Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, the Patriots were a team at a crossroads.
They were clearly trending in the right direction – after going 10-6 and securing a playoff berth in 1994, New England was considered one of the better young teams in the NFL. At the same time, the Patriots had deficiencies on both sides of the ball that needed to be addressed heading into the 1995 season if they wanted to take that next step.
The 1994 offense was woefully unbalanced: New England averaged a positively anemic 2.8 yards per carry, while Drew Bledsoe attempted 691 passes that season, a franchise record.
On the other side of the ball, New England was pretty much middle of the pack by a variety of metrics, including average passing yards allowed per game (16th, 215.4 average). Cornerback Maurice Hurst was coming off the finest season of his career (a team-high seven interceptions), but it was evident the Patriots secondary needed some support.
“The days of sequentially building depth through the draft and having a five-year plan are pretty much over,” Patriots coach Bill Parcells told reporters in the days leading up to the draft.
“You can’t afford the long-term luxury of trying to develop (players) over a three- or four-year period. By the time you do that, they’re ready for free agency and they’re gone.”
So what to do? New England had the 23rd overall pick, and several pre-draft mocks had them taking a running back, with Mel Kiper saying Ray Zellars of Notre Dame would be the guy. In that same mock, the consensus seemed that Michigan cornerback Ty Law would be headed to Detroit at No. 20, while Pitt running back Curtis Martin was ticketed for the Niners at No. 30 overall.
The Patriots were one of several teams that had Law in for a visit.
“When I was coming out, I was just excited to get going,” Law recalled. “A lot of talk had me going somewhere between the fourth and the seventh round, but I just decided to take a chance on myself. I was just taking everything in, and absorbing everything as it came. I went to Detroit, and flew up to New England prior to the draft. I went a few other places after I started moving up the draft boards a bit.”
While there were some in NFL circles who were lukewarm on Law, NFL draft guru Gil Brandt had him pegged as a fit. The former Cowboys executive had no such qualms about the talented corner.
“With Ty, any time you’re a starter at a major college like Michigan like he was for four years, you know there’s something there as a player and a prospect,” Brandt said. “He had excellent athletic ability; he ran fast and was physical. He was also another high-quality, high-character individual who was smart. He made some big plays for Michigan, and was a big part of their success, especially in the Rose Bowl that year against Washington.”
Parcells went after Law at No. 23. He was the second cornerback taken that year, behind future teammate Tyrone Poole.
“We feel he’ll be able to come in here and contribute in his first season,” Parcells said shortly after the pick was made. “He’s got decent speed, he’s got good size, he can tackle and he’s a good, solid young man.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” said Law, who was watching the draft back home in Aliquippa, Penn., with his family. “I wanted to make the best of the situation. And once I got the call and got to New England, there was a big weight lifted off my shoulders. I was able to put my family in a better position. And my lifelong dream had come true. For someone to take me in the first round when I was talked about, projected to go somewhere between the fourth and eighth round, it was amazing.”
The Michigan pedigree clearly resonated with Parcells. The Patriots were in need of a running back, and Parcells hinted he would have thought about trading up a few spots to take former Wolverine Tyrone Wheatley if he had started to slide a bit. Wheatley was taken 17th by the Giants.
“If Wheatley had come down a little further, that would have been something I would have considered,” Parcells said.
Wheatley had a perfectly respectable 10-year career – 4,962 rushing yards – but was nowhere near Martin or Law.
“[Michigan is] a school that over history has a good football tradition and they win all the time,” Parcells told reporters. “You have to be able to survive the process. The program is not one that tolerates complacency. The competition weeds out the ones that can’t play.”
But by passing on Wheatley and going with Law – and going with heralded Colorado linebacker Ted Johnson in the second round – he still needed his running back. In his favor? While there were some talented backs who went early, in hindsight, the 1995 draft was relatively deep at running back – six backs taken in the third round or later would end up with 1,000 or more rushing yards for their career.
That included Martin, who was taken 74th overall, midway through the third round.
“I was wondering who Ted was,” Martin would say later with a laugh. “I thought they were going to draft me in the second round, but they drafted Ted instead. I was wondering who he was. I wasn’t a big college sports fan.”
In all, three running backs were taken between Law and Martin (Zellars, Sherman Williams, and Terrell Fletcher), and while all three had serviceable NFL careers, their combined rushing totals (4.384 yards) represented less than 1/3 of Martin’s career rushing yardage (14,101).
While Martin’s senior season was hampered because of an ankle issue, his slippage still confounds Brandt, especially when you consider the fact Martin ran for 251 yards in an early season win for Pittsburgh over Texas.
“All you had to do was see [him] play against Texas against a very good Longhorns defense to see that he could play,” Brandt recalled. “I don’t know why he lasted until the third round – I guess not enough people were at that game.
“I don’t know if people really appreciated his pass-catching skills at the time, as well as his overall character. He grew up in a terrible environment, and walked away as one of the finest young men you will ever meet.”
Over the next three years, Law and Martin formed a sizable portion of New England’s foundation, and the Patriots played in Super Bowl XXXI after the 1996 season. The two shared Pennsylvania roots – Law grew up in Aliquippa, and Martin went to Pitt – and would end up as roommates.
“He was a baaaad boy in high school, man. I was sizing [him] up – I couldn’t wait to hit Curtis in high school,” Law said.
“I had to pick him up and drive him to practice because he was so holy and such a good guy,” Law added with a chuckle. “He would not break the law, and he had some problem with his license, and I had to drive him until he had that taken care of. I’d say, ‘You’re Curtis Martin. If they stop you, they will let you go.’ But no. He was a Pro Bowl rookie coming in, and I had to be his chauffeur.
“But we had a lot of the same characteristics – similar backgrounds. We’d support each other on and off the field in our endeavors, and remain close to this day.”
Law played 10 seasons with the Patriots and had stints with the Jets, Chiefs, and Broncos. Martin played in New England for three seasons before joining Parcells in New York. Regardless of service time, ultimately, it could be argued that the 1995 draft was the most impactful in franchise history. In addition to Law and Martin, the Patriots found multiple starters: Johnson went on to become a key piece of the New England defense for 10 years. Defensive back Jimmy Hitchcock, taken 88th overall, played eight seasons, while offensive lineman Dave Wohlabaugh, chosen in the fourth round (112th overall) would play nine seasons as center for the Patriots, Browns, and Rams.
In addition, the 1995 draft was the only time in franchise history the Patriots came away with a pair of Hall of Famers – Martin went in in 2012, while Law was inducted last summer. New England nabbed two of the five Hall of Famers who were part of that draft.
Twenty-five years later, Law marvels at the group the Patriots were able to land that weekend.
“That was a special draft,” Law said. “A special group of guys.”