Method to the Madness: How Belichick Rules the Draft

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

“Bill Belichick is smart, but sometimes he succeeds just by aiding other teams’ efforts to be stupid.” I’ve said that about Belichick a few times now, and while I wasn’t aware of his scientific credentials at the time, he’s pretty good at exploiting the mistakes that awful football organizations tend to make. Bad teams tend to be conservative on fourth down, and Belichick is one of the more aggressive game managers in football. Bad teams spend heavily in free agency and hold on to their players out of nostalgia far too long, and Belichick is more aggressive than anybody with his personnel. Ask Logan Mankins.

Perhaps the most common characteristic of bad organizations is that they make a habit of giving away draft picks to trade up and acquire a player with an earlier selection. It’s almost always a strong sign that they simply don’t understand the game at hand. The evidence suggests the NFL draft is most likely a crapshoot, so even if your team’s draft board has a first-round grade on a player left in the middle of the second round, chances are that the rest of the league is right and you’re wrong. Teams do trade up and succeed, of course, in the same way that a drunk blackjack player hits on 16 against a five and wins sometimes, but it’s not an optimal strategy.

During his time in New England, Belichick has taken advantage of the misguided general managers and personnel men of the NFL by trading down over and over and over again. Some of the moves haven’t worked out, because Belichick isn’t a soothsayer, and there have been times when Belichick has traded up and been happy with his return. In terms of the Approximate Value from his assorted draft maneuverings, though, Belichick has built a monstrous record of success. It is impossible to imagine the Patriots appearing in this year’s Super Bowl without his massive returns in the trading market.

The Methods

There are a few clear processes Belichick takes to accruing extra picks. I’m not exactly revealing state secrets in mentioning them, but where he succeeds more than most is in sticking to a game plan and avoiding making the desperate decisions that other teams do. Belichick doesn’t treat the Patriots like they’re one player away. He doesn’t overreact to a perceived weakness, like New England’s lack of a downfield receiver, by throwing a high draft pick at a talent who doesn’t deserve the recognition. And he doesn’t sacrifice future picks to satisfy present needs.

Belichick basically makes two sorts of trades: He trades you a pick now for a pick that’s guaranteed to be better later, like when he dealt a third-rounder to the Panthers in 2010 for a second-rounder the following year. Failing that, the Patriots trade down and deal one pick for several selections, taking advantage of the league’s level of overcertainty in evaluation and its tendency to underestimate the value of midround picks. The 2013 trade with the Vikings that sent a first-rounder to Minnesota for second-, third-, fourth-, and seventh-round picks is a classic Belichick swap and one the Patriots are very happy to have made two years later.

Where Belichick really extracts value, though, is by combining the two types of trades and repeating the process. With extra picks each and every season, Belichick stays flexible and repeatedly maneuvers around the draft board to try to create opportunities. There’s no one red paper clip–style move — a deal in which Belichick traded a seventh-rounder that eventually became a first-round pick — but when you chain his trades together, you can look at where the picks fell to see just how foolish the rest of the league ends up looking.

There’s one other more subtle way Belichick accrues draft picks, and while it led the Patriots to their franchise player, Belichick actually had nothing to do with it. The Patriots mostly stay out of free agency, choosing to make selective forays for undervalued assets (like Brandon LaFell) or talents at the top of the market they would otherwise be unable to acquire (like Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas in years past).

By doing so and having other teams target their free agents, the Patriots come in line for various compensatory picks from the NFL’s obtuse, black-box system. These picks aren’t tradable, and no team can receive anything higher than a third-rounder as part of the league’s system, but their value can add up over time. The Patriots have made 25 compensatory selections during Belichick’s time with the team, and the estimated value of those picks — based on their draft slot alone — is roughly between the value of having the first overall pick and the second overall pick. All for not signing free agents.

I’m measuring that value thanks to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, who used the Approximate Value metric created at to build a historically based estimate of what each draft pick would produce over the first five years of his career, the time when a team controls most or all of a player’s ability to move around the league. You can read more about Approximate Value here, but the word “approximate” is there for a reason.

