How Do the Patriots Always Crush the NFL Draft?

Despite having a late-round pick nearly every year, the New England Patriots manage to continue being one of the NFL's best teams. And in this past year's draft, they went a different route to acquire talent.

I have known my oldest friend since we were both three -- nearly a quarter of a century ago -- so long that we’ve actually just started referring to each other as brothers. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we always come back to being thick as thieves.

One thing I will never forgive him for, though: I -- rotund as a child -- would eat healthy and gain 10 pounds, but my twiggy brother could pound two double cheeseburgers and a large French fries and still have room for a Cinnabon; he wouldn’t gain an ounce.

A juggernaut on the football field instead of the food court, the New England Patriots have been so successful over the last 17 years that they have had just two top-10 selections since Tom Brady was drafted in 2000. Despite this apparent disadvantage, the Patriots seem to hit in the draft time and time again -- like friends who somehow lose weight when they eat a gallon of ice cream solo.

How do they do it?

Better Late Than Never

The Patriots have become a perpetual juggernaut in the NFL, having won the AFC East a whopping 14 times since 2001, with a combined record of 196-60 (.766 win percentage) in that 16-year span. More disturbing still, they’ve been in 11 of 16 AFC Championships Games in that time, and 7 of those Super Bowls. Dynastic dominance aside, this means that almost every season in the new millennium, they’ve been drafting late in the rounds and ostensibly getting the chance to pick lesser talent.

So, how do they keep hitting in the draft?

By using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric and dividing a player’s Career AV by their games played, we can see how well the Patriots have done on their draft picks over the last decade-plus -- including those pesky offensive linemen and defenders. According to this measure, New England has drafted 17 stars over 16 years who have earned over 0.500 Career AV per game (for reference, quarterback Tom Brady has turned in 0.692 AV per game in his career). That's out of 153 draft picks in this span of time, which is an 11.1 percent hit rate on star players in the NFL Draft.

When compared to the overall league rate of 4.9 percent, it’s easy to understand just how ridiculously good the Patriots have been at identifying and utilizing talent.

The latter point is one thing we do want to take into consideration: New England hasn’t just been good because they’ve found good players; they’ve compounded their success by grooming players in their system. There’s no way for us to mathematically separate the difference between talent and teaching, but we should note in our analysis that there’s a chance these elite players might have been “just good” in other systems.

To see how successful the Patriots have been in the NFL Draft, I plotted out the Career AV per game of every pick in an NFL Draft since 2000, and then compared that graph to one solely of the New England Patriots’ picks to see how often they were finding success compared to the average. The curves of the data are fairly similar, so it’s hard to tell the difference, but the table below of different pick values for each dataset should help illustrate.

Overall Pick NE NFL Difference (%)
32 0.350 0.303 15.5%
64 0.259 0.231 12.1%
96 0.206 0.189 9.00%
128 0.168 0.159 5.7%
160 0.139 0.136 2.2%
192 0.115 0.117 -1.7%
224 0.095 0.101 -5.9%

Through most of the draft, the Patriots’ picks outpace the rest of the league by a solid amount.

Their first-round selections have earned a whopping 15.5 percent more Career AV per game than the field, at a point in the draft where there should be clearly defined elite player values that teams at the top get while teams at the bottom get significantly less talented players. This advantage continues into about the fifth round of the draft, where values become especially muddy and unclear. Then, the Patriots’ values drop below the league average.

This shows that the Tom Brady pick was a huge fluke, and New England benefited more from luck than anything else on that pick. However, they hit big where they can hit well, consistently tapping the early rounds of the draft for big-time values.

Big Money, No Whammy

One of the most freeing things about picking late is the ability to avoid feeling like a team has to make a “safe” pick, or to fill a need.

It seems that New England, in an attempt to grab the best talent despite its late-round picks, uses the lack of rebuilding pressure to avoid low-ceiling/high-floor players and instead select the highest upside possible at each pick. Indeed, this is confirmed by a bust rate (players contributing 0.000 Career AV per game) of 26.1 percent for the Pats, while the league has a 22.7 percent bust rate on its selections. This can result in a Brady or a Kliff Kingsbury, meaning their variance of values is much higher than the norm as well.

It’s entirely possible that any negative effects of lesser talent available to the Patriots have been offset by the psychological freedom to not overthink their picks. Without the luxury to browse the elite talents, they can move up to grab a falling player they identified as great, they can wait to see who the best player is that falls, or they can trade back and continue to acquire dart throws for the later rounds where they know their success rate is lower.

In 2017, New England took an entirely different tack to the draft, and that should lead to even bigger and better success for them. The table below shows their 2017 draft picks and how they were used.

Overall Pick Player Pos Career AV/G
32 Brandin Cooks* WR 0.571
64 Kony Ealy* DE 0.213
83 Derek Rivers DE N/A
85 Antonio Garcia OT N/A
131 Deatrich Wise, Jr. DE N/A
137 Dwayne Allen* TE 0.193
163 Mike Gillislee* RB 0.261
183 James O'Shaughnessy* TE 0.043
211 Conor McDermott OT N/A

Now, you may notice some veteran names on this list. The Patriots didn’t just beat the NFL at the draft this year like usual, they instead swapped most of their class for established veteran players for below-market prices. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks, defensive end Kony Ealy, tight ends Dwayne Allen and James O'Shaughnessy, and running back Mike Gillislee wound up on the team via trade or restricted free agency, and each of them brings an NFL track record to bear along with their spot.

For instance, New England traded the 32nd overall pick -- a slot that the league could typically expect to get 0.303 Career AV per game out of -- for Cooks, who has earned 0.571 Career AV per game in his career. This was an absolute fleecing by the Patriots, even if we consider that they usually got an extra 0.50 Career AV per game out of their players picked there. It goes on like that down the line this year, not to mention the selection of edge rusher Derek Rivers -- who many believed was a first-round talent -- in the third round.

The Patriots once again have figured out how to exploit roster-building strategies to secure their dynasty. Whether they pick players or use those picks to acquire talent in other ways, New England continues to break the game whenever the draft rolls around.