If the New England Patriots plan on extending their two-decade dynasty, it all begins with the 2020 NFL draft. With Tom Brady playing in Tampa, the Patriots obviously have a major question mark at the quarterback position. However, Bill Belichick will have to address much more than that in the upcoming NFL draft.
Besides Brady’s departure, the Patriots also have to address key needs at outside linebacker after Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy found new homes. Of course, let’s not forget about an offense whose best receiver will be 34 this season. Belichick has built Super Bowl teams through a strong draft-and-develop model, but his recent draft hauls have left a lot to be desired. With an aging roster, almost zero cap space and few young, proven stars, the Patriots must knock the 2020 NFL draft out of the park. If not, the greatest dynasty in sports history will come to an end.
New England won first three titles through NFL draft
Ever since he took over the Patriots in 2000, Belichick’s draft success comes in cycles. From 2001-2005, he selected a number of foundational pieces to New England’s early dynasty era. Some of his home-run selections included Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Asante Samuel, Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson, Logan Mankins, and of course, that Brady guy. However, Belichick went on a shockingly poor run from 2006-2008 where his only true draft hits were a kicker, a special-teams standout and Jerod Mayo.
He got back on track for the next few years, landing Julian Edelman, Pat Chung and Sebastian Vollmer in 2009 before hitting home runs on All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and longtime team captain Devin McCourty in 2010. Before his tragic fall, Aaron Hernandez looked like another major hit. Belichick’s strong NFL draft run continued over the next few years, resulting in Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower in 2012, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon in 2013, and Jimmy Garoppolo and James White in 2014.
Belichick’s recent NFL draft struggles
Yet, the Patriots are in a precarious position mostly due to their awful drafts over the last five years. While they did find fourth-round gems in Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason, Belichick and Nick Caserio simply haven’t delivered many impact players since that 2015 draft. Unless they work out a deal with Joe Thuney, there’s a legitimate chance that the Patriots’ 2020 roster won’t feature a single player from either the 2016 or 2017 draft classes.
The jury is still out on the 2018 and 2019 drafts, but the early returns have been underwhelming. Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel looked like stars at Georgia, but injuries have limited their effectiveness and availability. Belichick already traded 2018 second-rounder Duke Dawson for a late-round pick. Last year’s first-rounder, N’Keal Harry, caught 12 passes and did not endear himself to TB12.
Age is a major factor
All of those draft misses have resulted in the league’s oldest roster. Sure, the Patriots won three Super Bowl championships since 2014, but the core of those teams is largely gone. Even looking back at the 2018 roster, it’s scary at the amount of turnover and the overall lack of young talent.
New England may boast a deep secondary highlighted by 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, but even he is entering the latter portion of his career. Ditto for the McCourty twins and Chung, who all turn 33 in August. Up front, the Patriots lack a premier edge rusher. Chase Winovich flashed in limited duties, but is he ready to make the leap to a full-time starter? Former third-round pick Derek Rivers has the athletic ability to get after the quarterback, but injuries have prevented him from getting on the field.
Because New England’s roster consists of older veterans, their salary cap situation is far from ideal. Of course, the team is paying a ton of dead money to players who aren’t even on the roster, including Antonio Brown. Still, the lack of impact players on rookie deals has resulted in Belichick having to spend more on veterans who don’t project to be long-term answers. With no money left to spend in free agency, that puts more pressure on the Patriots to maximize their return from the 2020 NFL draft.
Strong NFL draft class can help replace key offseason departures
Armed with the No. 23 overall pick, the Patriots are in a prime position to land an impact player in the upcoming NFL draft. At the same time, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Belichick pull off a trade and move down to accumulate more draft picks. He could also look to move picks to the 2021 draft, where the quarterback options look stronger.
However, if the Patriots plan on fending off the much-improved Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, they need to address immediate needs in two weeks. Losing Van Noy and Collins stand out the most. Van Noy departed for the Dolphins after developing into a dependable force at linebacker. Collins looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in the first half of the 2019 season before fading down the stretch. Still, Belichick’s defense relied on the versatility and athleticism of his linebackers, and New England simply doesn’t have many proven options on its roster.
Patriots need to add weapons
Assuming the Patriots don’t spend an early-round pick on a quarterback, the focus should be on finding Jarrett Stidham some weapons. At one point, the Patriots boasted a fantastic set of receivers for Brady. But after Gronk retired and a number of wide receivers didn’t work out, that left TB12 with little to work with the last two years. New England has three third-round picks that could be utilized to upgrade its unimpressive group of weapons.
Unfortunately, the receiver position has been a bugaboo for Belichick. Perhaps the addition of Eliot Wolf to the draft room will help. Either way, the pressure is Belichick and the Patriots to get back on track in the NFL draft. After all, the dynasty was built upon a skinny, sixth-rounder out of Michigan. Let’s see if the Patriots can strike gold again or if this is truly the end of an era in Foxborough.