The draft has become not just make-or-break for the success of this Patriots' off-season but for the extension of a run of excellence that is now entering its 10th season. That's an eternity in the ephemeral world of professional football. Time is not on the Patriots side, but is it on their roster.
Bill Belichick and Co., have become overly reliant on aging players like wide receiver Torry Holt (33), cornerback Shawn Springs (35) and running back Fred Taylor (34) at a time when their franchise quarterback is becoming one of those players. Hard to believe but Tom Brady, the real miracle quarterback, (Sorry, Jerry Jones), turns 33 in August.
With a NFL-high tying 12 selections and four picks in the top 53 -- No. 22 in the first round and a trio of second rounders (No. 44, No. 47 and No. 53) -- the Patriots have an opportunity to infuse their team with needed youth and talent at positions like wide receiver, outside linebacker and defensive line.
They can also validate an off-season plan that has caused even some ardent worshippers of his Hoodieness to question the direction of the team after an unceremonious and ignominious exit in the first round of the playoffs. Smelling blood in the water, the Dolphins and Jets have made flashy free agent additions and pulled off blockbuster trades.
New England stood pat, re-signing their own free agents like nose tackle Vince Wilfork, cornerback Leigh Bodden, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and running back Kevin Faulk.
But Belichick's plan is based on an "if" bigger than Wilfork, if the Patriots can hit on multiple picks in the three-day player procurement party.
Pro Football Weekly recently did a study of NFL's teams drafting from 2004 to 2008. It found that going by opening week rosters for the 2009 season, which would include players like departed tight end Benjamin Watson, the Patriots had the lowest percentage of remaining players on their team from those drafts of any team in the NFL at 31.7 percent.
The team with the next lowest percentage was the Detroit Lions (33.3 percent). The league average was 46.6 percent. The Indianapolis Colts had 50 percent of their players left from those five drafts. The New York Jets had 44.7 percent. The Baltimore Ravens had 57.1 percent.
As always, strictly numbers-based analysis like this can't be viewed solely in black and white. There is a shade of gray.
A player like quarterback Matt Cassel, a seventh-round pick in 2005, is no longer on the roster. That is a negative in the study, but no one would say that Cassel wasn't a shrewd and successful draft pick. He filled in admirably for Brady during the 2008 season, leading the team to an 11-5 record. The Patriots shipped him, along with Mike Vrabel, to Kansas City for a second-round pick in last year's draft, which they used on safety Patrick Chung.
On the other hand, a player like perpetual redshirt outside linebacker Shawn Crable, a third-round pick in 2008 who hasn't played a down yet in the NFL, is viewed as positive because he is still on the roster. So, is cornerback Terrence Wheatley, who was inactive for 11 of 16 games. That's a tough sell.
During this time period, the Patriots have done a good job with first-round picks.
In 2004, they had Wilfork and Watson. In 2005, they drafted Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. In 2006, they took running back Laurence Maroney. In 2007, they drafted Brandon Meriweather, who went to the Pro Bowl last season as an injury replacement. In 2008, they drafted linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Last year, they traded out of the first-round and ended up with four second round picks -- Chung, defensive lineman Ron Brace, cornerback Darius Butler and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
But in 2006 and 2007, the Patriots drafted a total 19 players. Only three remain with the team and only one who wasn't a first-rounder, placekicker Stephen Gostkowski.
The 2007 draft is a hot-button issue for debating the merits of the Patriots' drafting of late. Proponents point out that the team came out of the '07 annual selection meeting with two record-setting wide receivers by the names of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Moss was acquired for a fourth-round pick, and Welker, courted as a restricted free agent, was obtained for second- and seventh-round picks after Patriots owner Robert Kraft and then-Miami owner Wayne Huizenga agreed to avoid an acrimonious offer sheet process.
What about 2004, when the Patriots swapped a second-round pick for running back Corey Dillon?
Well, if that's the standard then the Dolphins and Jets have already had great drafts without sending a single card to the table at Radio City Music Hall, trading for wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes, respectively. New Redskins coach Mike Shanahan gets an A in his first draft without making a pick because he got a Pro Bowl quarterback in Donovan McNabb.
There is a difference between using draft picks as currency to better your team and what a team does with its actual player selections. The two avenues have to be separated to some degree.
The Patriots are masters of using the currency of draft picks to move up and down -- mostly down -- the board to get "value." Last year, they made seven trades, including the ones that gave them the additional second-round picks this year. However, of late they've done a lot more accumulating of picks than of talent.
That has to change, or the Patriots' place in the NFL's hierarchy will.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.