The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that you can't just the success or failure of any team's draft right away. The only way to properly put a draft in perspective is to give it the proper amount of time, and I agree.
And two days feels like plenty of time. So let's dive into the evaluation process of the Patriots Class of 2023:
- Oregon CB Christian Gonzalez (No. 17 overall)
- Georgia Tech DE Keion White (No. 46)
- Sacramento State LB Marte Mapu (No. 76)
- Troy C Jake Andrews (No. 107)
- Maryland K Chad Ryland (No. 112)
- Eastern Michigan OG Sidy Sow (No. 117)
- UCLA OG Atonio Mafi (No. 144)
- LSU WR Kayshon Boutte (No. 187)
- Michigan State P Bryce Baringer (No. 192)
- Liberty WR Demario Douglas (No. 210)
- Michigan State CB Ameer Speed (No. 214) ¨C13C
Overall the professional punditry class has been largely positive. Not giving them a 1400 on their SATs, necessarily. But good enough to make Dean's List. Here are a couple of representative samples:
Day 1 grade: A
Day 2 grade: A-
Day 3 grade: B
Analysis: Gonzalez provided nice value at No. 17 as he covers receivers like a blanket and makes plays on the ball, the primary jobs of an NFL cornerback. White's ability to play outside and inside makes him a typical Patriots defensive line selection. Mapu is yet another New England Day 2 pick that makes casual fans say, "Who?" But I thought he showed real potential as a linebacker/hybrid who will star on special teams.
Fox Sports - B+
Cornerback Christian Gonzlez might just be the best athlete Bill Belichick has ever coached at cornerback. And that's saying something, given the coach has worked with Ty Law and Stephon Gillmore, among others. So for the Patriots to get Gonzalez at 17 after trading back? That's just awesome.
They then took Georgia Tech defensive end Keion White in the second round. He's another elite athlete with a lot of potential. The good news is that he won't have to rush onto the field, with the Patriots fairly deep on the edge.
New England finished the draft with a total of 12 — TWELVE! — prospects. …
What they didn't take? A tackle. That's the lone need they didn't fill.
I'll second that emotion on the last part. I saw offensive tackle as not only the number one priority, but as the area with the most opportunity to find a system fit, either in Round 1 or in the middle rounds, where they've added foundational talents like Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon. The fact they had every opportunity at the position and passed every single time tells us all we need to know about the Pats personnel staff's opinion of this tackle group, their own roster, and their level of respect for what the rest of us think.
That said, that headline is not meant to be ironic. I chose those words carefully. It has history behind it. Owing to the fact the cult of Draft Gurus has a long and inglorious history of completely whiffing when it comes to evaluating Bill Belichick's thought processes every April.
For instance, this was last year:
Cole Strange wasn't great by any means. But he started 17 games, took almost 1,000 snaps and finished 28th among guards in Pro Football Focus' overall grade. Jack Jones had the 10th lowest passer rating against in the league at his position. Marcus Jones was an impact special teamer and contributed as a corner as the year progressed. Oh, and Bailey Zappe won both his starts. So the instant reaction to this group was dead wrong.
And the reverse is true. This was the instant analysis of 2019:
That was the draft of N'Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams and Chase Winovich. Saved only by the home runs that were Damien Harris and Jake Bailey, plus some offensive line depth.
The point being that no one knows about any team's draft, but New England's especially. Because what they look for, how they construct a roster, what specific skillsets they prioritize, are a mystery to anyone outside their evaluation process. Only someone in the player personnel department in Foxboro is qualified to truly speak to what they're going for. In the way Thornton Melon hired the one guy capable of writing a paper about Kurt Vonnegut:
And even he got an F.
So I won't presume to give this one a grade. I just know that there are things about this 2023 Pats draft I absolutely love. In no particular order:
They didn't overreach for anybody.
