This is the sixth installment of a multi-part review and grading of the previous drafts of the New England Patriots under coach and uber-executive Bill Belichick. As the Patriots are in the midst of their “voluntary” organized team activities along with their other NFL counterparts, this period of preparing for the 2013 season prior to the official training camp in July is often the only slow time in the NFL calendar when the non-stop NFL news is at its minimum. Thus, it is an ideal time to look back to the previous drafts of the New England Patriots while under the leadership of Bill Belichick and re-grade them with the perspective of a few years having passed.
As a note, these draft grades take into account the player’s impact while in New England weighed against the other players who were available in the draft at that time, as well as the the strength of the draft as a whole that season. In addition, the position of the player taken in the draft is compared to the team’s need at that time, and it also takes into consideration how the player contributes to the team’s winning, whatever their role ended up being in New England. Below is the revisit and re-grading of the Bill Belichick draft that followed the second consecutive Super Bowl championship in New England: the 2005 NFL Draft.
The Patriots ended the 2004 season as repeat world champions, the last time that has happened in the NFL. That off-season the defense was in turmoil, as star linebacker and heart-and-soul of the team, Tedy Bruschi, suffered a stroke after the Pro Bowl (only two weeks after the Super Bowl victory). Bruschi originally planned to sit out the entire season, but returned to the team in October to provide a much-needed boost to the team which was mired at .500 and looked lost on defense, especially with safety Rodney Harrison lost for the season due to injury during their week 3 win against Pittsburgh. Further casting a pall over the off-season, the Patriots parted ways with long-time cornerback Ty Law, and linebacker Ted Johnson retired prior to training camp.
The Patriots brought in linebackers Chad Brown and Monty Beisel, who both disappointed and their move to the bench coincided with the improvement on defense. The team brought in cornerback Duane Starks for their 3rd and 5th round picks in the 2005 draft, and Starks went on injured reserve after six games in 2005. Defensive lineman Richard Seymour had his first contentious contract holdout that summer as well, laying the groundwork for his eventual departure from New England.
On offense, quarterback Tom Brady signed a six year, $60 million contract for far less than his contemporary with fewer Super Bowl rings, the not yet omnipresent in every television commercial Peyton Manning, was receiving on his record deal averaging almost $14 million per year. Offensive guard Joe Andruzzi and wide receiver David Patten left in free agency. The Patriots tried to off-set these moves in free agency by bringing in wide receivers Andre Davis and David Terrell and back-up quarterback and local legend Doug Flutie.
The Patriots lost both coordinators, as Charlie Weis took his creative offensive game plans and bombastic personality to Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Romeo Crennel joined the Cleveland Browns as head coach. With all the turnover in New England, there was a need to improve the team with an infusion of youth, energy, and talent: the draft.
1st Round #32: Logan Mankins, Guard:
At the time of the pick, the media was aghast that the world champion Patriots were picking a lowly guard in the 1st round. All Mankins has done is establish himself as one of the best offensive linemen in all of the NFL and earn a place with quarterback Tom Brady and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork as the upper-class of the Patriots salary cap. Mankins was the last pick of the first round, but he arguably outperformed the top ten picks. A quick rundown of those picks: Alex Smith, QB; Ronnie Brown, RB; Braylon Edwards, WR; Cedric Benson, RB; Cadillac Williams, RB; Adam “Pacman” Jones, CB; Troy Williamson, WR; Antrel Rolle, CB; Carlos Rogers, CB; Mike WIlliams, WR. Dallas got DE DeMarcus Ware at #11, Green Bay stole QB Aaron Rodgers at #24, Pittsburgh drafted TE Heath Miller at #30, and New England grabbed Mankins at #32 to be the top four picks of the draft.
Should Have Drafted: Wide receiver Vincent Jackson went #61, running back Frank Gore went #65 overall, and the Giants got defensive end Justin Tuck at #74, but Mankins was too good a pick there to make anyone cry for kicker Mike Nugent (who the Jets took at #47 overall).
2nd Round #64: Traded
The Patriots traded this pick to Baltimore for #84 (3rd round pick) and #195 (6th round pick) and 2006 3rd round pick. The 2006 pick was used to trade up in that draft (more about that pick in the next article) and the 6th round pick was packaged with their #246 (7th round pick) for a 6th round pick (#175). That 6th round pick was then traded to the Raiders for a 7th round pick (#230) [more on that pick below] and 2006 5th round pick.
