- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The theory is that the Patriots' drafting in recent years has contributed to their fall from elite NFL status. Let's take a closer look at the validity of that while also factoring in the context of all 32 teams.
This is the time when teams who drafted strongly from 2005 to 2008 would be most rewarded. The idea is that players selected in those years are now hitting their prime or at least have made the all-important jump from rookie to second-year player.
So what do the Patriots have to show for themselves over that period?
The answer has an element of subjectivity to it, but most would agree that the Patriots hit big with guard Logan Mankins (2005 first round). He's been their biggest impact player, about as consistent and productive as one could hope, with two Pro Bowls already on his résumé.
Meanwhile, safety Brandon Meriweather (2007 first round) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (2008 first round) have shown top-level playmaking skills but also have been up-and-down at times. Still, they are pieces most teams would be interested in building around.
When boiling it down to high-end impact -- which is the desired result of most teams in the draft -- this seems like a fair place to start.
One also must consider the Patriots' moves from 2007: trading second-, fourth- and seventh-round draft choices for receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Technically, Welker and Moss aren't draft picks, but their acquisition should be factored into the mix in some form.
The Patriots also replaced legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri with Stephen Gostkowski (2006 fourth round) and turned a 2005 seventh-round pick (quarterback Matt Cassel) into a 2009 second-round draft choice (safety Pat Chung), a move that more time will be needed to accurately assess.
So depending on one's viewpoint, the high-end impact that the Patriots received in drafts from 2005 to 2008 is anywhere from the 3-6 player range. The 2006 draft stands out as particularly weak, highlighted by the bad miss of receiver Chad Jackson in the second round.
How does this compare to other clubs?
The Indianapolis Colts, who like the Patriots have traditionally selected in the bottom third of each round, are a good comparison point. Colts president Bill Polian is widely respected for his evaluation skills.
In that same time period, the Colts hit big with cornerbacks Marlin Jackson (2005 first round) and Kelvin Hayden (2005 second round), running back Joseph Addai (2006 first round), safety Antoine Bethea (2006 sixth round) and linebacker Clint Session (2007 fourth round). Receiver Pierre Garcon (2008 sixth round) and safety Melvin Bullitt (2007 free agent) might also warrant high-end impact consideration in some circles, although it seems like a stretch to put them in the high-impact category at this point.
From 2005 to 2008, that's not a major difference from the Patriots.
And like the Patriots, the Colts had a Chad Jackson-like misstep when in 2007 they traded a future first-round draft choice to select offensive lineman Tony Ugoh in the second round. Ugoh, the hopeful left tackle of the future, was benched this year.
All of this is not to defend the Patriots' decision-making -- clearly the 2006 draft (Laurence Maroney in the first round and Jackson in the second) was a bomb -- but rather to point out how difficult it is to correctly evaluate personnel and then cultivate that talent with strong coaching in a system. Because of this, the percentage of high-impact players drafted is low across the board, including for teams like the Colts. Every franchise has dipped at certain points.
As for the Patriots, even when they were winning Super Bowls in 2001, 2003 and 2004, it wasn't like they were nailing every draft choice. What seems to be the main difference is that they had a few more high-impact hits in the post-first-round range -- Deion Branch, David Givens and Asante Samuel come to mind -- than they had from 2005 to 2008.
So it seems like context is an important thing to consider when making the claim that the Patriots' fall from elite status is a result of poor drafting.
Could it have been better in terms of landing high-end impact players from 2005 to 2008? No doubt about it.
But if acquiring high-end impact in the draft was viewed through a golf-like lens, the Patriots would still be shooting closer to par when comparing their work to other clubs. They wouldn't be the leader in the clubhouse, but at the same time, they aren't that far down the leaderboard.
More than anything, it seems they just aren't playing to the handicap they had previously established.
5dEric D. Williams
5dMel Kiper Jr.