The Patriots’ 25 compensatory picks under Belichick range from 2009-3-971 (linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, who tore his ACL in training camp and was waived the following year without ever playing a game for the Patriots, a selection estimated to be worth 5.5 points of Approximate Value) to 2005-7-255 (tight end Andy Stokes, who was Mr. Irrelevant in that year’s draft and also never suited up for the Patriots, a pick estimated to be worth exactly zero points). Add up the Approximate Value of those 25 picks and you get 32.6 points. The first overall pick in the draft, per Stuart’s chart, is worth 34.6 points, while the second overall pick is worth 30.2 points. The compensatory pick haul from New England falls just about in the middle.

Now, even though McKenzie was the most likely pick of that bunch to succeed and failed to ever contribute, the Patriots have gotten far more out of those picks than they could possibly have imagined. Belichick inherited four compensatory draft picks from the outgoing administration in 2000, thanks to cap issues that prevented the Patriots from re-signing several of their free agents during the 1998 offseason. The most valuable of those picks, 2000-4-127, was used on offensive lineman Greg Robinson-Randall; 2000-6-201 went to defensive end David Nugent and 2000-7-239 went to Patrick Pass.

You probably know where 2000-6-199 went. The Patriots used that pick to select Tom Brady, who delivered 44 AV2 over his first five seasons from a draft slot that is expected to produce 1.1 points of Approximate Value. That’s in addition to contributors like David Givens, Nick Kaczur, and Cameron Fleming, each of whom arrived in New England via compensatory selections.

The league’s methodology in determining who receives compensatory draft picks is mostly secret, so we’ll never know exactly how the Patriots ended up getting the 199th pick that led them to Brady. We can narrow it down to a few players, though. This incomplete list of 1999 free-agent signings from a very old version of notes that the Pats lost offensive lineman Dave Wohlabaugh to the Browns on a seven-year, $26 million deal. He was likely the player responsible for netting the Patriots the fourth-round pick they would use on Robinson-Randall.

The sixth-rounders are a little murkier. The Patriots lost punter Tom Tupa, but they signed fellow punter Lee Johnson to replace him. More likely, the sixth-rounders come down to the departures of defensive tackle Mark Wheeler and linebacker Todd Collins, not to be confused with the longtime backup quarterback of the same name. Both Wheeler and Collins were out of the league before Brady ever took a meaningful regular-season snap. It seems impossible that the entire history of the NFL changed because the Patriots were capped out and couldn’t re-sign two competent veteran defenders, but that’s exactly what happened. The Patriots famously went back and forth in their draft room between Brady and Louisiana Tech passer Tim Rattay before choosing the former, and the rest is history.

The Return

By my count, the Patriots have made 48 trades solely involving draft picks during Belichick’s reign in New England. When you add up the expected return for each of those trades, what Belichick has accomplished has been staggering. I’m not including trades in which the Patriots traded draft picks for a player or vice versa, although I suspect that Belichick has gotten the better of those deals, too. It also doesn’t include the aforementioned value from the compensatory picks or the 2015 fourth-rounder he acquired from Tampa Bay in the Logan Mankins trade.

Strictly in terms of the draft-pick deals he has made, Belichick has acquired 80.6 points of Approximate Value. That’s like Belichick getting the first overall pick, the second overall pick, and the 19th overall pick for nothing. Or if you prefer, it’s like he’s been handed the 99th overall pick in each of his 15 drafts just for showing up and saying yes to overanxious teams.

The 10 Best Trades

It hasn’t been all successes for Belichick. He’s traded up to acquire Daniel Graham, Bethel Johnson, and Chad Jackson in the first two rounds of the draft, and he’s traded away picks that other teams used to grab Clay Matthews, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant. The Patriots have given away draft picks in deals for Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth, and Duane Starks. They’ve tried to create a cottage industry around their backup quarterbacks and failed, wasting too many picks in the process. But none of that stuff is knowable when trades are being made. And just like anyone, they’ve missed on picks. It happens.

