The New England Patriots have parted ways with high draft picks recently–but that is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to roster building.
With the shaping of their roster for final cut-downs, there has been a lot of talk about the New England Patriots and their drafting strategy. Since trading away 2018 second-round NFL draft pick Duke Dawson, the narrative around New England has concerned the drafting record of the Patriots (i.e. general manager Bill Belichick) and turning it into a criticism of the franchise.
Folks, the NFL Draft is the biggest scratch ticket in sports history. Athletes who played differing systems, differing styles, differing speeds, differing motivations are thrown together and expected to step into their new job and excel. Life just does not work that way–especially in the NFL.
Duke Dawson was expected to be the Patriots’ top slot cornerback, just like 2016 second-round draft pick Cyrus Jones. Both got injured during their rookie season, leapfrogged on the depth chart, and could not stick on the roster.
Neither Dawson nor Jones are bad players. Jones has stuck in Baltimore, and Dawson will be a fine player for the Broncos. What they both have in common is that undrafted free agent Jonathan Jones won the job at slot cornerback and then refused to relinquish it.
Once players are signed to the initial 90-man roster, it should then become a matter of finding the best 53 players to make the final team. Too often, coaches and general managers will not move on from a high draft pick for another player due to stubbornness or pride. These “free rides” do not last in New England, where the player who is cheaper and more driven or motivated will end up eventually playing 10 times out of 10.
COMPARING DRAFTING RECORDS:
As far as a team’s drafting record is concerned, no one in the NFL ever succeeds at better than a .500 clip. I personally think of former Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome (branch of the Bill Belichick executive tree) as the gold standard of draft picks.
Just so many great draft picks by Ozzie Newsome to build a perennial contender and some of the greatest defenses ever in Baltimore. However, with all the recent criticism of Belichick, how about some of these high draft picks made by Newsome?
DE Dan Cody (second round 2005).
LB Sergio Kindle (second round 2010).
CB David Pittman (third round 2007).
LB Arthur Brown (second round 2013).
WR Breshad Perriman (first round 2015).
Drafting is a lot of guesswork. A lot of taking chances and rolling the dice. A lot of making projections that may or may not come to be when dealing with human beings.
In other words, even the best of the best are going to have more than their share of swings and misses–even at the top of the draft.
THE JONATHAN JONES PHENOMENON:
Jonathan Jones was a four-year starter at Auburn who went undrafted in 2016 due to being just five-foot-nine. He ran a 4.33 forty-yard dash and had almost 20 reps at the bench press (per NFL.com), making him one of the better performers at the combine among cornerbacks. But the height and size (arm length and hand size) kept teams from taking a chance on him in the draft.
Enter the Patriots, who found that this uber-athletic and very talented cornerback was available for a minimum cost. In addition to beating out Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones made the roster over fellow undrafted free agent Cre’Von LeBlanc and 2015 seventh-round pick Darryl Roberts at cornerback. Both were also very talented players who have stuck and contributed with the Bears and the Jets, respectively.
BEATING OUT THE COMPETITION:
By the end of 2016, Jones had supplanted 2015 rookie free agent breakout slot cornerback Justin Coleman and worked his way into the dime defense while also being a standout on special teams. Coleman ended up getting traded to Seattle before the next season began, and Jones stepped in as the team’s primary slot cornerback.
Jones is the reason Duke Dawson was expendable, especially after Jones returned as a restricted free agent with a bump in salary to just over $3 million for 2019. He doesn’t get a lot of press for his role, but the Patriots’ finishes the last two seasons are both directly a result of Jones.
In 2017, Jones had a fantastic season: he was third among all slot cornerbacks in completion percentage allowed, per Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, his season ended against Tennessee in the divisional round when he suffered an ankle injury and was placed on injured reserve. Forget Malcolm Butler’s benching in Super Bowl 52; the Patriots missed Jones in the middle of the field on defense far more.
In 2018, it was again Jones–the undrafted free agent so often forgotten about when discussing the Patriots secondary–who shut down Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship Game. Keion Crossen (eight snaps) and Jones (41 snaps) allowed just one reception by Hill (with Crossen in coverage) for 42 yards, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
New England brought in Duke Dawson as both competition for Jones as well as for some much-needed depth after the pass defense struggled in Super Bowl 52 without Jones. Instead, another undrafted free agent cornerback won a job, as J.C. Jackson emerged as a potential star after essentially walking-on in Foxborough last year.
Imagine New England moving on from Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson in order to keep Cyrus Jones and Duke Dawson… simply because the latter pair were both second-round draft picks. Neither Cyrus Jones nor Duke Dawson was a bad player (or even a bad draft pick), but the Patriots found better players and moved on from their prior expected assets.
Call it ruthless.
Call it bad drafting.
Call it whatever you want.
I call it a big reason why this team keeps winning Super Bowls.