OK, it’s probably disputable. Man, this was tough. Fun. But tough.
We’re going to have some arguments, which seems like a fine way to get a Patriots fix during the bye week.
Before we bicker about Daniel Graham versus Ben Watson versus Christian Fauria, a quick explanation of the intent:
While the countdown features the number of players on a roster, it is not structured like a roster — it’s not the best running back, or the best special teams gunner, or the best backup inside linebacker. There is no long-snapper in this countdown. Sorry, Lonie Paxton. It is also a punter-free zone. But you were damned good, Josh Miller.
It’s the 53 best players — position be damned — based on how much they contributed to the team’s success during the 15 seasons Bill Belichick has been the franchise’s coach.
What these players accomplished before Belichick coached them matters not at all. That eliminates Chris Slade and Bruce Armstrong. It definitely eliminates Terry Glenn.
It also left Damien Woody — a two-time champion — as the most difficult exclusion.
Yet it does not discard or diminish a couple of other Patriots legends whose best feats came before this era of unprecedented championship-level prolonged accomplishment began.
In fact, we’re kicking off with one …
THE 53 BEST PATRIOTS OF THE BILL BELICHICK ERA
53. Drew Bledsoe. He earned that ring even before the redemptive relief effort in the 2001 AFC Championship Game.
52. Christian Fauria. Caught 13 touchdown passes in four seasons, including seven in 2002.
51. Ellis Hobbs. Capable if undersized corner for four seasons (2005-08). Don’t pin Plaxico on him.
50. Larry Izzo. Two of his three career Pro Bowl appearances came as a Patriot.
49. Matthew Slater. Special-teams ace was a fifth-round find in 2005 NFL Draft.
48. Ben Watson. Caught Champ Bailey this one time, not that it mattered. Can you believe he’s in his 11th season?
47. BenJarvus Green-Ellis. No-nonsense runner scored 13 rushing TDs in 2010.
46. Daniel Graham. A bruising blocker at tight end, he caught 11 TD passes in 2003-04.
45. Eugene Wilson. Looked like a future star at safety taking over for surprise cut Lawyer Milloy in 2003, but injuries in part led to a premature decline in performance.
44. Sebastian Vollmer. Injuries have been an issue in his six seasons, but he was named AP second-team All-Pro in 2010 and Pro Football Focus second-team All-Pro in ’12. Mel Kiper Jr. knows his name now.
43. Junior Seau. Played all 16 games in 2007, was most accomplished and beloved member of Bill Belichick’s shadow roster in ’08 and ’09
42. Stephen Neal. Converted wrestler started 81 games in eight seasons. Played entire career without a neck.
41. Bobby Hamilton. Steady defensive end was an important role player on 2001 and ’03 champs.
40. Joe Andruzzi. Workmanlike, respected guard started every game in each of the three Super Bowl-winning seasons.
39. Jarvis Green. Accumulated 28 sacks in eight seasons (2002-09), and got Peyton Manning 2.5 times in the 2003 AFC Championship Game.
38. Stevan Ridley. Ran for 1,263 yards in 2012, third-most in a single season in franchise history.
37. Julian Edelman. One of the most accomplished punt returners in league history, and an ascending pass receiver. How was this guy not invited to the combine again?
36. Chandler Jones. Has 22 sacks in just 34 career games.
35. Rob Ninkovich. One of Belichick’s best bargain-basement finds … presuming he wasn’t built sturdily and covertly by Ernie Adams with spare Mike Vrabel parts.
34. Aaron Hernandez. As sinister off the field as he was versatile on it.
33. Lawyer Milloy. Because In the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl XXXVI victory, Bill Belichick didn’t just hug him like he’s family, he hugged him with his family. The magic of 2001 doesn’t happen without him.
32. Darrelle Revis. Because it’s been only nine games so far. But if he can do in XLIX what Ty Law did in XXXVI, he zips to the top 20. Maybe higher.
31. Aqib Talib. Damn, he was fun for year and a half, man. Good, too, at least when he could stay on the field.
30. Stephen Gostkowski. Who knew that taking a kicker in the fourth round would be Belichick’s best move by far in the Laurence Maroney/Chad Jackson draft of 2006?
