In draft, it's back to the future for Patriots
It is the equivalent of NFL alchemy - or maybe just larceny - but the Patriots turned safety Tebucky Jones into running back Corey Dillon simply by being forward thinkers in the NFL draft.
No team would have traded Jones for Dillon straight up, but if you trace the draft-pick trades that put Dillon in a Patriots uniform in 2004 - and ultimately a third Lombardi Trophy in Foxborough - that is the ultimate result.
In April 2003, the Patriots shipped Jones to New Orleans for third-round and seventh-round picks that year, and a fourth-round pick in 2004. The day before the 2003 draft, they sent the third-round pick to the Dolphins for a 2004 second-round pick. That pick was dealt to Cincinnati for the disgruntled Dillon.
When it comes to the draft, coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots have been futures traders. Like Dillon, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, wide receiver Randy Moss, and linebacker Jerod Mayo, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, were acquired from deals in which the Patriots flipped picks forward into future years. With a surplus of picks this season - the Patriots own 11, including three in the second round - it's a safe bet that Belichick, who touted his team's flexibility, could swap a selection or two for future picks in hopes of cashing them in at a later date.
An analysis of information provided by the NFL on draft-day deals since 2000, Belichick's first year with the Patriots, shows that 41 trades have been made in which a team got a future pick in return. During that span, no team has done it more than the Patriots, who made 11. The Eagles were next with eight.
"I've always admired how the Patriots have orchestrated the draft and turned their selections into productive players," said an NFC general manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It says a lot about the system and Coach Belichick and their scouting department. What I like about the way they approach it is they seem to be in a position of always working toward multiple picks. That certainly gives them an opportunity to hit on more players in a game that's risky when it comes to draft choices."
One of the four extra selections the Patriots have this season in the seven-round draft is an example of how Belichick has been able to work the draft board. In 2007, the Patriots, with a roster that authored the NFL's first 16-0 regular season, traded a third-round pick (No. 91 overall) to the Raiders for a 2008 third-rounder and a 2007 seventh-rounder.
Last season, the Patriots traded that third-round pick (No. 69) to the Chargers for a 2009 second-round pick, which is now No. 47 overall.
By waiting two years, New England moved up 44 slots.
"We always believed that a higher pick was better than a lower pick, even if you have to wait a year," said former Texans and Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now an analyst for CBS and the NFL Network. "If you're in a win-now mode or if you're a team that is a good team or you have some patience, that is what is attractive to waiting a year. If you're New England, you can do that."
If the theory is so sound, why don't more teams try to do what the Patriots do? The answer is they simply can't afford to. Most NFL coaches and general managers don't have the type of job security Belichick does, and they don't possess the talent-laden roster he has.
They're focused on the immediate gratification of the draft and keeping their jobs, not long-term gains.
"I think the Patriots have gotten ahead of most teams because they can afford to make moves from a personnel standpoint that many of us can't make," said the NFC GM. "While being able to take less this year to enhance next year sounds good, you have to feel that your roster is strong enough to do that. You have to believe that you can bypass picks this year. For many teams, they're simply not in a position to do that."
Belichick said teams trade up in the early rounds for a specific player. "How much that guy is worth to you is how much you are willing to give up," he said.
The Patriots have capitalized on other teams' lust for a particular prospect.
In 2003, the Ravens fell in love with quarterback Kyle Boller. Desperate to get back into Round 1 for Boller, the Ravens traded a second-round pick and their 2004 first-round pick to the Patriots for the 19th overall selection, which was the second of two first-round picks the Patriots had that season. The first, used to select Ty Warren, was acquired by trading Drew Bledsoe to Buffalo in 2002.
The Patriots selected Wilfork, the anchor of their defense, the next year with the pick they got from Baltimore.
In 2007, the Patriots had two first-round picks again. The 49ers wanted back into the first round to take offensive tackle Joe Staley. New England traded the 28th overall selection to San Francisco for a 2008 first-round pick and a fourth-round pick.
The fourth-round pick went to Oakland for Moss and the 2008 first-rounder became Mayo, but not before the Patriots traded back three spots to No. 10, picking up a third-round pick they used to select outside linebacker Shawn Crable.
"I think you're feeding on the what have you done for me lately mentality," said ESPN draft analyst and Scouts Inc. director of college scouting Todd McShay.
Ultimately, the picks are only as good as whom you obtain. Part of the bait to move up 16 spots in the second round in 2006 for wide receiver Chad Jackson was to ship a third-round pick the Patriots had picked up from Baltimore in 2005 to the Packers.
Jackson was a bust and Green Bay drafted starting wide receiver Greg Jennings at No. 52 and used No. 75 to select center Jason Spitz, who has started 41 of 44 games.
Still, any NFL decision-maker eager to move up for a player who receives a call from Belichick offering to trade out of his spot for a future pick should probably think about his own future before doing the deal.
"The thing is that they certainly are opportunists," said the NFC GM. "The wisdom in that [approach] is you put yourself in a position where you can take advantage of opportunities. That is the genius behind Coach Belichick and that system. They have always managed to put themselves in a position to receive more. He is wise enough to know that those opportunities are going to present themselves if he is patient. That philosophy has paid off for them."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.