By this I mean they didn't get cute like they have at times in the past. Even conceding every team's board is different and none of them reflect the teachings of Mock Draft Culture, there have been some truly dumbfounding mystery picks. Tavon Wilson in the 2nd round of 2012, who's name appeared in virtually no printed draft publication back when those were still a thing. You might argue Marte Mapu in the 3rd round, because he's a small school guy. But at the time of his selection, Daniel Jeremiah on ESPN called Mapu his favorite player remaining. And there's this:
If anything, this was the draft they not only didn't reach, they waited patiently for steals. Christian Gonzalez being chief among them, as he was on average a No. 7 projection. And also Keion White, who was 15th overall on Jeremiah's board.
They like their offense better than you do.
For sure they like their skill positions and tackles more. I for one am astonished they didn't invest a lot of capital in getting a tight end, given that their entire depth chart at that spot consists of two guys who are not under contract beyond this year. For all the talk about "giving Mac Jones weapons," it appears that barring a trade like the DeVante Parker deal last summer, the "weapons" they've added are Juju Smith-Schuster, Mike Gesicki, and the all-important Year 2 Bounce from last year's 2nd round pick, Tyquan Thornton. Also, this guy:
Their most intriguing rookie is a 6th rounder.
I'll probably end up doing a separate post about Kayshon Boutte later on, so I'll keep this brief. But in a nutshell, he's a guy who was a 1st round projection early in his career. Until he broke an ankle (on a sideline throw where he made the catch, by the way), and needed surgery. He then needed another surgery. And by the time he got back on the field, Brian Kelly had taken over with his stupid fake Southern drawl and a whole new system. Boutte just never fit in with the new coaches and new scheme and it crushed his draft satus. To the point he announced in December he was going back for another season, before reversing field five days later. Give me a guy with talent, experience, past production, a chip on his shoulder like the Rock of Gibraltar with everything to prove, put him in a WR room with Troy Brown, and I like his chances. And ours.
Special teams were a priority.
As well they should have been. The Pats became the first team since the 2000 Raiders to draft a kicker and a punter in the same year. No one knows exactly what went sideways with Jake Bailey this past year, though he claims it was due to a beef he was having with the training staff putting him through drills he had never done before. Whatever. Neither here nor there. The fact is, he was objectively awful most of the season. Nick Folk has been a godsend since he arrived as our fourth option in 2019. But he's their Roy Kent. A 38 year old godsend who is past his prime and wasn't sent by any god to reach the end zone on kickoffs or hit from 50+. As a result, 2022 was one of the worst seasons for special teams these vision-corrected eyes have seen. Mock GM Bill if you must for taking a punter and a kicker in one draft. But when you've got 12 picks overall and SIX in the 100s, you can spend those loose coins on rookies who will have a direct impact on your success. And these are elite prospects:
And I'm already intrigued by Baringer because he looks like he's approaching a group of teens walking into his Radio Shack in 2003 to ask, "Can I help you?" so they don't shoplift.
They're not shy about building through the small schools.
Not just Mapu, but C Jake Andrews from Troy, WR Demario Davis from Liberty, Ryland and Sidy Sow who share that special bond that can only come from playing for Eastern Michigan and winning the Battle of Stalingrad:
They like Senior Bowl guys.
Like the cast of The Girls Next Door, the Patriots have a thing for seniors:
They haven't lost their love of multi-sport athletes.
Stephen Neal was a college wrestler (the only man to defeat Brock Lesnar) who never played football until coming to New England and lasting nine seasons at right guard. They drafted Nate Ebner, who only had time to play special teams at Ohio State in order to focus on rugby. Then they gave him a leave of absence to play in the Olympics. I'm not sure this has ever been mentioned before, but Chris Hogan plays lacrosse. And you may be aware after 25 years that Tom Brady was almost a catcher for the Montreal Expos. Now to that noble company, we can add the name Atonio Mafi:
Close your eyes and you can just see the 2nd & goal from the 1 fullback dives from this guy.
The major takeaway being that it's not about what the experts say. Not even me, who has been obsessing over this stuff since long before GM Bill was running the War Room. After all, I wrote about 15,000 words on this draft. They made 12 picks. And not only did I get none of them right, all of my priorities were not theirs. That's part of what makes this all so bloody fascinating. But where the real joy in this comes is seeing how right the Pats were and how wrong the rest of the world is. Rookie camp can't start soon enough.