The NFL draft is in the books and the New England Patriots appear to have made the most of their two first-round choices. Not only did they *not* follow recent form and use the picks to trade down, Bill Belichick instead got aggressive and looked to move up, drafting Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (a player who I can’t believe fell into the bottom half of the first round). Here at BST&N, Carl Desberg, Erik Venskus and Dan Alper have offered analysis and video highlights of the new players. Now it’s time for some historical perspective. In the modern era of the NFL (1970-Present), the Patriots had multiple first-round choices eleven times prior to this year. What is the track record?
When you’re compiling a list like this, the writer has to decide whether to present things chronologically or to try and lay it out based on how good/bad the drafts were. It turned out not to be necessary for this topic. The Patriots did well in the 1970s, declined as the 1980s went on, did poorly in the 1990s and well again in their last multiple-pick first-round of 2004. And the #1 ranking even goes to the year that’s first on the board, in 1973…
1973: John Hannah, Sam Cunningham, Darryl Stingley
I won’t go overboard in praising this draft, because the presence of Stingley, a man whose career was cut short in tragic 1977 injury that left him paralyzed, commands some restraint regarding that which is just sports. But I think we can stay in the bounds of good taste and say that whoever was running this draft for the Pats deserved a hefty raise when it was done. Hannah would get national acclaim as arguably the best offensive lineman ever, Cunningham was a mainstay of the running game for ten years and Stingley was good and productive receiver until the injury.
1975: Russ Francis, Mike Haynes
Another elite-level draft here. Francis played tight end for the Pats for six seasons and made three Pro Bowls. Haynes was one of the game’s great cover corners, and although he was eventually traded to the Raiders, New England still got seven good seasons out of him.
1976: Pete Brock, Tim Fox
There’s nothing jaw-dropping here, but it’s a manageable draft. Brock was a mainstay at center for twelve seasons, although never at the Pro Bowl level. Fox played five years at safety, making one Pro Bowl.
1977: Raymond Clayborn, Stanley Morgan
Now we’re back on the jaw-dropping level here. A pure cover corner, Clayborn wasn’t that far from Haynes’ level, and Clayborn spent his entire productive career in Foxboro, playing twelve seasons and then finishing out his NFL days with a couple token years in Cleveland. Morgan was on the other side of the ball and an excellent game-breaking receiver, who also played twelve years for the Patriots. Both players were key parts of the 1985 AFC Championship team. The similarity of their career span makes you wonder if they ever got personal rivalries going with practice battles against each other.
1980: Roland James, Vagas Ferguson
I won’t say this was a disaster, given that James enjoyed a ten-year career with New England, but he was never a Pro Bowler, while Ferguson never panned out at running back.
1981: Kenneth Sims, Lester Williams
We’ve been prudent in our use of the word “disaster” because I didn’t want it overdone by the time we got to an honest-to-goodness train wreck like this. Both Sims and Williams were defensive tackles. Sims, the first overall pick in the draft, had a deserved reputation as a bust, thanks to a lousy practice ethic, and Williams never made an impact. This draft is to the Patriot scouting department what last Saturday’s 15-9 loss to the Yankees was to the Red Sox bullpen.
1990: Chris Singleton, Ray Agnew
Another less-than-stellar draft effort. Agnew was a decent outside linebacker for five years, but you would want more out of a first-rounder—either higher-impact seasons or a longer career—and Singleton was non-entity in the NFL.
1991: Pat Harlow, Leonard Russell
Russell was AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year in ’91 and rushed for 959 yards. He never reached those heights again, though he did stick around with New England into the mid-1990s. Harlow, an offensive tackle, never came through.
1998: Robert Edwards, Tebucky Jones
I have no idea what the logic was behind running back Edwards. He was injury-prone in college and promptly blew out a knee in his first NFL training camp. Jones was able to be a contributing member of the 2001 Super Bowl team, although the type of career he had can also be had in the second or third round if a scouting department knows what it’s doing.
1999: Damien Woody, Andy Katzenmoyer
Woody was a solid choice, who started at center for the 2001 and 2003 Super Bowl teams. He eventually was let go, switched positions and had some decent years with the Jets before retiring last February. Katzenmoyer required neck surgery immediately into his NFL career and never could contribute.
2004: Vince Wolfork, Ben Watson
This is the one with the most relevance to the 2012 draft, since ’04 is the only one in this list where Bill Belichick was running things. Wolfork, of course, is still a huge part of the Patriot defensive line. Watson was a top tight end before leaving for Cleveland via free agency. If the Hightower/Johnson combo works out as well this season, Patriot fans have every reason to be happy.