They’ve also made so many good draft-pick-driven trades that it’s hard to narrow down the list of Belichick’s best trades to 10. What I’ve done, where possible, is combine the trades that logically chain together to link them as one fell Belichickian swoop. Pretend for a second that Belichick traded the 31st pick in the draft for the 45th and 68th picks, and then traded the 68th pick for the 79th and 121st picks. Here, I’ll just note he traded the 31st pick for the 45th, 79th, and 121st picks. You’ll get the idea.

These are roughly the 10 most valuable trades Belichick has made in terms of acquiring excess Approximate Value from picks. I’ve thrown in a couple of other trades that stand out and moved one up for reasons that will be clear. In any case, these are the deals that have made Belichick the best draft-day trader in football:

10. Traded 2003-3-78 for Corey Dillon
Approximate Value Created: 2.1 points

This is a classic two-part Belichick swap that sees him take advantage of the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins wanted to get back into the third round of the 2003 draft to select Memphis tackle Wade Smith, who would lose his starting job after his rookie season and was eventually waived after just 22 games over three seasons. Smith eventually became a Pro Bowl guard, but it was three stops and nine years later in Houston.

The Dolphins sent their 2004 second-rounder to the Patriots for this third-rounder, which New England received from the Saints as part of the return for safety Tebucky Jones, who would last only two seasons in New Orleans. The Patriots then used that second-rounder, which became the 56th pick, to acquire Dillon from the Bengals. Dillon promptly ran for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns during New England’s Super Bowl season in 2004.

9. Traded 2005-6-195 and 2005-7-246 for 2005-7-230 and 2006-5-136
Approximate Value Created: 2.3 points

I love this deal because it’s the quintessential example of Belichick making something out of nothing, inserting himself into the middle of a deal to somehow come away with a profit. Again, these are two trades combined. First, Belichick dealt the 195th and 246th picks to Green Bay to acquire the 175th pick in the 2005 draft. That’s actually a slightly profitable trade in its own right, because Stuart’s model sees the 246th pick as being worth zero,3 so it generates 0.7 points of Approximate Value.

Then, before Belichick could even use the pick, he was approached by the Oakland Raiders, who are the suckers Belichick has exploited like no other over this run. You’ll see. The Raiders needed to get this pick, the first in the sixth round, to draft Anttaj Hawthorne. Hawthorne played 18 games over two years and was cut without ever starting for Oakland. To get their man, the Raiders gave up a 2006 pick that ended up becoming the third pick of the fifth round, a massive improvement on where the Patriots started. They used that pick on swing tackle Ryan O’Callaghan, but the guy they chose in 2005 at 230 — Matt Cassel — had a more notable Patriots career.

8. Traded 2007-3-91, 2009-4-124, 2009-6-199, 2008-7-238 for 2007-7-211, 2008-5-153, 2009-2-40
Approximate Value Created: 3.5 points

The Raiders kick off another swing of trades that sees the Patriots end up with a premium pick at a relatively modest cost. Despite coming off a 2-14 season, with little hope of contending in 2007, the Raiders were happy to send a 2008 third-rounder to the Patriots for the 27th pick in the third round of the 2007 draft. The Raiders used that 91st-overall selection on tackle Mario Henderson, who started 28 games over four years and never saw a snap outside of his time in Oakland. The Raiders also sent over the 211th pick to sweeten the deal, which became eventual cut Oscar Lua.

Oakland finished 4-12 in 2007, making its third-round pick in 2008 the 69th selection. That alone — dealing 91 for 69 — would be a massive improvement, but Belichick took it a step further. He dealt the 69th pick to the Chargers, who sent a fifth-rounder and a 2009 second-rounder to the Patriots to draft fullback Jacob Hester, who played a key role in what might be the worst special-teams season in football history.

