With the 2014 NFL draft shaping up to be the "Year of the Underclassmen," a point reinforced by ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay in this week's "First Draft" podcast, the thought came to mind to explore the Patriots' history with underclassmen.
I was looking for any trends or tell-tale signs on how the Patriots view underclassmen in the draft, and here are some of the things discovered:
Total numbers: In Bill Belichick's 14 drafts leading the Patriots, the team has had 124 draft picks. Of that group, 17 have been underclassmen. It started with safety Hakim Akbar in the 2001 fifth round and was most recently seen with cornerback Logan Ryan (3rd round, 2013) and receiver Josh Boyce (4th round, 2013).
Increase in last four years: As one would expect, with the number of underclassmen declaring for the draft increasing significantly in recent years, so have the Patriots draft picks from that pool. Of the 17 underclassmen selected since Belichick was hired to run the football operation, nine joined the team in the last four drafts. In 2012, the Patriots traded up for two underclassmen -- defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
Biggest early-round misses were underclassmen: When looking at the Patriots' draft record under Belichick, one might point to running back Laurence Maroney (1st round, 2006) and Chad Jackson (2nd round, 2006) as two of his worst early-round picks. Belichick even said that year that the team would have selected Jackson in the first round if it didn't select Maroney. Both were underclassmen. The late Marquise Hill, a defensive lineman selected late in the second round of the 2004 draft, also never emerged. He had declared as an underclassman as well.
Wilfork and Mayo among big hits as underclassmen: At the same time, two of the best early-round picks in Belichick's tenure were underclassmen -- defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (1st round, 2004) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (1st round, 2008).
Hernandez falls into the underclassman pool: When considering all that unfolded with tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is now behind bars facing a murder charge, one wonders if things might have unfolded differently if the team had an extra year to scout him. Hernandez was one of the team's 17 draft picks under Belichick who were underclassmen.
QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: With more underclassmen entering the draft each year, it sparks a dynamic where teams either have less information on the prospect, or they simply had less time to digest and analyze all the information before making the selection. That, in theory, increases the risk in making the pick. I've spoken to at least one high-ranking NFL decision-maker who felt this was particularly important at the quarterback position. This is going to be a big storyline as we lead into the 2014 NFL draft, and as research and study of the draft has shifted into a higher gear, this was one of the big takeaways today.
Special thanks John McTigue of ESPN's Stats & Information for the assist today.