Should Have Drafted: Again, running back Frank Gore went #65 overall, and the Giants got defensive end Justin Tuck at #74
3rd Round #84: Ellis Hobbs, Cornerback:
The Patriots, after some wheeling and dealing, drafted cornerback Ellis Hobbs from Iowa State. Hobbs contributed at cornerback and on special teams returning kicks for the Patriots through 2008. Hobbs ended up starting in the second half of his rookie season and started for the following three years until he was traded away to Philadelphia during the 2009 draft and his career derailed not long after due to injuries. The Patriots got four solid seasons from Hobbs, which is decent value for a late 3rd round pick.
Should Have Drafted: The Jets took a big run-stuffing tackle, Sione Pouha, at #88. Of course, 4 of the next 8 picks in draft never played a game in the regular season of the NFL, as Seattle at #85 (Quarterback David Greene), Carolina at #89 (Defensive Tackle Atiyyah Ellison), Tampa at #91 (Tackle Chris Colmer) and Indianapolis (Defensive End Vincent Burns) got nothing at all for their late 3rd round picks.
3rd Round #100: Nick Kaczur, Tackle:
The Patriots received a compensatory pick at #100 at the end of the third round and took Ontario Canada native Nick Kaczur, a tackle. Kaczur was a first round pick in the Canadian Football League in 2005 after finishing his college career at Toledo. Interesting about Kaczur was he was older than most draftees, at 26, after not attending college and working construction initially after high school. That experience and maturity paid off immediately, as he was thrust into the starting left tackle position after an injury to Matt Light and Kazcur started the last 13 games of the season. Kaczur struggled with injuries the next to seasons, but bounced back in 2008 before injuries derailed his career at the end of the 2009 season. He missed all of 2010 with a back injury and was released in 2011. When healthy, Kaczur was a very good right tackle and could fill in at left tackle. Before injuries drove him to retirement, the Patriots had thought enough of Kaczur to re-sign him at 4 years and $16 million.
Should Have Drafted: Definitely not the next compensatory pick and last pick of round 3, Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, who Denver wasted that pick on. The Bears got quarterback Kyle Orton at #106 and running backs Brandon Jacobs (#110) went to the Giants and Darren Sproles (#130) went to San Diego. Also, safety Kerry Rhodes was available at #123 for the Jets. That said, Cleveland took defensive back Antonio Perkins at #103, who lasted all of 6 games in the NFL; Miami took running back Ciatrick Faison at #112; and Kansas City took wide receiver Craphonso Thorpe at #116: none of these players made any impact, let alone started as a rookie for a playoff team.
4th Round #133: James Sanders, Safety:
James Sanders joined the Patriots from Fresno State, joining teammate Logan Mankins as part of the Fresno State-Patriots connection (like with Rutgers in the 2013 NFL Draft). Sanders made his mark in New England as a smart, prepared, tough leader. Not blessed with top end speed, strength, size or athleticism, Sanders worked his way into playing time by contributing on special teams, and stepping up ready to play when injuries took down safeties Rodney Harrison and then Eugene Wilson. Although signed through 2012, Sanders was a surprise cut-down at the end of training camp in 2011. He subsequently signed with Atlanta, starting 6 games, and then spent 2012 in Arizona. A solid argument could be made that releasing Sanders hurt the team immensely in 2011 and 2012 as his solid safety play, knowledge of the playbook, and ability to keep deep receivers in front of him could have made a difference in a number of games.
Should Have Drafted: An argument could be made that New England would have found better value with defensive back Gerald Sensabaugh (#157) or defensive end Trent Cole (#146); however, the end of the 4th and 5th round was littered with players who made little to no impact in the NFL (for example: guard Claude Terrell to St. Louis at #134; wide receiver Airese Currie to Chicago at #140; running back Damien Nash to Tennessee at #142; tight end Jerome Collins to St. Louis at #144; defensive back Alphonso Hodge to Kansas City at #147; defensive end Jonathan Welsh to Indianapolis at #148 and many more in that round).
5th Round #170: Ryan Claridge, Linebacker:
Speaking of late round picks that never contributed in the NFL, Claridge joined the Patriots and was stashed on the practice squad for the entire season before being cut prior to training camp in 2006 when the Patriots re-signed linebacker Chad Brown. He was an outside linebacker in college and was to be converted to inside linebacker in the Patriots’ scheme, but it never worked out. He also had to deal with his older brother, Travis Claridge, who was a 2nd round pick for Atlanta in 2000, passing away at the age of 27 prior to training camp in 2006.
