On the opening day of this year’s NFL Draft, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots will find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Possessing two first- and second-round picks, the Patriots will arrive in Arlington as one of the more well-endowed franchises. The level of draft capital possessed by New England this year stands as something of an anomaly in the Belichick era. In the last five years, the Patriots have selected in the first round just twice, and their first pick in 2017 came in the third round with the 83rd overall selection.
Belichick is, of course, famous for hitting home runs in free agency before swinging-and-missing in the draft. Not since the selection of Jamie Collins in 2013 has Belichick taken a future Pro Bowler with a first or second round pick. Belichick’s unrivalled ability to identify and harness pro talent has never fully translated into an ability to accurately (and consistently) assess potential college acquisitions. Cognisant of this blind spot, the self-aware Patriots front-office has frequently chosen to trade down in the draft, almost as a matter of routine.
This year, however, Belichick finds himself grappling with a host of challenges. His MVP quarterback will start the season aged 41; talk of locker-room insubordination is rife; and he was famously forced by ownership to sell his future in Jimmy Garoppolo for a pittance to the San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots now find themselves navigating choppy waters, and the franchise is faced with more uncertainties that at any time during the Brady-Belichick era. 2018 could well be a swan song for the pair, or a catastrophe. Few expect it to be the beginning of yet another fruitful iteration of the storied partnership.
The False Dichotomy
In light of the turmoil currently gripping Foxborough, league analysts are framing this month’s draft as something as a make-or-break for this Patriots regime — as well as an indication of what the future holds for Brady. In short, Belichick is said to have two options at his disposal: (1) trade up and find a replacement for Brady in quarterback-rich draft class, or (2) use his arsenal of picks to provide Brady with weapons (through a combination of trades and selections), and keep the franchise locked into its seemingly-perennial “win-now” mode.
Such a description, however, of Belichick’s options paints a false dichotomy. Rather than a simplistic binary, the Patriots in fact have a plethora of options to consider — but only one possesses any semblance of merit.
Following the calamitous decision to trade Garoppolo, Belichick must take a quarterback, either this year or next. There is no way around this. The future of the franchise, and his legacy as coach, both depend on it. If he is to one-day demonstrate that the Patriots dynasty was indeed coach-led, Belichick will have to compete for championships sans the greatest quarterback of all time.
But even more pertinently, trading up for a passer would be both a “win-now” and a long-term move for New England. Three of this year’s top QB prospects are more than worthy of a first round pick. Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Baker Mayfield are all, to varying extents, “NFL ready”, as well as potential franchise quarterbacks. With Brady entering the season at the age of 41, the Patriots are in need of not only a viable back-up, but also a future starter.
Darnold, Rosen, and Mayfield could each fulfill both of these roles. While Brady has, so far, eluded the aging process, there are limits to his methuselah-like attributes. New England, let’s not forget, is one hit away from finding itself in a deep quarterback crisis — the type of crisis that no amount of “weapons” could allay. The Patriots relinquished their capacity to weather a Brady injury when they jettisoned Garoppolo last season. Robert Kraft ought to be reminded of this reality at every opportunity.
A King’s Ransom
The prospect of New England trading up to take a protégé signal-caller is often criticised on the basis that it would prevent Belichick from replenishing a squad hit by losses in free agency. Again, however, this is flawed logic. The Patriots are far more likely to plug gaps via the acquisition of veterans than they are through targeting the draft. History tells us this much. While the acquisition of an elite passer in the draft might not yield instant impact, it could transpire to serve as a season-saving move. Conversely, there is no guaranteeing that any of New England’s top four picks will translate into the type of player capable of lifting New England past the ceiling it ran into in this last season’s Super Bowl.
Were Cleveland to demand a king’s ransom for the fourth pick, the Patriots are in a position to play ball. More importantly, they might not find themselves in this position again. This is, after all, a franchise that hasn’t picked inside the top ten since 2001. The Patriots have the need for a quarterback, and the resources to get one. By taking any of the top three passers in this year’s class, they would preparing for the future, while doing little to undermine their win-now attitude. If New England is to improve on last year’s performance, it will not be due to its savvy in the draft. And, you never know, it could very well turn out that they end up winning-now with one of this year’s top QB prospects.