There are teams that do well to find talent in NFL Drafts, and then there are the New England Patriots.
The Patriots were as much of a dynasty as one could have been in the first decade of the 21st century, and how the team handled its business in multiple drafts played a significant role in that occurring. New England hitting on picks on the second and third rounds of drafts is now so commonplace that it is actually surprising when it doesn’t happen. No pressure on you, quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett was taken with the 74th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft.
How sit back and enjoy the 10 best New England Patriots draft picks of the 21st century
10. Matt Cassel – QB – 230th overall in 2005
Matt Cassel got his chance to shine in 2008 when Tom Brady was lost for the season early in Week 1. Shine Cassel did, throwing for 3,963 yards, completing over 63 percent of his passes (both career highs) and tossing 21 touchdowns. His campaign earned him a shiny new contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, but while he has had some solid years in the league, he has never developed into a true franchise quarterback.
Think what could have been had Cassel never been drafted, or if he had been taken before New England could grab him. It’s possible that Cassel would never have gotten all of those starts and all of that money.
Sports are wacky.
9. Stephen Gostkowski – K – 118th overall in 2006
Back in 2006 the Patriots allowed the always-reliable Adam Vinatieri to move on via free agency. Move on Vinatieri did, signing with the Indianapolis Colts. New England responded by drafting a guy that most who aren’t draft gurus had never heard of before, as his name was called in the fourth round of the player selection process.
It worked out pretty well for the Patriots.
Gostkowski won the job in what was, for him, his rookie training camp. Since then, he’s converted 85.6% of his field goal attempts. He’s missed only one extra point (and there have been a lot of them) in his career, and that occurred in his first year in the NFL. There will be lofty expectations on the next New England kicker.
8. Eugene Wilson – S – 36th overall in 2003
It could be argued that Wilson never fully lived up to the potential he showed early on in his career. He had four interceptions and 61 tackles in his rookie season, and four picks and 67 tackles in his second year in the league. While he only had one interception in 2005, Wilson did have 68 tackles.
It all went downhill from there. Wilson appeared in only 15 games for New England through 2006 and 2007. He then joined the Houston Texans, but he never again played in a full 16-game season.
7. Rob Gronkowski – TE – 42nd overall in 2010
Gronk would have been much higher up this list two years ago. He went for 90 receptions and 17 touchdowns in 2011. He followed it up with 11 touchdown grabs in 2012, but injuries kept him out of five regular season games.
Life was unkind to Gronkowski last fall. He missed the start of the campaign because of an arm injury, and he was lost for the season in December when a nasty yet legal hit made by then Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward resulted in Gronk tearing his ACL and MCL. His status for 2014 isn’t yet known.
6. Deion Branch – WR – 65th overall in 2002
Branch wasn’t a steal as much as he was just plain good value. He had his best campaign with the Patriots in 2005 when he finished the regular season with 78 receptions and five touchdowns. Branch then held out the following year, and the Patriots traded him to the Seattle Seahawks for a first round pick.
As often happens when players leave great teams, Branch didn’t produce in Seattle as he did for the Pats. He only caught more than 50 passes in a season once (53 catches in 2006). Branch eventually rejoined the Patriots via trade in October 2010, and he had five touchdowns for New England that season.
5. Richard Seymour – DE – 6th overall in 2001
A defensive player taken with such a high draft pick must be molded into a cornerstone of a championship-caliber defense in order to be worth it. Seymour was that and then some. Named to seven Pro Bowl rosters. An All-Pro on three occasions. Three Super Bowl rings. Named to a first-team All-2000s team.
Seymour didn’t let the Patriots down.
Odds are that Seymour won’t be a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a variety of reasons. That’s fine. He’ll have his day in Canton eventually, and it will have been earned.
4. Julian Edelman – WR – 232nd overall in 2009
One could easily argue that Edelman should be higher up this list because of when he was picked and what he contributed to the Pats in 2013. In what has proven to be an important season for him in New England, Edelman reeled in 105 of 151 targets. He had 1,056 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
After his most successful NFL campaign to date, he recently signed a new deal with the Patriots, the details of which have not yet been disclosed. Probably a good decision for the young receiver as he has the unique fortune of playing for a future Hall of Fame coach and quarterback.
3. Vince Wilfork – DT – 21st overall in 2004
Wilfork, like Seymour, serves as a reminder that a player doesn’t have to be taken outside of the first day of a draft in order to be a great find for a team. He had nine productive seasons for the Pats, during which he had 460 tackles and 16 sacks. Wilfork was, in that time, named to five Pro Bowl squads.
Then came 2013. Wilfork tore his ACL last September, and his days with the club may be numbered. That’d be a disappointing way for such a great career to go down a different road.
2. Asante Samuel – CB – 120th overall in 2003
New England’s fifth player taken in 2003, Samuel was, when in his prime, a shutdown corner and maybe the best in the game at the position. His top season with the Patriots was in 2006. He had 65 tackles and ten interceptions that year. The following season, Samuel had six picks.
He then moved on to the Philadelphia Eagles. After a decent launch to his Philly career, Samuel had nine interceptions in 2009. He then had seven picks in 2010. Samuel appeared in 11 games for the Atlanta Falcons last season, and he is currently a free agent.
1. Tom Brady – QB – 199th overall in 2000
Think of the Cleveland Browns when you consider just how much of a steal Brady was and has been for New England. Cleveland passed on the University of Michigan quarterback again…and again…and again 14 years ago. The Browns have never had a franchise QB since returning to the NFL in 1999.
Brady, meanwhile, will be in the Hall of Fame as soon as he hits the ballot.
Five Super Bowl appearances. Three Super Bowl victories. Arguably the best draft pick in the history of North American professional sports. Brady is the type of pick that comes once in a generation.