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By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
The New England Patriots’ 23-21 preseason loss to the New York Giants on Thursday night ended up being a case study of Bill Belichick’s drafting success — and failures — over the last five years.
On the same night that receiver Tyquan Thornton, New England’s 2022 second-round pick, fought through a holding penalty to nab a touchdown, Patriots cornerback Joejuan Williams, the team’s 2019 second-round pick, allowed a laughably easy touchdown to receiver Richie James.
With the Patriots’ starters resting, Thornton got the opportunity to start. Williams didn’t get into the game until the second quarter — and he played to the end of the game, a sign he’s on the roster bubble. And frankly, with the team drafting two cornerbacks and signing two more in free agency, Williams is more likely to miss the cut than make the team.
So, what’s so important about these two players and these two plays? They personify two different eras of Belichick’s draft history.
From 2016 to 2019, New England struggled uncharacteristically with the draft, with the 2019 and 2018 classes looking particularly barren. The Patriots seem to have whiffed on Williams. They definitely whiffed on 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry. He and Williams have been infamous headliners in a 10-pick draft that really only produced running back Damien Harris and punter Jake Bailey.
Sony Michel (first round) and Duke Dawson (second round), both from the 2018 draft classes, look like missed opportunities. In the 2017 draft, in which the Patriots made just four selections, only defensive end Deatrich Wise remains with the team.
That era of drafting was so weak New England found itself setting free-agency spending records during the 2021 offseason when the Pats added outside linebacker Matthew Judon, receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, cornerback Jalen Mills and tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, among others. The Patriots spent $163 million in guaranteed money over the course of the offseason. Their roster was short on talent, in large part because they were not maximizing high draft selections.
Owner Robert Kraft, the guy paying those contracts, had a few thoughts on that spending spree.
“I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason,” Kraft said in March 2021 at an owner’s meeting. “So we know nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that.”
Kraft then seemed to nudge his general manager, Belichick.
“Really, the teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good,” Kraft said. “I don’t feel like we’ve done the greatest job the last few years, and I really hope and believe I’ve seen a different approach this year. In the end, it all comes down to what happens on the field and how people execute, and you really don’t know how good a draft is for at least two years.”
Fast-forward roughly one year and things are looking up.
Thursday night’s preseason game served as a reminder that Belichick is beginning to reverse that trend. He’s drafting like he’s back in the 2000s. If that’s a bit hyperbolic for your taste, he’s clearly no longer drafting at the (low) level of 2016-2019.
Against the Giants, the coach gave some of his stars a rest for this meaningless game. So we didn’t get a look at recent draft gems such as quarterback Mac Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, running back Rhamondre Stevenson, safety Kyle Dugger and guard Michael Onwenu. Those players are at the core of the team’s new wave of young talent. They are secure in their starting roles.
And then there were others who were on display to flash their potential.
The rookie class looked great. During his two series of play, guard Cole Strange, a 2022 first-rounder, did not allow a pressure and did nice work on run plays, turning or driving his defender to create space for the team’s running backs. Cornerback Jack Jones, a fourth-rounder, logged a pass breakup and delivered a strong lockdown performance. Defensive tackle and sixth-round pick Sam Roberts logged a few pressures in the interior against both Giants quarterbacks, Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor.
And then there were the players from 2020 and 2021 who seemed ready for their breakout moment. Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings delivered a brutal quarterback hit on Jones and forced an incompletion — the end of his night came soon after, a clear sign he was impressive. Outside linebacker Josh Uche logged a pressure and a sack on the Giants’ second drive, which effectively ended the series. He played a bit deeper into the game, however, as the Patriots apparently still want to see more from him.
Safety Joshuah Bledsoe, who has enjoyed an impressive training camp, started on defense and logged three tackles on an abridged snap count. And Cam McGrone (fifth round, 2021) had a standout game at inside linebacker with five tackles in the first half and finished the game with seven. Heck, even 2021 seventh-rounder Tre Nixon made an impact, logging the second most receiving yards on the team (81).
Every one of those players came from the last three draft classes. Most are in the mix to earn snaps at their respective position.
They won’t all shine during the regular season. But the fact that they made a difference Thursday should have Belichick smiling. And — no joke — he was legitimately smiling and laughing at halftime. I know you want proof. Here it is.
The recent narrative has been that the Patriots coach and GM has lost his ability to identify uniquely talented players as he did during those runs of Super Bowl wins. There’s some truth in that narrative.
And when Belichick appeared to reach on just about every selection during the course of the 2022 NFL Draft — few expected Strange to go in Round 1, or Thornton to go in Round 2, or Jack Jones to go in Round 4 — Belichick only seemed to hurt his reputation further. He has teed up the media for a round of “I told you so” if the class doesn’t pan out.
But on a night like Thursday when those players looked competent and, at times, dominant, Belichick looked like he might get the last laugh.
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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