The Patriots used the fifth-rounder from that deal and a seventh-rounder to trade up in the fifth round and grab eventual Pro Bowl special teamer Matt Slater, who is still on the roster. The second-rounder they got from the Chargers ended up as the 47th pick — remember, this started with the Patriots trading the 91st pick — which the Patriots used as the primary bait to trade up in the 2009 draft. They sent the 47th, 124th, and 199th picks that year back to Oakland to draft … wait for it … Ron Brace. Can’t win ’em all.

7. Traded 2010-1-22, 2010-4-119 for 2010-1-27, 2010-3-90, 2010-4-113
Approximate Value Created: 4.9 points

This is a really interesting stack of three trades that consists almost exclusively of Pro Bowl–caliber players. The Patriots started with the 22nd pick in the first round and traded down, dealing it to the Broncos for the 24th and 113th pick. The Broncos used that 22nd pick on Demaryius Thomas. The 24th pick, meanwhile, was dealt again for another superstar receiver. It went to Dallas, who sent the 27th and 90th picks to the Patriots to draft Dez Bryant.

As much as Patriots fans might be salivating at the idea of having Thomas or Bryant in a Patriots uniform over the past four years, New England didn’t come away with a terrible haul. The Patriots used that 27th pick to draft Devin McCourty, who has made All-Pro teams at both cornerback and safety. The 90th pick was wasted on a far inferior wideout in Taylor Price, who played only four games for New England over two seasons, while the 113th pick was spent on a talented tight end whose future could not possibly have been predicted by any scout: Aaron Hernandez.

6. Traded 2011-1-28, 2012-3-93 for 2011-2-56, 2012-1-21
Approximate Value Created: 5.1 points

This was a baffling deal on its face from the moment it was consummated, but helped bring the Patriots their best pass-rusher. The Saints apparently didn’t notice they had gotten years of effective service out of undrafted running backs like Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory while struggling to get the most out of first-rounder Reggie Bush, going out of their way to acquire a bruising running back who didn’t really fit their pass-first system at all, Mark Ingram.

To get the 28th pick from the Patriots, they dealt the 56th selection and their first-round pick the following year. Since that pick ended up at 27, the Saints basically gave the Patriots a second-rounder to chill for a year. New England used that pick on Shane Vereen, who most would argue is a superior running back to Ingram.

That trade on its own is actually worth 9.2 points of Approximate Value, but the Patriots used that pick to trade up and find a critical defender. They dealt the 27th pick and added their third-round selection to move up to Cincinnati’s pick at 21, where they grabbed pass-rusher Chandler Jones. That trade was a net negative in terms of value created, but if Jones can match his two-sack performance from the last time the Patriots played the Seahawks, Patriots fans surely won’t be complaining this Sunday.

5. Traded 2013-1-29 for 2013-2-52, 2013-3-83, 2013-4-102, 2013-7-229
Approximate Value Created: 7.8 points

This is a big leap forward; 7.8 points of value is roughly getting the 67th pick in the draft for free. It’s also a trade that looks far better in January 2015 than it did in January 2014. A year ago, Patriots fans who wanted a speedy downfield receiver were likely wishing they had held on to that 29th pick and used it on the player the Vikings chose, wideout Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson looked like a budding star after making a number of highlight-reel plays over the final two months of 2013, but he got lost in the shuffle under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner and was benched for practice-squad acquisition Charles Johnson in 2014.

Meanwhile, New England’s return looks quite valuable one year later. They used the 52nd pick on linebacker Jamie Collins, a Pro Bowl–caliber talent who has been invaluable filling in for Jerod Mayo this season. The 83rd pick, Logan Ryan, is a viable third/fourth cornerback, which can be exceedingly valuable in a league where teams spend more than half their snaps in nickel looks and pay cornerbacks of that caliber salaries in the $4 million to $5 million range.

The 102nd pick was spent on disappointing wideout Josh Boyce, but the Patriots made up for that by packaging the 229th pick with Olympic athlete Jeff Demps in a trade later that weekend for Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount played a huge role in last year’s playoff victory over the Colts, and after returning from a brief stint with the Steelers, he’s served as New England’s primary running back during this postseason run.