Should Have Drafted: As indicated earlier, the late rounds of the 2005 draft was a little short on talent. Dallas got defensive end Jay Ratliff at #224, and Kevin Vickerson was a decent rotation defensive tackle for Tennessee and Denver after being drafted and released by Miami at #216. Tackle Joe Berger never played for Carolina who picked him at #207, but stuck as a back-up for a number of years. Tight end Joel Dreessen was drafted by the Jets at #198, and eventually developed into a decent 2nd tight end in Houston.
7th Round #230: Matt Cassell, Quarterback:
Even as a 7th round pick, the choice of Cassell befuddled the draft experts and media at the time. Cassell was a backup his entire career at USC, albeit backing up Heisman trophy winning QB Carson Palmer and losing out on the starting job to future Heisman trophy winner and first round pick Matt Leinart. His only start at USC was for one game as an H-back. He only threw 33 passes in his college career. Quarterbacks ahead of Cassell on the draft board of the draft experts were 2003 Heisman winner Jason White out of Oklahoma and Hawaii quarterback and NCAA passing records setter Timmy Chang.
Cassell made the team as a back-up quarterback beating out both Rohan Davey and Chris Redman to serve as the #3 quarterback behind Tom Brady and Doug Flutie. When Flutie retired, Cassell moved up the depth chart to #2 behind Brady. Eventually, after Tom Brady’s torn ACL in the season opener against Kansas City, Cassell stepped in for Brady in 2008 and started the next 15 games for the rest of the season and led the Patriots to double-digit wins in 2010, narrowly missing the playoffs. Cassell, dealing with the death of his father, led the Patriots to 4 consecutive wins and fortunately for the rest of the AFC, the Patriots missed the playoffs based upon conference record tie-breakers with Miami (AFC East division title) and Baltimore (wild card). Pittsburgh was gifted a trip to the Super Bowl against an inferior Arizona team after watching San Diego knock off Peyton Manning and the Colts and Baltmore upset 31 seed Tennessee. With the way the Patriots ended 2008 under Cassell, it would have made an epic match-up with Pittsburgh in the playoffs that season.
That off-season, the Patriots used the franchise tag on Cassell and traded him (along with an aging linebacker Mike Vrabel) to Kansas City for a high 2nd round pick. An 11 win season when called upon and the #34 pick in the draft is an epic return for a 7th round pick.
Should Have Drafted: No one in their right mind is going to say the Patriots should have taken quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (#250 to St. Louis) over Cassell. The only other draft pick of any significant value after Cassell was defensive end Jonathan Fanene (#233 to Cincinnati), but Fanene was not leading the 2008 Patriots to 11 wins.
7th Round #255: Andy Stokes, Tight End:
Andy Stokes was the last pick of the draft in 2005 out of William Penn and earned the title of “Mr. Irrelevant” that season. He was cut in training camp and never played in the NFL.
Should Have Drafted: Kick returner/running back Joshua Cribbs was undrafted that season, as was running back Ryan Grant. Either would have been a fine draft pick.
The Patriots 2005 draft was ridiculed by the experts, most notably by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr who opined that 1st round pick Logan Mankins “was a reach in the first round” and that 3rd round pick tackle Nick Kaczur “came off the board a little early”. Pete Prisco at CBS considered 3rd pick Ellis Hobbs as a questionable move, but at least was one of the few “experts” who like the pick of Mankins. Peter King of SI.com summed it up best at the time: “I have no idea who Logan Mankins is, but I have a feeling the Patriots do. I don’t know how you criticize their drafting right now. Sounds like the next Joe Andruzzi for now at least.” A pinch better than Andruzzi, for sure. It’s hard to discount the Patriots for a draft that added an all-pro starter on the offensive line for almost ten years now, a solid tackle, a starting cornerback, and a very good back-up quarterback. In addition, they added ammunition for 2006 with their wheeling and dealing. The grade goes up just by looking at Jacksonville, Baltimore, and Oakland picking #21, #22, and #23: College quarterback converted to tight end Matt Jones; wide receiver Mark Clayton, and cornerback Fabian Washington. Forget passing up Mankins, these teams passed on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Or how about this combination of picks by Houston, Cincinnati, and Minnesota picking #16, #17, and #18: defensive tackle Travis Johnson; defensive end David Pollack; and defensive end Erasmus James. This draft was full of swings and misses, and the Patriots were very solid this year picking players who contributed to a top-level team.
Overall grade: A-