29. Ty Warren. Run-stuffing defensive lineman drew frequent praise from Belichick for his tireless work ethic.
28. David Patten. Caught a touchdown pass, ran for another, and threw for a third in a memorable 2001 rout of the Colts at the ascent of the Brady era.
27. Rosevelt Colvin. Had 26.5 sacks in 65 games with the Patriots. Not bad for a player whose career was altered by a hip injury during his second game with the franchise.
26. Dan Koppen. Stolen in the fifth round in 2003, he took over for Damien Woody (moved to guard) at center as a rookie and held the vital role through the ’11 season.
25. Jerod Mayo. Relentless in pursuit of knowledge and ball carriers.
24. Devin McCourty. Has made second-team All-NFL at cornerback (2010) and safety (2012).
23. Asante Samuel. Confident, risk-taking cover corner whose gambling style delivered many big plays — and cost the Patriots a chance at history.
22. David Givens. Fierce, physical receiver caught a touchdown in seven straight postseason games. Seven.
21. Antowain Smith. Ran for 1,157 yards and 12 TDs in ’01, and was the main back on the ’03 champs as well. On third-and-2, you could count on him for 3 yards.
20. Ted Johnson. As a run-stuffing linebacker, he was the Incredible Hulk, minus the chlorophyll.
19. Roman Phifer. Smart, unassuming linebacker who was superb in pass coverage. He may be the most underrated contributor of the Patriots’ Three-Ring Club.
18. Corey Dillon. I’ll always lament the day Curtis Martin got away. But Dillon’s ’04 season (franchise-record 1,635 rushing yards, 12 TDs) is the best a Patriots back has ever had.
17. Deion Branch. Played in three Super Bowls (2003, ’04, ’11) with the Patriots. In the first two, he totaled a Jerry Rice-like 21 catches for 277 yards. If he had been here in ’06, there’s probably a fourth silver Lombardi in the trophy case.
16. Kevin Faulk. The beloved running back version of Troy Brown, he became what I thought 2001 playoff standout J.R. Redmond would be.
15. Wes Welker. The Patriots’ all-time leader in receptions — with 672, or 115 more than No. 2 receiver Troy Brown — receives demerits for certain devastating drops.
14. Logan Mankins. The second-best guard in franchise history. No shame in that since the best guard in franchise history is the best in NFL history.
13. Matt Light. Had Tom Brady’s back for 11 years. Sometimes you wish he still did.
12. Rodney Harrison. A smart, ferocious, and yes, damn dirty safety, the classic love-him-on-your-side, loathe-him-as-an-opponent player. New England loved him. Still does.
11. Vince Wilfork. The fulcrum of the defense and the only remaining Patriot other than the quarterback to have hoisted a Lombardi Trophy on a duck boat.
10. Mike Vrabel. In 133 games over eight seasons (playoffs included), he accumulated 56 sacks, 11 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles … and 10 receiving touchdowns.
9. Troy Brown. For the 2001 AFC Championship Game alone. And yet there was so much more than that.
8. Randy Moss. The ultimate diva receiver? Maybe. The ultimate receiver, period? In 2007, absolutely.
7. Tedy Bruschi. If this were a ranking of the most popular Patriots of the Belichick era, he’d be fighting for the No. 1 spot. Played the game the way fans believe they would had they had the talent.
6. Richard Seymour. Three All-Pro selections and three Super Bowl victories later, it turned out that he was neither too tall to play defensive tackler nor too slow to play defensive end.
5. Willie McGinest. Supremely versatile end/linebacker had 16 sacks in 18 postseason games — 11.5 in 11 games in the Belichick era. Their best bet to replace him would have been to clone him.
4. Adam Vinatieri. Patriots history is viewed differently if he misses just one of the many clutch kicks he hit along the way. The man was never nervous. Can you imagine how terrified you would have been?
3. Rob Gronkowski. There has never been a more devastating weapon at tight end in the history of football.
2. Ty Law. The epitome of a big-game cornerback, he was Darrelle Revis with Brandon Browner’s edge.
1. Tom Brady. You expected someone else? You did not.