4. Traded 2003-1-19, 2003-3-75 for 2003-2-36, 2003-4-117, 2004-1-21
Approximate Value Created: 8.4 points

Ozzie Newsome is such a talented football administrator that he would deserve to make the Hall of Fame as a general manager if it weren’t for the fact that he’s already in as a tight end. This is the worst trade he will ever make.

After winning the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback in 2000, the Ravens got stuck between a rock and a hard place. They failed to re-sign Dilfer and instead added Elvis Grbac, who was cut after one season during a contract dispute. In cap trouble, the Ravens tried to get by with Jeff Blake, which worked out the way you might think. They needed a quarterback to build around, but they couldn’t resist using the first-rounder they owned at 10 on a pass-rusher, Terrell Suggs. Even when Newsome screws up, he does something great.

Desperately needing a quarterback, the Ravens bit the bullet and traded back into the first round, finding a willing partner in the Patriots. Belichick traded the 19th pick to the Ravens, who drafted Kyle Boller. In return, he extracted the 41st pick and, crucially, Baltimore’s first-rounder in the subsequent draft. He used the 41st pick in a deal to trade up to 36, where the Patriots drafted Eugene Wilson, who stepped in as the team’s starting free safety from Week 1 of his rookie season.

The big addition, though, was that first-rounder to come. Baltimore has perennially featured one of the best defenses over the past decade. Imagine what it could have done if it had held on to that pick and chosen the player the Patriots took — Vince Wilfork — with the 21st selection.

3. Traded 2009-1-23, 2010-6-190 for 2009-2-41, 2009-3-83, 2009-7-232, 2010-2-42
Approximate Value Created: 12.5 points

This is where things get really complicated. They also get really valuable. This four-trade stack generated what amounts to the final pick of the first round for the Patriots, free of charge. It also brought the Patriots arguably their most important player on the current roster outside of Brady.

It started with a small trade. The Patriots traded down from 23 to 26 in the first round of the 2009 draft, getting the 162nd pick from the Ravens in the process. Baltimore took Michael Oher. The Patriots didn’t need Oher, but they would likely want to go back and take Clay Matthews. They passed on Matthews at 26, dealing the 26th and 162nd picks they had just acquired to the Packers for the 41st, 73rd, and 83rd picks. A second-rounder and two third-rounders is catnip for Belichick.

The Patriots kept the 41st and 83rd picks, making selections they won’t care to relive. Darius Butler and Brandon Tate did not exactly have glorious Patriots careers, even if they went on to enjoy success elsewhere. The 73rd pick, however, turned into a gold mine. Gene Smith and the Jaguars came calling, offering the 232nd pick in that year’s draft and their 2010 second-rounder to take small-school product Derek Cox, who turned into a competent cornerback before leaving Jacksonville and suddenly losing all of his ability to play football.

Here’s where it gets good if you’re a Patriots fan. The Patriots kept the 232nd pick and used it on a college quarterback who has thrown only one professional pass. Of course, that pass went for a 51-yard touchdown, as that quarterback — Julian Edelman — eventually emerged as Brady’s top wide receiver. The Jaguars pick eventually landed at 44, and while trading 73 for 44 would have been good enough for the Patriots, Belichick will never regret trading a sixth-round pick to those cursed Raiders to move up from 44 to 42 in the 2010 draft. That’s where he took Rob Gronkowski.

2. Traded 2009-3-89 for 2010-2-62, 2010-5-150, 2011-2-33
Approximate Value Created: 17.3 points

In terms of Approximate Value created without considering any of the players involved, this is the best trade stack Belichick has ever made. I’m cheating by sticking a lesser trade at no. 1 because the outcomes make it a work of art, whereas this trade really didn’t amount to as much as it should have. Strictly in terms of wheeling and dealing, though, this is Belichick’s best work.

