It’s that time of the year! After the rush of free agency, the New England Patriots are getting ready for arguably the most important part of the team building process: the NFL Draft. A good draft can make or break a franchise’s fortunes, so let’s analyze how Bill Belichick and the Patriots have approached each round over the past few seasons. The Patriots have two picks in the first round, and several positions of need. Here’s a look back at the Patriots first round draft history.
A Breakdown of the New England Patriots Recent First Round Draft History
2017: No Pick – Acquired Brandin Cooks from New Orleans Saints
The 2017 off-season was one of the most aggressive in the history of the Belichick-era Patriots. Cooks was unhappy in the New Orleans Saints offense, and the Patriots were more than willing to trade their first-round pick for the electric wide receiver.
At the time of the trade, it looked as though Cooks would just be adding to an abundance of riches at the receiver position. However, after losing receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Julian Edelman for the entire season, Cooks became the leader of the wide receivers. After Chris Hogan suffered a shoulder injury that would sideline him for the second half of the season, Cooks was essentially the only outside receiver left on the roster.
He’s not a true number one receiver like Antonio Brown or Julio Jones, but the offense would have been lost without Cooks. He struggled towards the end of the regular season, but his blazing speed was always good for big plays downfield. Additionally, he had a knack for drawing key pass interference penalties.
His best game came in the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Facing arguably football’s best cornerback duo in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, Cooks compiled six receptions for 100 yards. Additionally, Cooks drew several key pass interference penalties that kept drives alive. Receiver Danny Amendola earns all the praise from that game, but the Patriots probably don’t win without Cooks’ production.
The Patriots traded Cooks away to the Los Angeles Rams but received a first-round pick in return. In fact, the first-round pick they received was better than the one they gave away in 2017. While Cooks was just a one-year rental, he performed admirably in his one year and actually improved the Patriots draft stock.
2016: No pick, lost due to DeflateGate
The less that’s spoken about DeflateGate, the better. Moving on…
2015: Malcolm Brown, 32nd Overall
Surprisingly, the most recent first-round pick made by the Patriots comes all the way back in 2015. As the Patriots pick neared, all signs pointed to them trading out of the first round. Then, the Indianapolis Colts passed on Brown to draft receiver Phillip Dorsett. Suddenly, the Patriots were no longer selling their pick, and they got the heir apparent to Vince Wilfork.
Brown is no Wilfork, but he’s been a great addition to this team. He’s improved every year on the squad, and is one of the better run stuffing tackles in football. Nobody will confuse him with Aaron Donald, but he’s transformed into a solid three down player. Brown won’t go into the Hall of Fame, but he’s the type of guy that can carve out a 10-year career as a dependable starter. Not bad for a late first-round pick.
2014: Dominique Easley, 29th Overall
This one was bad. Easley oozed talent, but didn’t have a good enough head on his shoulders to stick around in New England. After spending the majority of his rookie season injured, Easley found a role as a situational interior pass rusher for the 2015 squad.
While a first rounder should amount to more than that, it still caught Patriot Nation by surprise when Easley was released after the 2015 season. Then, slowly but surely, details about Easley started to emerge. According to numerous sources, Easley actively went against the advice of the medical staff while recovering from his injuries. Several sources labelled him a “locker room cancer,” and Easley’s release made a lot more sense.
This is one that Belichick would definitely like to have back. First round picks can be incredibly valuable, and to waste one on a cancerous teammate who actively went against the training staff is an incredible loss. Ultimately, Easley goes down as probably the biggest draft bust of the Belichick tenure.
2013: No Pick, Traded to Minnesota
The 2013 draft is now notorious for its complete lack of talent. This was one of the most barren drafts in recent memory, and Belichick knew that at the time. There wasn’t a notable difference in talent between the first and third rounders that year, so Belichick traded out of the first to get even more picks.
The Minnesota Vikings saw something they liked in receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and made the trade with the Patriots. While he was good for a few gadget plays, he certainly wasn’t worth the first round pick. Belichick made the right call trading down, and ended up getting a pretty good player for it. However, that pick is for a different article.
Ironically, Patterson managed to find his way to New England this off-season. After one season with the Oakland Raiders, New England acquired the speedy receiver for a fifth-round pick and a swap of sixth-rounders.
2012: Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, 21st and 25th overall
After watching the dumpster fire that was the 2011 Patriots defense, Belichick aggressively tried to fix it. The man notorious for trading down in the draft actually traded up twice to get his defensive building blocks.
He knocked it out of the park with both picks. Jones came off the board first and showed why he was worth the high draft pick. He wasn’t great against the run, but his ability to get to the passer was something the Patriots hadn’t seen since the days of peak Richard Seymour. Jones recorded 36 sacks in his four seasons as a Patriot and ended up netting New England a second round pick when he was traded to the Cardinals.
As great as the Jones pick was, the Hightower pick was even better. Belichick drafted Hightower to be the heir apparent to Jerod Mayo. After spending 2012 as the third linebacker, Hightower became the top guy in 2013 after Mayo’s season-ending injury and after ascending above Brandon Spikes.
It took him a while to find his form, but he’s been one of the best linebackers in football since late 2013. Injuries have always been a concern, but when he’s healthy there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s great against the run, lined up wide as a pass rusher, and can hold his own against tight ends and running backs in coverage.
Perhaps his best quality is his incredible clutch gene. It’s no coincidence that the Patriots have won the two Super Bowls he played in but lost the one he didn’t. In Super Bowl XLIX, Hightower was somehow able to tackle running back Marshawn Lynch with just his shoulder at the one-yard line. The next play, Malcolm Butler made history.
Super Bowl LI featured probably the most iconic play of his career. Trailing 28-12 early in the fourth quarter, Hightower lined up wide, blew past running back Devonta Freeman, and knocked the ball out of quarterback Matt Ryan‘s hands. The Patriots recovered and were eventually able to pull off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.