There are a few reasons why the New England Patriots have had sustained success during the Bill Belichick era. One of those is obviously future hall of fame quarterback Tom Brady, but there have been great quarterbacks who fail to lift their every season because the rest of the roster is void of talent. New England has seemingly stayed a step ahead in talent acquisition, turning free agency and the NFL Draft into an economic equation.
The Patriots make it a goal to never overpay for free agents, even ones already in-house. Last year, that meant watching fan favorites Malcolm Butler, Nate Solder, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola leave in free agency for bigger paychecks. New England didn’t enter a bidding war for any of their free agents, and gladly accepted the compensatory selections for their departures.
The compensatory selection process is part of the reason why New England is so content with allowing their players to sign with other franchises. Their draft strategy is generally to acquire as many picks as possible, as it gives them extra chances to “get it right” in their player evaluations. That means they have plans B, C, or even D at a given position if a free agent walks away. The cherry on top are the compensatory selections they’re rewarded with, because opposing teams gave their players massive contracts.
This offseason, we’ve already seen Trey Flowers and Trent Brown sign massive free agent contracts for the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders, respectively. The deals are so expensive that is it likely New England will receive two more third-round compensatory selections for the 2020 NFL Draft.
While the compensatory selections are nice additions, they mean nothing if they aren’t taken advantage of. I looked at what New England has done with their compensatory selections in recent memory, to see if the value of allowing good players to leave in free agency is made up through the NFL Draft. The value of the contract that free agents sign dictates how high the round of compensatory selection is, but the 3rd round is the highest that can be awarded. Since 2014, New England has been awarded with 5 compensatory selections in the 3rd or 4th round, meaning free agent contracts that were highly priced based on the current market.
Here is a look at their compensatory selections over that time, and how the Patriots used them:
2014: Round 4, Pick 140 - Cameron Fleming (OT)
New England was awarded this selection for the losses of Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Patrick Chung, while also factoring in the additions of Danny Amendola and a couple others.
Cameron Fleming became a swing tackle and spot starter for the Patriots. He would start 20 games over four years, including the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. He would sign with the Cowboys last offseason, playing a similar role for them in 2018.
2015: Round 3, Pick 97 - Geneo Grissom (EDGE)
While there were other players involved, the focal point of New England being awarded this selection was losing star cornerback Aqib Talib in free agency. New England obviously had a plan in place, as they traded for Darrelle Revis during that offseason to replace Talib.
Grissom saw minimal action in his four years in New England, accumulating 8 tackles.
2016: Round 3, Pick 96 - Vincent Valentine (IDL)
The main losses in free agency that resulted in New England being awarded this selection were Darrelle Revis and Vince Wilfork. New England was ready to rely on young cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan as starters, and Wilfork was nearing the end of his career.
The Patriots hoped that Vincent Valentine could help fill the void left by Wilfork. He saw some playing time as a rookie, posting 19 tackles. Injuries have kept him off the field since, as he wouldn't be active for another game in New England.
2017: Round 3, Pick 103
Stay with me here, because this one is a doozy. New England was awarded this pick in a roundabout way. When they traded young star linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland, part of the trade was that New England would receive Cleveland’s compensatory selection, if New England was not awarded with any. That came to fruition, so New England was granted pick 103.
The year 2017 marked the first year that compensatory selections could be traded, and New England took full advantage of that new rule. New England would trade pick 103 along with pick 32 for budding star receiver Brandin Cooks and pick 118 (which had to be forfeited because of
an unjustified crusade and hissy-fit from dictator/commissioner Roger Goodell deflategate).
Brandin Cooks would play one season in New England, helping them reach the Super Bowl. New England would trade him to the Los Angeles Rams, along with the 136th pick, for the 23rd and 196th picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. Pick 23 turned into Isaiah Wynn, the future starting left tackle in wake of Trent Brown’s departure.
The kicker? That 136th pick in the draft that New England sent to Los Angeles along with Brandin Cooks, it was also a compensatory selection:
2018: Round 4, Pick 136
New England was awarded that selection for the losses of Legarette Blount, Chris Long, Barkevious Mingo, Logan Ryan and Jabaal Sheard, while acquiring Rex Burkhead, Lawrence Guy and (the best cornerback in football) Stephon Gilmore.
New England had minimal success turning their compensatory selections into contributors. While Fleming was a useable offensive lineman, none of the three players turned into full-time starters. New England did beautifully maneuver their compensatory selections in 2017 and 2018, using them as extra capital to get a season out of a pro-bowl receiver and acquire their left tackle of the future.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, New England was awarded two more third round selections for the losses of Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler. Next year, expect two more to come their way because of the losses of Trent Brown and Trey Flowers.
Valuing in-house free agents is tricky, but let's use the Malcolm Butler departure as an example. At 28 years old, Butler was in line for his first real payday in the NFL. New England, not in the greatest of cap situation, decided that they couldn't afford to retain his services. He would sign for 5 years, up to $61 million in Tennessee. New England traded for veteran Jason McCourty to replace Butler in the starting lineup and drafted Duke Dawson in the second round.
The Patriots perception was that they could get 90% of Butler's on-field production, at roughly 25% of the cost. With the addition of Dawson, they remained youthful at the position. On top of that, they'll have an extra pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. While there were points during the season that Butler's talent was missed in the secondary, it wasn't so much of a difference to hinder the team on their way to a Super Bowl victory. While its difficult to argue with the roster building of a team that just won the Super Bowl, they will need to hit on these selections moving forward, because who knows how much longer the greatest closer in sports history will still be their quarterback.