4 takeaways from a new study on the Patriots’ draft strategy

The Patriots have had some success building their offensive lines and defensive front seven, but their track record with outside skill positions stands out in a bad way.

N'Keal Harry Patriots
New England Patriots wide receiver N'Keal Harry catches a deep pass against Indianapolis Colts cornerback Isaiah Rodgers (34). AP Photo/Zach Bolinger
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With the biggest free agency and trade moves (likely) in the books, it’s time to shift focus more fully toward what the Patriots will do in the first round of the NFL Draft at the end of the month.

Naturally, speculation abounds about what the Patriots could do, from taking a star wide receiver like Jameson Williams with the No. 21 overall pick to drafting Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean or searching out the team’s next shutdown corner.

In the end, there’s no concrete notion of what New England will do with their first-round pick as well as how that could inform the rest of their draft. But a recent Pro Football Focus study looked at what the Patriots have done in the past and how it could impact their future decisions.


The new PFF data analysis breaks down how the Patriots and other NFL teams have spent their draft capital over the last five seasons and charted how well those picks have performed going back to 2014. Though it doesn’t necessarily make clear what Bill Belichick will have up his sleeve at the end of April, it does provide a glimpse into how the Patriots typically like to build their teams — and how successful they’ve been at it.

Here are a few big takeaways from the data.

The Patriots have favored offense recently.


Despite the Patriots’ reputation for loving defensive players, they actually try to stock up on offense in the draft more than you’d expect.

According to the study, about 54 percent of New England’s draft picks since 2016 have come on the offensive side of the ball. The majority of those selections, by percentage of draft capital, have been at offensive tackle (13 percent), quarterback (13 percent!) and running back (10 percent).

(Note: the selection of Mac Jones skews the draft capital numbers in the quarterbacks case because 1. he was a first-round pick, and 2. quarterbacks are more value in terms of PFF WAR than other positions).

Jones obviously represents the most significant offensive pick in the last five years, but others, like Joe Thuney, Isaiah Wynn and N’Keal Harry, also stand out.

They don’t typically like drafting receivers.

Some potentially bad news for Patriots fans who want a first-round receiver in the draft: New England historically doesn’t value receivers that way. Over the past five years, the Patriots have drafted just five receivers, accounting for just 9 percent of their draft capital.


Aside from using a first-round pick on Harry in 2019, though, Belichick has only taken one other receiver (Malcolm Mitchell) in the fourth round or higher. The three other receivers he’s taken — Tre Nixon (2021), Braxton Berrios (2018), and Devin Lucien (2016) have all come in the sixth round or later.

Looking back even further than that, the Patriots have only selected 12 receivers in total since Belichick assumed personnel control in 2009.

With the wide receiver depth in this class and the coming drafts, it’s hard to believe New England won’t invest in the position a bit more in the immediate future. Next year, in particular, could see significant turnover at the position with DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor and Jakobi Meyers all set either to become free agents or have outs in their contracts.

Also, there’s always the chance New England bucks trends and goes with a dynamic pass-catcher at No. 21 overall.

But the smart money says you shouldn’t bet on that.

They draft very well up front…

Few teams draft offensive linemen as well as the Patriots do, according to the study’s PFF WAR calculations.

Going back to 2014, New England sits fourth in the league behind only the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions, and Dallas Cowboys in the expected percentile outcomes of its offensive linemen (weighted for draft position).


Though there have been a few misses, like Hjalte Froholdt or Connor McDermott, it’s hard to ignore how strong picks like Thuney (second round, 2016), Shaq Mason (fourth round, 2015) and Ted Karras (sixth round, 2016) have been over the years.

Of course, that eye for talent is part of what makes the Patriots confident they can live without the three aforementioned solid players as all have left in free agency in the last two seasons. Why shell out big money to extend draft picks when you can develop and retain undrafted guys like David Andrews at bargain rates, after all?

Interestingly, the Patriots also tend to draft running backs, linebackers and defensive linemen exceptionally well, showing an ability to build up the middle on both sides of the ball.

…but their cornerback picks haven’t worked out.

For whatever reason, the Patriots start running into trouble when they start drafting skill positions away from the ball. No position group highlights that issue more than New England’s issues finding and retaining quality defensive back talent.

Belichick has spent 13 percent of the team’s draft capital at defensive back positions in the past five seasons, with notable recent examples including second-round picks Kyle Dugger (2020) and Joejuan Williams (2019).

The problem is Dugger has so far been the only one that’s been worth a selection as Williams looks like he won’t stick and players like Cyrus Jones and Duke Dawson have long since fallen by the wayside.

The Patriots have gotten the sixth-worst outcomes from their defensive backs of the NFL’s 32 teams — a failure that is becoming even more glaring as the rest of the AFC East and conference at large load up on explosive pass-catchers.


Two of the most notable defensive backs the Patriots have had since 2014 — Malcolm Butler and J.C. Jackson — were undrafted. Stephon Gilmore was a free-agent signing.

Belichick and company will certainly delve into this year’s cornerback class and are almost a lock to select one during the first two days of the draft, seeing how they’re placed. The question remains: will those picks end up being worth it given the team’s history with developing those selections?

All in all, the Patriots’ draft woes can perhaps be summed up this way: they’ve hit on some important picks (Jones, Dugger, Thuney, etc.) and continually develop undrafted talent well, but they miss far too often, especially at the positions you need stars at to win in the NFL.


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