Patriots

The Ultimate Patriots Draft: A Look at Their History of Player Selection by Range, Not Round

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In the buildup to the NFL Draft, that somehow irresistible annual parade of oversized man-children in oversized suits that commenced its three-day reign of hyperbole last night, we’ve looked at the history and the hype seemingly from every conceivable angle:

Biggest draft busts. Best draft steals. Bill Belichick’s 12 best seventh-round picks. The 47 worst first-round picks by the Jets. And so on.

The draft is fun. It’s just that the echoing noise surrounding the annual buildup gets to be a little bit much. The names change, but the routine remains the same.

So consider this an attempt at taking at least a semi-original look at the Patriots’ draft history. It stems from a note in Michael Holley’s excellent book War Room in which he noted that the Patriots don’t label prospects by which round they believe they are likely to be chosen in, but by how they might fit in relation to to the Patriots’ roster structure.

Novel concept? Maybe. But it’s also relentlessly logical. They didn’t see, say, Rob Gronkowski as a second-rounder in 2010. They saw a player who had a damn good chance to start at tight end immediately. (And perhaps become one of our greatest living Americans, which of course is exactly what has happened.)

The Patriots do not think it terms of rounds, which is a pretty decent indication that we shouldn’t either.

There are 32 picks per round nowadays, with seven rounds to the draft. But it hasn’t always been that way. There’s been plenty of change through the seasons.

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For example, the 1961 AFL Draft went 30 rounds, with eight players picked in each. The 1969 AFL/NFL Draft went 17 rounds. The NFL Draft was 12 rounds as recently as 1993.

The changing parameters of what constitutes a round is a reminder, if not outright confirmation, that the round in which a player is chosen is not nearly as relevant as the specific spot where he is selected.

Consider: Jon Morris, the superb Patriots center, was a fourth-round pick in 1964, chosen 29th overall. Twenty-ninth is the same spot the Patriots chose dancing fool/alleged cornerback Chris Canty in 1997. In the first round. How did Bobby Grier get that gig again?

So as we prep for Day 2 of the draft, let’s take a slightly different look at the Patriots’ history of player selection. Rather than looking at their best picks by round through the years, let’s look at the best picks by range.

Based on how the draft is currently structured — 32 picks per round — here are my picks for the best Patriots picks in their history, in 32-pick increments.
Trust me, it’ll make sense, and I promise not to do this again next year …

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 1-32
John Hannah, guard, 4th overall, 1973

It’s hardly surprising that many of the most revered and accomplished players in franchise history were chosen early in the draft, talents such as Drew Bledsoe (No. 1, 1993), Willie McGinest (No. 4, 1994), and Mike Haynes (No. 5, 1976) among many others. There were franchise icons found a little later in the range, too, most notably Ty Law (No. 23, 1995) and Stanley Morgan (No. 25, 1977). But the choice for the best pick was relatively simple. Hannah is the greatest guard in the NFL history, and there is not a close runner-up. When you’re the undisputed best player ever to play a meaningful position, you’re also an easy choice as the best choice.

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BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 33-64
Andre Tippett, OLB, 41st overall, 1982

If we’re going by the letter of our self-made law here and choosing strictly on the basis of who was the best player, a reasonable argument can be made that Tippett, the havoc-wreaking Hall of Fame pass rusher, should not be the choice. After all, the Patriots used the 34th overall choice in the 1961 AFL draft to select a quarterback who would retire 17 seasons later as pro football’s all-time leader in passing yards. Of course, not a single one of Fran Tarkenton’s 47,003 passing yards came with the Patriots — he instead signed with the Vikings, who chose him in the third round of the NFL Draft. So we’re going with Tippett, who played his entire stellar career in New England. But keep an eye on a certain tight end chosen 42nd in 2010. Provided he avoids any more significant scars, Rob Gronkowski is on track to be the finest tight end ever to play.

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BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 65-96
Curtis Martin, RB, 74th overall, 1995

Stealing him from the Patriots is the smartest thing the Jets have ever done. Despite all of the amazing things to happen to the Patriots since he left, I’m still mad about this and don’t want to talk about it anymore. Honorable mention: Tedy Bruschi, pass-rushing maniac Arizona who became a relentless linebacker and one of the most popular Patriots of all-time.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 97-128
Nick Buoniconti, LB 102nd, 1962

Man, they’ve found some players here. Buoniconti, a five-time All-AFL linebacker who spent seven superb seasons (1962-68) with the Patriots before he was for some inexplicable reason traded to the Dolphins, is indisputably the best. He’s a Hall of Famer, which almost makes up for his status as one of the chief here’s-a-toast-to-us blowhards on the unbeaten ’72 Dolphins. But there are other gems: Steve Grogan (116th, 1975), the third-best quarterback in franchise history; Ben Coates, who is either the second- or third-best tight end in franchise history, depending upon how you feel about Russ Francis; Rich Gannon, who never played for the Patriots after they told him they were converting him to defensive back; Fred Marion (112th, 1982), who is tied for third in team history with 29 interceptions; and even Asante Samuel (120th, 2003); who came up an interception short of history.

