FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Of the first 105 selections of the 2014 NFL draft, 10 players are no longer on the club that selected them.
Given the lack of success that the Browns have had since their return to the NFL in 1999, and the resounding success that the Patriots have had in Bill Belichick’s tenure (2000-2016), there aren’t many strong links between the franchises. This is one the Patriots obviously don’t want, but after trading high 2014 fourth-round draft choice Bryan Stork to the Washington Redskins on Wednesday for a conditional 2017 seventh-round pick, they leave themselves with little to show from the top of their 2014 draft class (just quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo at No. 62). They had previously released defensive tackle Dominique Easley (29th overall) in April.
In one respect, the Patriots can be credited for showing a willingness to move on decisively from two high picks. At the same time, the bottom-line results make 2014 a strong candidate for one of the worst drafts in Belichick’s tenure, with one of the last hopes being that Garoppolo might emerge as a franchise quarterback and the Patriots reap the benefits of that in one way or another.
With NFL rosters set to be trimmed from 90 to 75 by Aug. 30, and then from 75 to 53 by Sept. 3, there’s a possibility a few other teams will join these undesirable ranks. But for now it’s just New England and Cleveland, and here are three layers to consider depending on the level of your positive/negative outlook:
Positive spin -- Draft status is overrated and Malcolm Butler counts too.
After the 2014 draft, the Patriots’ scouting process led them to invite rookie free-agent cornerback Malcolm Butler in for a tryout, and we all know what happened from there. So while Butler technically doesn’t count as part of the draft class, he is indeed a member of the team’s overall class of ’14. And when considering the development of 2015 undrafted free-agent signing David Andrews at center is a big reason Stork is no longer around, it’s a reminder that draft status isn’t everything.
Neutral spin -- Patriots have core to overcome poor draft, but important lessons to be learned from ’14.
Because of Tom Brady, solid work in free agency and some excellent draft picks leading up to 2014 -- such as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins -- there is a strong enough core to compensate for a down year. No team gets it right all of the time, so let’s not sugarcoat it: This was below the team’s regular standard. But the Patriots are resourceful enough to overcome it. If there is a silver lining for the club, the lessons of ’14 seem to have contributed to more high-impact, high-character selections in 2015 (e.g., Malcom Brown) and 2016 (e.g., Cyrus Jones, Joe Thuney, etc.)
Negative spin -- Worst draft in the Belichick era compromises future team-building.
The Patriots project to open the season with just two players from their ’14 draft class on the 53-man roster -- Garoppolo and running back James White (fourth round, 130th overall). Because of that, it creates a large void in the pipeline of young talent that any franchise needs to perpetuate success, both on the field and with the salary cap (because rookies are the best economic value in the NFL). These are the types of drafts that can turn up the heat on the job security of general managers and reduce the margin for error.
My spin -- Closer to neutral with a tough overall class to endorse.
I don’t think this is a discussion that can be had without including undrafted free agents, especially when considering Butler's impact. He's an elite player who is a big part of the future core. So I lean more toward the first two categories of “positive” and “neutral” when it comes to this topic. Yes, early-round picks offer the highest probability of landing an impact player, and when you miss badly on those, it hurts. The key is to limit below-the-standard drafts like 2014 because stringing a few of those together compounds the issue, and teams can't count on finding Butlers in undrafted free agency every year. Overall, the Patriots have proved that slip-ups like ’14 are more the exception than the rule. This is a class that's tough to endorse, but I give the Patriots credit for Butler and an overall resourcefulness in the team-building process that lessens the sting for them.