NFL draft: Ranking Bill Belichick’s first-round picks with the Patriots

Bill Belichick didn’t make a first-round pick prior to his first season as New England Patriots coach. In acquiring Belichick, team owner Robert Kraft traded the Patriots’ 2000 first-rounder to the rival New York Jets following contentious negotiations that required mediation by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

In 2001, the Patriots picked sixth overall after a 5-11 season. They were toothless on offense, and despite Troy Brown and Terry Glenn on the roster, there was mass speculation that Michigan wideout David Terrell could be the pick at No. 6 overall.

Belichick had other ideas. Incredibly, hermetic draft guru Joel Buchsbaum — one of the most wired-in analysts then — seemed to know Belichick’s secret plans when the two spoke the morning of the 2001 NFL draft:

Belichick had vowed not to mention to anyone, even Joel, with whom he was exceptionally close and unusually trusting in, the true apple of his eye: Georgia defensive tackle Richard Seymour. 

Belichick explained to his Patriots inner circle that Seymour’s name was not to be uttered to anyone outside of the building prior to the draft. On draft day that year, Belichick picked up the phone for what had become a tradition, he and Buchsbaum chatting about the picks to unfold later that day.

After some chitchat between them, Buchsbaum — who never was much for small talk, always wanting to receive or deliver the information that mattered most to his livelihood — told Belichick, “Don’t wuh-rry … Seymoah is gonna be there fuh you.” 

The Seymour pick set the tone for the next two decades. Belichick wouldn’t always take Round 1 players many felt he would, but he rarely missed badly with those picks and often selected franchise cornerstones. Still, there were a few clunkers mixed in. A few other times, like in April, the Patriots have dealt out of the first round.

(Illustration by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

New England has made 18 first-round selections since Belichick took over. We ranked them, best to worst:

1. DL Vince Wilfork, 2004 (21st overall)

A tough call, deciding between Wilfork and Seymour. They’re nearly inseparable.

But the massive Wilfork, who was surprisingly diverse, gets the nod. He was picked 15 slots lower and played longer in New England. Seymour had more sacks than Wilfork in New England (39 to 16), but Wilfork totaled more tackles (352 to 225), forced fumbles (5 to 3), fumble recoveries (6 to 3) and even interceptions (3 to 2).

For the final tiebreaker, it’s hard to top Belichick’s endorsement of Wilfork, who was part of two Super Bowl championship squads: “It was truly an honor to have coached him. Best defensive lineman I have ever coached.”

2. DL Richard Seymour, 2001 (6th overall)

Seymour played eight seasons in New England, being named first-team All-Pro three times and making four Pro Bowls. The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four tries and were 12-3 in postseason games with Seymour. It’s a big reason why he was voted into the franchise’s Hall of Fame this year — a titanic piece of the early Belichick-tenure dynasty.

The Patriots shockingly traded Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a 2011 first-round pick on the eve of the 2009 season, and it would be six more years before New England returned to a Super Bowl. Of course, Belichick didn’t walk away empty-handed. The pick they got for Seymour turned into left tackle Nate Solder.

3. OG Logan Mankins, 2008 (32nd overall)

The Patriots had just won their third title in a four-year span when they used the final pick of Round 1 on Mankins, a Fresno State left tackle projected to kick inside. The pick wasn’t well-received at the time.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper called Mankins “a reach.” The Washington Post said “not many” viewed Mankins as a first-rounder. SI’s Dr. Z said he hadn’t heard of most of the Patriots’ picks that year, save for Mankins (a “department-store name”), and then compared him to Joe Andruzzi.

Logan Mankins ended up being one of Bill Belichick's better first-round picks with the New England Patriots. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Mankins started 130 games in nine seasons in New England, was named to six Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team and was considered one of the best guards in football. Even with rough spots (including a messy, public contract dispute), Mankins was a standout despite — crazy as it sounds — having never won a Super Bowl there.

Like with Wilfork, Belichick shipped out Mankins and then lavished praise on him.

“It is hard to imagine a better player at his position, a tougher competitor or a person to represent our program,” Belichick said after dealing Mankins to Tampa Bay for Tim Wright and a fourth-rounder. “He is one of the all-time great Patriots and the best guard I ever coached.”

That fourth-rounder? Turned out to be Trey Flowers. 

4. DB Devin McCourty, 2010 (27th overall)

There’s an argument for McCourty to rank ahead of Mankins. Perhaps another fine season or two could push him ahead.

McCourty has made Pro Bowls at two positions (cornerback as a rookie, safety in 2016) and was a dangerous kick returner early in his career. He also has been named a team captain nine times and clearly is one of Belichick’s most trusted players.