This is the same trade, over and over again, made with teams who just don’t know what they’re doing. It starts with the Titans. They fell in love with the incredible athleticism of Jared Cook and traded into the third round of the 2009 draft, acquiring the 89th pick for their 2010 second-rounder. They promptly spent the next four years bemoaning that the freak athlete they acquired couldn’t block and refused to play him more than half the time, which is why they’re the Titans.

That pick became the 47th selection in the 2010 draft. That’s already a victory, but Belichick got more. He dealt the 47th pick to the Cardinals for the 58th and 89th selections. Arizona used the pick to choose Daryl Washington, an incredible talent who missed all of 2014 after flunking his second substance-abuse test. And then Belichick dealt both those picks. The 58th pick went to Houston for the 62nd and 150th picks, which the Patriots kept and used on run-plugging linebacker Brandon Spikes and punter Zoltan Mesko.

Carolina general manager Marty Hurney, who accused the Patriots of having a “culture of cheating” last week, helped contribute by allowing Belichick to steal his draft pick. The Panthers fell in love with wide receiver Armanti Edwards and had no qualms about giving up a future second-rounder to acquire the 25th pick in the third round. After all, Carolina had gone 20-12 over the previous two seasons; how bad could it really go?

Really bad. Edwards was a total bust, a middling return man who finished his Panthers career with five catches in three-plus seasons. The Panthers collapsed and went 2-14, leaving them with the worst record in football. That meant the second-rounder they had sent to the Patriots for the 89th pick became the first pick of the second round, the 33rd overall selection.

The reason we don’t remember this as one of the worst trades in league history is because the Patriots blew the pick, drafting oft-injured cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Yes, that’s disappointing. They also turned 89 into 33, 62, and 150. You don’t need to calculate Approximate Value or analyze pick quality to realize how ridiculous that idea even seems. They basically hypnotized the league’s dumbest teams into making a trade so lopsided that it would never pass review in a fantasy football league. That’s magic.

1. Traded 2007-1-28, 2008-5-164 for 2007-4-110, 2008-1-10, 2008-3-78
Approximate Value Created: 16.0 points

If any organization in football emulates Belichick’s philosophy of trading down and taking chances on players with short-term issues, it’s the San Francisco 49ers. General manager Trent Baalke might approach things that way because he has a deep, settled roster, but in 2007, he was still working underneath then-VP of Player Personnel Scot McCloughan, who had one of the best first rounds a GM can have. Drafting for a still-struggling 49ers team, Baalke drafted Patrick Willis with the 11th overall pick, and when tackle Joe Staley was still on the board at 28, he traded up to nab a player who would eventually become a star offensive lineman.

Staley turned into a great player, but he cost the 49ers dearly. San Francisco sent New England its fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft and its first-rounder in 2008. The Patriots expected the 7-9 49ers to struggle, and when they fell to 5-11, New England came away with the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft.

The Patriots dealt that pick away, too. They sent the seventh and 164th picks to the Saints, who gave them the 10th and 78th picks in return. The Saints, oddly enough, found a far better player at 164 (Carl Nicks) than they did at seven (Sedrick Ellis). Belichick used both of his picks on linebackers, drafting future star Jerod Mayo at 10 before whiffing badly on Michigan product Shawn Crable at 78.

Those deals, on draft value alone, are huge wins for the Patriots. Turning a late first-rounder into an early first-rounder is just about the most impressive deal a team can make, let alone while swapping a fifth-rounder for a third-rounder in the process.

There’s the small issue, though, of that fourth-rounder the 49ers sent the Patriots to help sweeten the deal. The Patriots didn’t keep that pick, so there aren’t any calculations for its value in the return listed above. They sent that pick to the Raiders to take a risk on a unproductive receiver by the name of Randy Moss. All Moss did in 2007 was … well, you know what Randy Moss did in 2007. The Patriots even later got a 2011 third-round pick from the Vikings for Moss, although they ended up only with Ryan Mallett to show for it. The no. 28 pick for no. 7 and 2007 Randy Moss? Hell, Marty Hurney might have been right all along.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders


Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell