Early Misses, Mid-round Finds
By Kevin Duffy
FOXBORO -- As Isaiah Wynn hobbled off the field on the ninth snap of his Patriots career, it became clear that he, like so many other of top draft picks of the Patriots, would not be making an immediate impact.
The Patriots selected 11 players in the top three rounds from 2014-17. Two of those players, Joe Thuney and Malcom Brown, developed into starters. The other nine combined to start 15 games.
The defensive players in particular -- Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Cyrus Jones, and Vincent Valentine -- have contributed little. Injuries, of course, are a factor. Cyrus Jones, Valentine and Derek Rivers have spent more Sundays on injured reserve than on the 46-man gameday roster.
Wynn, who reportedly suffered a torn Achilles this past Thursday, is about to join that list.
Offensive tackle Antonio Garcia, selected in the third round in 2017, was released in the spring after missing his rookie season with a medical condition.
The top of the draft has been borderline disastrous, partially due to factors out of the Patriots’ control.
But it prompts the question: How long can this keep up without it affecting the Pats?
“Who is their core?” asked NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who specializes in draft coverage. “Who is their young core that you’re going to build around going into the future? The crazy thing is, you look at (Jacoby) Brissett and (Jimmy) Garoppolo, obviously could have been the captain of that ship in terms of core. ... But they don’t have that.”
As the Pats perennially steamroll to 12-4, they continue to cover up for misses at the top of the draft.
A few reasons: They’ve been incredibly savvy in the middle rounds, grabbing James White, Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason and Deatrich Wise with fourth-round picks over the past five drafts. Consider the 2015 fourth round that netted Flowers and Mason: More than half the players selected in that round -- 21-of-37 -- were released before the end of their rookie contracts. About one-quarter of the players carved out roles as spot starters/backups. Only a handful are high-level contributors, a group that includes Tampa Bay linebacker Kwon Alexander, Carolina offensive tackle Daryl Williams, Mason and Flowers.
From the 2014 fourth round, White is one of nine players who remains with the team that selected him.
“Honestly, it’s a good exercise when you’re grading teams and how they drafted, sometimes it’s good to just take the rounds off and just put the players alphabetically,” Jeremiah said. “If you put the players with no rounds, it might make (the Patriots) feel a little bit better about themselves.”
Because they’re not consistently landing starters near the top of the draft, the Pats have turned to free agency to find stopgap options. There’s been an unusual amount of veteran turnover with the Pats, as Jeremiah noted, and that’s due to the nature of the contracts they’re signing.
“I feel as if the Patriots do sign a good deal of veterans, but I think they mitigate any salary-cap issues by going cheap,” said salary-cap expert Jason Fitzgerald, who co-authored the book Crunching Numbers: An Inside Look at the Salary Cap and Negotiating Player Contracts. “Jordan Matthews is a great example of a low-risk/high-reward player. Even though Matthews was cut he wasn’t expensive and had he made the team would have been a cheap option that probably would have produced in the offense. His role is now being filled by (Eric) Decker, another cheap option. So its not as if they are going into free agency and having to fill spots with $4-6 million per year players that have two- and three-year contracts. They fill a receiver void with a $2 million investment for a year, maybe a defensive end like Chris Long a few years back for $2.5 million.”
Fitzgerald added: “I think this is different than other teams that have to fill out rosters with either the lowest-level veterans on minimum-salary contracts or damage their future cap by looking for longer-term answers that get more expensive. That’s really the way in which they are mitigating the risk of the draft.”
But that game can only last so long. Those signings are cheap for a reason. The players are complementary pieces, not cornerstones.
“That Super Bowl, as good as Brady is to almost pull that thing out, when you look at just the number of blue-chip caliber players that could start for any team in the league,” Jeremiah said, “it was severely lopsided in favor of the Eagles.”
The club’s current core was built largely through the top of the draft, as a successful run from 2008-13 replenished young talent across the board. Even though the Pats missed on high picks Ras-I Dowling, Taylor Price, Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley and Kevin O’Connell in that span, the top three rounds netted the following: Jerod Mayo, Patrick Chung, Sebastian Vollmer, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon.
Perhaps it’s too early to completely dismiss the draft classes from 2014-17. Rivers has undeniable upside. White, Thuney, Flowers, Mason and Brown are key contributors (although the latter three are entering the final season of their contracts).
“And I think they’ve got a pretty good group this year, so maybe this is the group that kind of changes it,” Jeremiah said in an interview prior to Wynn’s injury.
The goal for every personnel department, Jeremiah said, is to find three starters in each draft. Teams that have failed to do so inevitably regress. Look at the Seahawks, who drafted miserably from 2013-17. Once Seattle’s established players started to decline, the team had no one to replace them.
The Patriots, ultimately, hit the goal in 2015 with Brown, Flowers, Mason and David Andrews (undrafted). They were close in 2014 with White, Malcolm Butler and Garoppolo. The jury’s out on 2016 (Thuney, Elandon Roberts, and Jonathan Jones) and 2017.
Eventually, they’ll need a slam-dunk draft class or they’ll need a few unknowns to pan out. That’s where players like Sony Michel and Derek Rivers come in.
Chung and McCourty are 31 years old. Who knows how much longer Gronkowski and Hightower will play? Solder, Jones, Collins and Ryan have moved on, either via trade or free agency. A new wave of talent is needed.
“The coach that they have, the quarterback that they have, the system that they have is able to cover up some of those misses,” Jeremiah said. “Eventually you’re not going to have all those things in place, at least the quarterback.”