McCourty has intercepted 26 passes and forced 11 fumbles in 10 seasons, including five picks and two forced fumbles in a terrific 2019 campaign patrolling the NFL’s best pass defense. It’s likely he’ll go down as one of the best Patriots DBs ever, even if he has made only two Pro Bowls.

5. EDGE Chandler Jones, 2012 (21st overall)

Talent-wise, Jones deserves to be higher. He’s as gifted as any Round 1 player Belichick has selected. But given how Jones’ career played out in New England, it’s hard to raise him past here.

In 55 games in New England, Jones logged 36 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble-return TD. His bizarre police-station incident during the 2015 playoffs, plus Jones’ contract demands, ended his time in Foxborough prematurely.

The Patriots traded Jones to the Cardinals in 2016 for Jonathan Cooper and a second-rounder. It’s easy to say that Belichick was fleeced, as Jones has been a monster in Arizona (60 sacks, 17 forced fumbles in four seasons).

But moving on from him allowed the Patriots to sign CB Stephon Gilmore and extend Dont’a Hightower, and they turned the second-rounder into OG Joe Thuney and WR Malcolm Mitchell. Thuney is a standout — and could be the next player Belichick trades — and Mitchell was a Super Bowl rookie hero.

6. LB Dont’a Hightower, 2012 (25th overall)

Hightower’s value to the Patriots is high, despite injuries plaguing him. After early struggles in coverage, he became a moving chess piece who could fill multiple roles — and he has elevated his play in big games, too.

Hightower made a colossally underrated tackle on Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line one play before Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX. In the 28-3 comeback against the Falcons, the Patriots likely don’t win — down 16 points at the time — without Hightower’s strip sack of Matt Ryan midway through the fourth quarter. Hightower also had two sacks and three QB hits in the Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams.

Hightower has missed 26 games over nine seasons, and how long he plays is a fair question. But it’s impossible to overlook Hightower’s contributions when healthy.

7. LB Jerod Mayo, 2008 (10th overall)

Now a Patriots assistant, Mayo’s contributions during that stretch when the Patriots didn’t win a Super Bowl are sadly overlooked. He was a steady tackler and strong centerpiece as a throwback linebacker.

Mayo was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008 and was named team captain each year from 2009 to 2012. The Patriots won two Super Bowls with Mayo, but he wasn’t on the field for either, landing on IR in 2013 and 2014. Injuries dampened Mayo’s final few years, and he announced his retirement shortly after the 2015 season. 

8. OT Nate Solder, 2011 (17th overall)

Solder always felt overhyped as a player, despite some good years and considering everything he had to overcome. First, Solder was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2015, limiting him to four games. Then, he and his wife found out that their son, Hudson, would require multiple rounds of chemotherapy in the coming years after doctors found tumors on his kidneys.

Those were stunning tests of bravery he and his family have endured. Solder earned a reputation as a smart, well-liked and charitable player in New England, and he was durable outside the year he was fighting cancer. 

Solder wasn’t great but was a major contributor on four Super Bowl teams, winning twice.

9. DL Ty Warren, 2003 (13th overall)

Warren was mostly solid, although he stood out in 2005 and 2006. In the second half of the 2006 season, he was downright dominant (5.5 sacks, 41 tackles, 8 TFLs).

Prior to that, Warren was a solid role player to two title-winning teams in 2003 and 2004. Multiple injuries slowed him later in his career, but Warren was a steady, blue-collar presence on some good New England defenses.

10. TE Benjamin Watson, 2004 (32nd overall)

Watson spent his first six years in New England (plus his final NFL season in 2019) — a steady player then and throughout his 16-year career.

His receiving totals were modest, with 167 catches for 2,102 yards and 20 TDs in 71 games in New England. But Watson had three two-TD games in New England, including a pair of scores in the final 2:06 of a wild Week 1 comeback against the Buffalo Bills in 2009.

Champ Bailey, right, was hit by the Patriots' Benjamin Watson on the 1-yard line in the 2005 postseason. (Photo By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

His blocking, athleticism and intelligence were calling cards, and Watson delivered one of the all-time hustle plays when he ran somewhere between 99 and 102 yards to tackle Champ Bailey on an interception return in the 2005 postseason.

11. TE Daniel Graham, 2002 (21st overall)

The Patriots traded up 11 spots to take Graham, the Mackey Award winner from Colorado, and it felt like a masterstroke by Belichick. And though Graham developed a reputation as a strong blocker and appeared on the verge of breaking out with seven TDs in 14 games in 2004, he never took that next step.

The Patriots won two Super Bowls with Graham, and his 33-yard catch against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII was a quietly big play. He was a team captain in New England, but Graham wasn’t much more than a respectable role player.

12. S Brandon Meriweather, 2007 (24th overall)

Meriweather had a strange career, intercepting 12 passes and making two Pro Bowls his first four seasons before spending five injury-plagued years with three different teams. He never became the player whom some compared to Ed Reed coming out of Miami.

Meriweather earned a reputation as a dirty player with several fines for hits. He also was semi-benched for freelancing too much in 2010. The Patriots released him on the eve of the 2011 season.

13. DT Malcom Brown, 2015 (32nd overall)

The Patriots reportedly had a handshake trade with Houston to move out of Round 1, but when Brown was on the board at 32, they backed off. It was considered a steal then, but it’s clear they would have been better off taking another defensive lineman (Florida State’s Eddie Goldman) they were reportedly interested in. Goldman has been a standout with the Bears. The Patriots let Brown walk after four solid but nondescript seasons.

Brown famously promised, “Y’all about to get the best player y’all have ever drafted, so just be ready for when I touch the field.”

It ended up not quite stacking up to Tom Brady’s similar boast 15 years earlier.

14. RB Laurence Maroney, 2006 (21st overall)

The other two times the Patriots selected 21st, Belichick struck gold with Wilfork and Jones. Early in Maroney’s career, he showed flashes of being a strong runner, but he never really panned out.

Maroney combined for 13 TDs and nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2006 and 2007, scoring in all three playoff games and totaling 341 total yards in the Patriots’ failed quest for a 19-0 campaign. From that point, the wheels fell off. Maroney suffered a shoulder injury in 2008, and despite rushing for nine TDs the following year, his workload leveled off prior to him being traded early in the 2010 season.

15. RB Sony Michel, 2018 (31st overall)

The scary part for Patriots fans is that Michel’s two-year production strongly mirrors that of Maroney’s first two seasons. Even scarier: Michel took a step back in Year 2 after a promising rookie campaign capped by a strong Super Bowl run (71 carries, 336 yards, six TDs).

Sony Michel is heading into a crucial Year 3 for the Patriots. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

How much upside does Michel have? Tough to say, but it’s fair to suggest Year 3 is big. On 475 career regular-season touches, his longest gain is 34 yards. A knee injury has been a factor, but Michel’s stock is down.

Michel was taken one pick before Lamar Jackson, a player the Patriots reportedly did a lot of homework on that offseason. All Jackson did in his first full season as a starter last year was end the Patriots’ 8-0 streak and win MVP. Imagine how much different the story might be had Belichick taken Jackson over Michel.

16. OT Isaiah Wynn, 2018 (23rd overall)

Wynn was working his way toward a starting role as a rookie before suffering a season-ending torn Achilles in the 2018 preseason. Last year, he started the first two games but suffered a toe injury that landed him on IR, causing him to miss eight games.

Wynn returned in Week 11 last season, playing every snap from that point on. He struggled after returning to the lineup but settled in down the stretch. Still, it’s clear he — like Michel, his college teammate and roommate — has much to prove, especially with Jarrett Stidham likely taking over for Brady.

Wynn is below Michel for the contributions they’ve made to date. It wouldn’t be shocking if Wynn ended up the better player in the long run. What the 6-foot-2 Wynn lacks in size and length, he makes up for with technique and quickness.

17. WR N’Keal Harry, 2019 (32nd overall)

Belichick’s first first-round receiver pick in New England didn’t have a banner rookie season. Harry suffered an ankle injury, wiping out his first 10 games, and made a limited impact after returning.

Although Harry scored twice and was effective on end-arounds, he and Brady never developed an on-field rapport. Counting the playoff loss, Harry only caught 14 of the 31 passes thrown his way, with a long gain of 18 yards.

It’s too early to say Harry is a bust; wide receiver is a position where some players develop gradually. But he and Stidham must find more of a groove than Harry did with the future Hall of Famer Brady.

18. DT Dominique Easley, 2014 (29th overall)

In the early, dark days of Draft Twitter, Easley was a Rorschach test. If you liked him as a prospect, you were eligible for entrance to its hallowed audience; if not, you were considered suspect.

Easley was a fine talent, but a prospect riddled with questions. For one, he’d suffered multiple ACL tears in college. And then Easley admitted at the NFL scouting combine that he’d never watched an entire NFL game start to finish, saying he usually changed the channel to cartoons.

Belichick typically has a first-round type — smart, tough, hungry — but it appears he went way off script with Easley. His first two seasons ended on IR, and despite flashing in a part-time role in 2015, the Patriots cut him the following offseason.

It was considered stunning at the time. It’s clear Belichick couldn’t trust Easley to stay healthy. After the Rams picked him up, Easley landed on IR in both 2016 and 2017 and hasn’t been heard from since.

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