted: Warren was not flashy, but he was the perfect fit on the defensive line. He ate up blockers and made the lives of Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, and Tedy Bruschi that much easier for the next few years while displaying occasional pass rush skills. The only other 1st round pick after #13 overall who the Patriots may front office may smack their forehead in a moment of reflection would be USC safety Troy Polamalu who went to Pittsburgh at #16. That said, Warren stepped in and played a key role in the trenches to help add two Super Bowl rings. In comparison, the Jets took the first defensive lineman in the draft with Dewayne Robinson at #4 overall, and he failed to make as much contribution as compared to Warren.
2nd Round #36: Eugene Wilson, Defensive Back:
The Patriots 2003 season started about as bad as any season ever had in New England Patriots history, as the Patriots released Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy in the week prior to the start of the season and saw him sign in Buffalo, their week one opponent. One 31-0 loss later, and the 2003 season hardly seemed to be one that would end with confetti falling in Reliant Stadium on February 1st in the Super Bowl. However, a rookie cornerback was converted to safety, and suddenly the secondary righted itself, the team moved on from the loss of Milloy, and they closed the season with a perfect inverse, beating Buffalo in week 17 31-0 to finish 14-2 (Milloy had a great view of the playoffs on his couch as the Bills went 5-10 the rest of the way after beating New England week one). No small part of the turnaround was due to 2nd round pick Eugene Wilson, who stepped in as as starter and added 47 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 9 passes defended on the way to starting in the Super Bowl the next two seasons. The Patriots moved up to grab him, and by week two of the regular season, not one New England fan was upset that it cost them their 2nd and 3rd round pick to move up five spots (the Patriots got a 4th round pick back in the deal with Houston
Should Have Drafted: Rashean Mathis (#39) and Drayton Florence (#46) were very good 2nd round picks who have had long, productive careers. That said, Dallas struck out with center Al Johnson at #38 and Houston wasted the #41 pick (which they received when they traded down with the Patriots) on tight end Bennie Joppru, who never caught a pass in the NFL during the regular season.
2nd Round #45: Bethel Johnson, Wide Receiver:
This pick gets dragged to light each year at draft time as a huge miss at wide receiver by Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Johnson should have been quarterback Tom Brady’s vertical threat for years to come. Instead, Johnson contributed more on special teams in his career in New England than with the regular offense. The only thing worse than seeing that the Patriots took Johnson at #45 was remembering that they traded up to get him, adding a 4th round pick (#120) to move up.
Should Have Drafted: Anquan Bolden, wide receiver and “that guy” that abused the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and could have been Super Bowl MVP went to Arizona at #54. Of course, imagine if the New England defense added pick #56, defensive end Osi Umenioya.
4th Round #117: Dan Klecko, Defensive Line:
Dan “Son of New York Sack Exchange Member, Dan” Klecko was not much of an impact player in the regular defense in New England; however, Klecko was one of those “Belichick Guys” who contributed to the team on special teams. Klecko even saved a roster spot of offense as he stepped up as the blocking back–and even catching passes out of the backfield–in short yardage situations. A solid, if unspectacular pick, Klecko earned his money during his time in New England .
Should Have Drafted: Three names jump off the page with San Francisco taking future Patriot wide receiver Brandon Lloyd at #124, Pittsburgh taking Tom Brady’s nemesis defensive back Ike Taylor at #125, and Indianapolis taking speed rushing defensive end Robert Mathis at #138. Of course, the 4th round also churned out soon-to-be-out-of-the-league players like tackle Lance Nimmo (#130), defensive end Bryant McNeal (#128), center Austin King (#133), and defensive tackle Rien Long (#126). Those four make the pick of Klecko look a lot better.
4th Round #120: Asante Samuel, Cornerback:
Along with their second round defensive back, Eugene Wilson, the Patriots doubled-up at defensive back by grabbing a short cornerback out of Central Florida. This year Samuel picked off pick #50 of his career, 16 more than #5 overall pick Terence Newman. Samuel had an acrimonious exit from New England after he outplayed his rookie contract. In one of the few mis-steps by the front office, New England failed to lock up Samuel early in his contract and traded future Pro Bowl seasons for a few well under-market value seasons. Whatever happened afterwards, the Patriots did get 5 excellent seasons out of the #120 pick.
Should Have Drafted: See above, Ike Taylor or Robert Mathis were the only two who are comparable.
5th Round #164: Dan Koppen, Center:
Boston College had back-to-back picks in the 5th round, as Pittsburgh grabbed quarterback Brian St. Pierre at #163 and the Patriots took his center, Dan Koppen, at #164. St. Pierre was a serviceable back-up for a few years, but Koppen was forced into action in 2003 when former Boston College Eagle and Patriots first round pick, starting center Damien Woody, missed their game in week two. After starting guard Mike Compton went down in week three for the season, Woody slid over to guard and Koppen started at center in New England through 2010. Eight seasons and a Pro Bowl is an effective use of the #164 pick.
Should Have Drafted: Arizona took guard Reggie Wells at #177 and Philadelphia took guard Jeremy Bridges at #185, both are comparable talents. Three good interior linemen contributing out of that late part of the draft is impressive and speaks to the depth of the draft this season.
6th Round #201: Kliff Kingsbury, Quarterback:
Not much to say about Kingsbury: Nothing special: Out of the league by 2006.
Should Have Drafted: Miami snagged safety Yeremiah Bell at #213, but some beautiful symmetry would have been better served by moving up in the round to grab Tom Brady’s heralded competition at Michigan, Drew Henson, as he was available until pick #192 when Houston picked him up. Something tells me Tom Brady would have had a measure of satisfaction knowing Henson was on the bench watching him win Super Bowls.
7th Round #234: Spencer Nead, Fullback:
Nead never played in New England, as his role as a fullback was co-opted by 4th round pick, Dan Klecko.
Should Have Drafted: Taco Wallace, wide receiver out of Kansas State. No, seriously, he was off the board at #224. How great would it be to have been able to hear the Patriots announcers say “Brady trying to find Taco down the field!”? The Giants got wide receiver Kevin Walter at #255 who has turned into a decent wide-out after a few years of seasoning before finding a role in Houston.
7th Round #239: Tully Banta-Cain, Linebacker:
The Patriots got a steal in Banta-Cain, who carved out a niche as a special teams player and situational pass rusher in New England before making some free-agent money from San Francisco after a break-out 2006 season; then, after being a salary cap casualty, he came back to contribute a 10 sack season in 2009 and another 5 in 2010.
Should Have Drafted: Green Bay took “The other” Chris Johnson at #245 and Oakland got some decent seasons out of him (2008 to 2010) after he bounced around the league a bit.
7th Round #243: Ethan Kelley, Defensive Tackle:
Kelley ended up playing 36 games in the NFL, playing three seasons in Cleveland contributing on special teams and even starting a few games on the defensive line. He played one game in 2004 and made one tackle
Should Have Drafted: Scott Shanle was drafted #251 by St. Louis and found a role as a starting linebacker and a Super Bowl ring after the 2009 season when he was 4th on that team with 56 tackles and recovered two fumbles and added two interceptions.
This draft added three starters and two solid role players on defense and a starting center for the offense. Wide receiver Bethel Johnson was the only glaring swing and miss, and the Patriots even got a good player out of one of their 7th round picks. This draft added solid pieces on the defense and injected some playmakers in the secondary. It was the kind of deep draft that still netted a future #1 and #2 pick who became players who played, and still play, key roles in New England.
Overall Grade: A-