Belichick and the NFL Draft

The New England coach owned the late rounds

Bill Belichick will not be in an NFL building this season. But his legacy remains in all 32 buildings. He showed the league how to build – and maintain – a dynasty. And he did it in Aprils at the NFL draft.

Sure, Belichick and the Patriots lucked into quarterback Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. It isn’t often you find the greatest player ever to play his position in the sixth round of a draft. Had the Patriots or any other NFL team been endowed with that wisdom, Brady would have been the first overall selection of the 2000 draft, not the 199th.

But quarterbacks alone don’t win championships. He doesn’t block or catch, nor does he tackle or cover kicks. There are 21 other starters and 52 other players on the roster to handle those chores that you need to win a championship.

Free agency can fill holes in a lineup but the nucleus of any championship team always comes from the draft. The first round should produce a blue-chipper and teams should find quality starters in the second and third round as well. Those are the premium rounds of a draft. And Belichick always did well there, finding a Hall of Famer (Richard Seymour), a Super Bowl MVP (Deion Branch), all-decade NFL selections (Rob Gronkowski, Chandler Jones and Logan Mankins) plus a slew of Pro Bowls (11 in all, including Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty).

Historically – before television took over production of the event – the opening three rounds constituted the first day of the draft. Teams all should have good drafts in those first three rounds. That’s where the top prospects reside. But I’ve long believed that the second day of the draft – historically Rounds 4-7 – is what can make a good draft great. A little more digging, a little more scouting, is required there.

And Belichick owned the second day of his drafts. When other teams were drafting on automatic pilot, Belichick was adding building blocks for the six Super Bowls his Patriots would win at New England.

This conversation always begins with Brady. He started 201 games and went to 15 Pro Bowls in his 20 seasons with the Patriots. He was a four-time Super Bowl MVP and a three-time NFL MVP. He may have been the crown jewel of Belichick’s second-day drafting but the coach surrounded Brady with some diamonds.

Belichick drafted 28 other players in Rounds 4-7 that became primary starters for the Patriots. They started a combined 941 games. Seventeen of those draft choices started in Super Bowls for New England. Another 17 draft picks from Rounds 4-7 started games for the Patriots in spots, 59 starts total. And Brady wasn’t the only Super Bowl MVP Belichick found late in drafts. He also selected wide receiver Julian Edelman in the seventh round in 2009. He was the MVP of the 2019 Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams after catching 10 passes for 141 yards.

And if Brady wasn’t the MVP of the Super Bowl victory over the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, it would have been running back James White. He caught 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown that day and also rushed for two more scores, including the game winner in overtime. Belichick found White in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.

Brady and Edelman were among the six Pro Bowlers Belichick discovered in Rounds 4-7. The Patriots also drafted cornerback Asante Samuel in the fourth round and center Dan Koppen in the fifth round in 2003, kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round of the 2007 draft and special-teamer Matthew Slater in the fifth round of the 2008 draft.

Koppen played nine seasons with the Patriots, all as a starter – 120 games worth. Guard Shaq Mason was a fourth-round pick in 2015. He spent seven seasons with the Patriots, all as a starter – 98 games worth. Edelman started 85 games in his 11 seasons with New England, catching 620 passes.

Gostkowski didn’t start any games for the Patriots but played in 204 of them over 14 seasons. He scored 1,775 points for New England on field goals and extra points on his way to becoming the 13th highest scorer in NFL history. He also ranks second all-time in playoff scoring.

Slater started only three games in his 16 seasons with the Patriots. But he went to 10 Pro Bowls as the ace of New England’s special teams. Belichick also drafted Joe Cardona in the fifth round in 2015 and Nate Ebner in the sixth round in 2012. Cardona served as the deep snapper on special teams for nine seasons and Ebner was Slater’s running mate on the coverage units for eight seasons. Cardona played 144 games, Ebner 101 games. The Patriots led the NFL in special teams three times in the Belichick era.

Wide receiver David Givens was a seventh-round pick of the Patriots in 2002. He caught touchdown passes from Brady in New England’s Super Bowl victories over Carolina and Philadelphia. Belichick found defensive end Trey Flowers in the fourth round in 2015. He played four seasons with the Patriots, collecting 20 sacks and picking up a Super Bowl ring, then signed a $90 million contract in free agency with the Detroit Lions.

Samuel led the NFL in interceptions with 10 in 2006 and also picked up two Super Bowl rings in his five seasons with New England. He then signed a $56 million contract in free agency with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Belichick found guard Michael Onwenu in the sixth round in 2020. He has started all four of his seasons with the Patriots. Belichick claimed running back Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth round in 2021. He became a 1,000-yard rusher in 2022.

Belichick will go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot as a coach. But he’d be a worthy candidate as a general manager. The late rounds were never throwaway rounds for Belichick.

  1. Wayne Joseph says

    I always come away smarter after reading your columns. Nice work, Mr. Gosselin.

  2. D K Naro says

    Brilliant man. Brilliant article.

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