The New England Patriots are on top of the football mountain, just a few months removed from winning the fifth Super Bowl ring of the Bill Belichick era. But when the 2017 NFL Draft kicks off in Philadelphia on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET on NFL Network), they'll be out of the spotlight, as, thanks to trades for Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy, they don't currently have a first- or second-round pick. What can the reigning NFL champions do to maintain their place atop the AFC without the benefit of a premium draft slot?
Well ... Fear not, Patriots fans. Since Belichick took over as head coach in 2000, the team has regularly found gold in the latter rounds of the draft, including a player labeled by some as the greatest in NFL history, former sixth-rounder Tom Brady. Belichick and the scouting department -- now led by director of player personnel Nick Caserio -- have brought in some great late-round players who wound up fitting perfectly into New England's system, including many crucial members of last year's Super Bowl-winning team, such as Julian Edelman (a former seventh-round pick), Shaq Mason (fourth) and Trey Flowers (fourth). And let's not forget undrafted free-agent cornerback Malcolm Butler, who made perhaps one of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history two years ago. In fact, only five of New England's starters in Super Bowl LI entered the NFL as first-round selections (Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Dont'a Hightower, Malcom Brown and Shea McClellin, who was drafted by the Bears in 2012).
Of course, as a perennial winner, the team has had to get used to picking low -- the Patriots have drafted earlier than 20th overall just three times since 2002. How do they do it? It all starts with the draft process the team has in place. A major reason for the team's constant success is the head coach's direct involvement in the draft process. In many other organizations, the general manager brings in players for the coaches to coach, but in New England, Belichick has a hand in it all. There's a major difference, and I spoke to my former coach this past Saturday to figure out how this tedious process works and helps the team maintain dominance.
It's simple: The Patriots aim to draft as efficiently as possible. Throughout the draft process, they break down players and several scenarios that could play out. There could be a special talent they're willing to trade up for (SEE: Chandler Jones and Hightower in 2012). Or the Pats hold their position if they think the player they like will still be on the board when they're on the clock (SEE: Brown, who went 32nd overall in 2015). Or the Pats consider trading down to get a better value for a player who isn't necessarily high on their board.
The Patriots haven't traded up solely for first-round guys, either. In our conversation over the weekend, Belichick mentioned making a move for Matthew Slater in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. The Patriots weren't sure whether Slater would be a defensive back or wideout, but they did recognize that he was talented and could immediately contribute and improve the team. In this instance, they saw value and risked the trade -- and it has paid off. Slater has been one of the NFL's best special teams players over the last decade, making six Pro Bowls and earning first-team All-Pro honors last season. Slater simply makes plays that positively affect field position. Hidden yardage isn't talked about enough in today's fantasy-crazed football environment, but it's a major factor.
Speaking of special teams, a conscious decision to take kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft has paid off immensely. Sixty-two games in 2016 were decided by three points or fewer, elevating the value of kickers to an all-time high. We all know the Patriots' history with kickers, and Gostkowski has followed suit, completing 87.1 percent of his field goal attempts thus far. Furthermore, New England snatched up a long snapper -- a position others might pass over in the draft for a skill-position player -- in the fifth round two years ago (Joe Cardona). Time and time again, these selections in Rounds 4-7 are very valuable and often referred to as "need" players. These players have important traits and drafting them pays off almost routinely. The Patriots won't waste picks on guys they don't think will see the field on Sunday, and like I said above, this team has a number of mid-round guys who start every year.
More than any other team in the NFL, the Pats constantly change their game plan and system based on their next opponent. To do this successfully, Belichick goes after "system flexible" players -- guys who fit into the organization's philosophy and have a high football IQ, among other attributes. Having versatile players at every position keeps New England competitive year to year -- something that has directly influenced the Pats' success in the Belichick era.
Furthermore, grading players doesn't stop when the draft process ends in New England. Belichick told me that they continue to follow players throughout their careers and pounce on the opportunity to sign them when they hit free agency. Look at four notable guys the Patriots brought in from other teams this offseason: Dwayne Allen, Rex Burkhead, Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks have all been on New England's radar since the time they were drafted.
Outside linebacker Ryan Anderson (6-foot-2, 253 pounds): From what I've seen, Anderson played some of his best football in Alabama's biggest games last season. If this draft weren't so deep on defense, he'd probably be a first-round pick. He's a talented player, a leader and a guy who I know can do what's asked of him by Belichick and motivate others to do the same. From experience, I know Belichick asks his linebackers to take on big roles, and it's not easy. But from the looks of it, I think Anderson has the ability to do well here.
Defensive end Demarcus Walker (6-4, 280 pounds): Walker (16 sacks last season) is another player who can pressure the quarterback. The versatile Florida State product is stout enough to play the run, can play inside as a defensive tackle and can put his hand in the dirt on third down.
Offensive guard Dan Feeney (6-4, 305 pounds): Another tough, physical player, Feeney would fit well in the system. Anyone who comes in under O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia is also likely to improve, as Scarnecchia does an amazing job teaching fundamentals and techniques across the board. The Patriots allowed 24 sacks in 2016, a number that was down immensely from the 38 given up in 2015 season (a year when Scarnecchia wasn't on staff). Scarnecchia's presence surely has been felt.