Of the many things that have contributed to the New England Patriots’ success under coach Bill Belichick over the past two decades, among those near the top of the list is a knack for accurate and thorough self-scouting prior to the NFL draft.
They go through every aspect of the organization, assess strengths and weaknesses, and ask, “How can we be better?”
This isn’t unique to the Patriots, of course. But their ability to execute and act on it — on the field and off — has often helped set them apart.
With this as a springboard, there is a percolating question that Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and the team’s personnel staff might consider asking themselves after the past two drafts: At a time when the Patriots are transitioning from the league’s oldest roster — and an infusion of quality youth is critical — would they benefit from making their team draft board less restrictive?
For two consecutive years, Caserio has acknowledged the Patriots made draft-day moves — giving up a volume of picks they had worked to accrue — because they were running out of players to select.
This might sound like a stunning admission, but to those familiar with the inner workings of the Patriots’ unique personnel evaluation system, it’s business as usual. The Patriots, perhaps more than any team in the league, go into each draft with a limited number of prospects they would consider selecting — a result of an extensive scouting process that has a strong emphasis on elimination.
The final number of realistic draft options for the Patriots was around 35 to 40 this year, carefully whittled down from more than 2,000 at the start of the process. The majority of NFL teams are in the hundreds of prospects on their draft boards.
Belichick’s decision-making process on draft day is obviously affected by such a small list, which is the impetus for his frequent trades up and down the board. He has specific targets and manipulates the draft board accordingly.
Back-to-back deals in the third round this year highlight this dynamic.
Belichick traded picks in the third (No. 100 overall), fourth (139) and fifth rounds (172) to move up in the third round (91) to select UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi (also getting a fifth-round pick, 159, in return).
Then, Belichick traded picks in the fourth round (125, 129), in addition to a 2021 sixth-round pick, to the rival New York Jets to move back into the third round (101) to select Virginia Tech tight end Dalton Keene.
In summary, the Patriots gave up six picks for three players. ESPN draft analytics experts rated the trade with the Jets as a decisive loss in terms of overall value.
Caserio had explained it this way: “As we kind of looked at the board, projecting forward, [we wondered] whether or not we actually were able to utilize all the picks. It’s a little bit similar to last year when we traded up.”
Indeed, a similar situation unfolded in 2019 when the Patriots traded a fifth-round pick (167) and seventh-rounder (246) to move up four spots in the fifth round to select punter Jake Bailey at No. 163.
A trade up for a punter! It was uniquely Belichickian.
Of that exchange, Caserio had said: “We have a lot of picks. We’re probably not going to be able to use them. You start to run out of players at some point that we’re actually going to pick. If you look at our team, you only have so many spots. We have a pretty competitive roster, but you can only go up to 90, so if you just start adding players, it’s going to come at the expense of somebody else. Maybe you just move up a few spots and it could save you somewhere else along the way.”
The idea of the Patriots running out of draft picks might be hard for some to fathom. One common retort is, “Why not just select a player you hoped to sign after the draft?”
That was an approach the Minnesota Vikings took this year, amassing eight picks in Rounds 5-7, which rounded out an NFL-high 15-player draft class. Maybe the Vikings hit on a few of those late-rounders whom they might have been otherwise competing with other teams to sign as undrafted free agents. Or, maybe they will ultimately have paid an unnecessary economic cost (all draft picks get slotted signing bonuses) for players who never land on the roster.
That is another part of the discussion, and a reminder that there is more than one way to build a team.
The Patriots, with their limited draft board, still selected 10 players in each of the past two drafts (and they project to have 13 picks next year). So the volume is there.
Whether the quality is, and if they are hurting themselves with such a restrictive draft board, remains an open-ended question.