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BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 129-160
Jim Nance, RB, 151st overall, 1965

I’ve had little luck finding out why Nance, a superstar running back at Syracuse when Syracuse was renowned for producing superstar running backs, lasted until the 19th round in the ’65 AFL Draft. But this much is certain: it worked out to enormous benefit for the Patriots. Nance put together monster 1966 and ’67 seasons, totaling 2,674 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in those two years, and he remains the No. 2 rusher in franchise history, trailing only Sam Cunningham.As far as inspired choices go, UCLA jack-of-all-trades Matthew Slater (153rd, 2008) rates fairly high in Patriots lore.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 161-192
Don Webb, DB, 186th, 1961

Going with the deserving old-timer here. Webb, nicknamed “Spider,” played 11 seasons (1961-71) for the Patriots, first as a cornerback before converting to safety, where he was regarded as a hard-hitter. The 24th-round pick was third on the franchise’s all-time interceptions list (21) upon retirement, and is now 11th, ahead of the likes of Tim Fox, Lawyer Milloy, and Devin McCourty. Also receiving votes: two-time Super Bowl champion center Dan Koppen (164th, 2003), USFL expatriate running back Craig James (187th, 1983), steady defensive end Brent Williams (192nd, 1986), and tight end Clark Hoss (165, 1972), who played just four games for the Patriots but has a Hall of Fame football name. Dan Jenkins couldn’t come up with a better name for a fictional player than Clark Hoss. And he was real.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 193-224
Tom Brady, QB, 199th, 2000

I mean, seriously. You thought it would be someone else? Kliff Kingsbury, perhaps? Brady isn’t just the greatest sixth-round pick in NFL history, or the greatest pick after the first-round, or any of those other qualified accolades. He’s the greatest pick, period, under any qualifications and context. It should be noted, however, that he’s not the Patriots’ only shrewd pick in this range. For most franchises, receiver Troy Brown (198th, 1993), cornerback Ronnie Lippett (214th, ’83), fullback Sam Gash (205th, ’92), running back Mosi Tatupu (215th, ’78) and tackle Brad Benson (219th, ’77) might rate as the best late-round pick. Here, they’re vying for spots well below Brady on the podium. Did I mention he’s the greatest pick in sports history? Well, he is.

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BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 225-256
Julian Edelman, WR/PR, 232nd, 2009

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Such as in Tarkenton’s case, the best player chosen by the Patriots in this 32-pick range never played down for the franchise. Ernie McMillan (226th pick, 1961) had a hell of a career, especially for a 29th-round pick. But that career was spent with the Cardinals (1961-74, after choosing him 176th in the ’61 NFL Draft) and Packers (’75). Guard David Dixon (232, ’92) and tight end John Spagnola (245th, ’79) also had significant NFL success elsewhere. So the pick is a Patriot whose career here is still peaking. Edelman, a college quarterback who wasn’t even invited to the combine, has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Patriots, and he’s long been established as one of the top punt returners in the league’s history. What a find. And don’t forget David Givens (253rd, ’02) either.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 257-288
Toby Williams, DT/DE, 265th, 1983

Williams, who played 80 games for the Patriots and collected 15 sacks in six seasons, is the best of a marginal bunch. Receiver Ricky Feacher (270th, ’76) had a decade-long run as a kick returner for the Browns.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 289-320
Jim Cheyunski, LB, 305th, 1968

The Bridgewater native played 66 games over five seasons (1968-72) with the Patriots, then spent two season each with the Bills and Colts. Also of note: punter Bruce Barnes (290th, 1973) is the father of golfer Ricky Barnes.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 321-352
Ray Hamilton, NT/DT, 342nd, 1973

Now there’s a late-round find. Sugar Bear started every game for the Patriots from 1973 through ’79. Too bad Ben Dreith used him to get famous.

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BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 353-380
Sam Hunt, LB, 374th, 1974

And here’s another dependable member of the talented ’70s Patriots defenses found in the afterthought rounds. The massive Hunt — he was listed at 270 pounds — was a brick wall of a run-stuffer for six seasons alongside Steve Nelson.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 381-412
Art McMahon, DB, 385th, 196

It’s McMahon by default. Of the 11 players the Patriots have drafted in this range, he’s the only one to play in the NFL, having started seven games in four seasons.

BEST PLAYER CHOSEN FROM 413-444
Bobby Nichols, TE, 440th, 1967

And here’s our Mr. Irrelevant: a Boston University product who played nine games in the NFL, starting one, while making one catch for nine yards. Not bad at all for the 440th selection.

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