No New England Patriots draft post-2000 has been truly great but that hasn’t stopped Bill Belichick from drafting Super Bowl winners.
The 2016 NFL Draft was both a unique and memorable event for the New England Patriots, albeit for the wrong reasons. The team forfeited its first-round pick that year as punishment for Tom Brady’s alleged role in the Deflategate scandal. They traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick.
While Cooper didn’t pan out, the Patriots’ trade with the Chicago Bears for Martellus Bennett most certainly did, as Bennett filled in for an injured Rob Gronkowski and had a terrific season serving as the primary tight end that year. More than anything, the team entered the 2016 NFL Draft needing reinforcements at cornerback and offensive line, especially after seeing their 2015 season come crashing to a halt against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game the previous year. Defensive tackle, wide receiver, and linebacker were also identified as areas of need headed into that draft.
Round 2 (Pick 60)
Cyrus Jones goes down as one of the biggest whiffs and disappointments in modern Patriots draft history. The team had an obvious void at cornerback, with only Malcolm Butler locked in as a starter at the beginning of the season. Despite the gaping opportunity before him, Jones never could generate much traction in his rookie season, finishing the year with just seven tackles, no pass deflections, and no interceptions. Pressed into duty as a punt and kickoff returner, Jones even found a way to struggle there, fumbling five times in 2016.
The low-water mark came in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons, where Jones found himself listed as a healthy scratch. The following preseason, a torn ACL effectively sealed his fate – he missed his entire second season and was waived before ever getting a third chance to prove himself. Jones did go on to play with the Baltimore Ravens in 2018. In a perfect world, the Patriots should have drafted cornerback Kendall Fuller out of Virginia Tech with this pick (Fuller went 24 picks later to the Washington Redskins).
Round 3 (Pick 78)
Joe Thuney is unquestionably the best pick from the Patriots’ 2016 draft, and it’s really not even close. Of the nine players selected that year, only three still remain on New England’s roster. Of those three, only one is a gameday starter – and that’s Thuney. A third-round pick out of North Carolina State, Thuney won the starting left guard job during the preseason of his rookie year and has never looked back since. He started all 16 games his first year and played more snaps than any other member of that team.
Since that point, Thuney has been a veritable iron man, starting every game and playing almost every snap over the course of his first three seasons. He is also is the first player in NFL history to start in the Super Bowl in each of his first three seasons. The Patriots were right to make this pick when and where they did, and would probably make it again if given the chance.
Round 3 (Pick 91)
Jacoby Brissett came into the NFL just 13 picks after Thuney, his old college teammate. The two found themselves on a unique New England Patriots squad that immediately needed starting contributions from both them – Thuney along the line, and Brissett at quarterback after Tom Brady was suspended for a quarter of the season and Jimmy Garoppolo got injured in Week 2. Brissett subbed in for Garoppolo and managed the game well enough to preserve a victory over the Dolphins. In his first career start the following week against the Houston Texans on primetime television, he completed 11-of-19 passes for 103 yards and carried the ball eight times for 48 yards and a touchdown.
Unfortunately, Brissett and the Patriots lost the following week, and then a couple of events occurred: Brady returned from his suspension, and Brissett was placed on injured reserve with a thumb injury. The following season he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts, where he has backed up Andrew Luck ever since. Ideally, the Patriots would have selected Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott with this pick, who went 44 picks later.
Round 3 (Pick 96)
Just five picks after New England selected Brissett, they chose defensive tackle Vincent Valentine out of the University of Nebraska. DT was one of the primary areas of need identified by Bill Belichick and Patriots ownership going into the draft, and the hope was that Valentine could be developed into a suitable two-gap run-stopper in time, and maybe even a nose in the same vein as franchise legend Vince Wilfork. He entered the 2016 season as the team’s top backup behind Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, and finished his rookie year in decent-enough standing with the team.
In a bout of bad luck, though, Valentine injured his knee early on in his second season with the team and ended up on injured reserve for all of 2017. By October of 2018, Valentine had been released from the team. There really weren’t a lot of better options at this spot in the 2016 draft when it came to defensive tackles, but if the Patriots wanted to use a higher pick, they could have found a gem in Mississippi State’s Chris Jones, who went to the Kansas City Chiefs 59 picks earlier in the second round.
Round 4 (Pick 112)
Bill Belichick has done a terrific job, for the most part, doubling as his team’s head coach and as its GM, with only one major exception during his nearly two-decade-long tenure. For whatever reason, he cannot seem to draft a capable, competent, starting-caliber wide receiver that sticks on this team. Sure, Julian Edelman has been everything and more the Patriots could have wanted, but he is a rare anomaly: a former college quarterback turned returner/receiver/cornerback/quarterback who earned his roster spot over time.
Aaron Dobson, Chad Jackson, Malcolm Mitchell… these are just a few of the more recent, high-profile outside wide receivers Belichick has struck out on. Mitchell actually had a solid rookie season for the team, racking up 401 receiving yards and four touchdowns. His crowning achievement came in Super Bowl LI, where he caught six passes for 70 clutch yards during the Patriots’ historic 25-point comeback. Knee injuries ultimately cost Mitchell his career with the Patriots, though he’s since found success as a children’s book writer. In a dream world, New England would have taken West Alabama’s Tyreek Hill with this pick, who went to the Chiefs 53 slots later.
Round 6 (Pick 208)
Kamu Grugier-Hill was selected by the Patriots with their first pick of the sixth round. The Hawaiian linebacker played for Eastern Illinois University before finding his way to New England. He was waived by the team in September of 2016 as part of its final roster cutdowns, and found a new home with the Philadelphia Eagles shortly thereafter. Somewhat ironically, Grugier-Hill ended up winning a championship ring in his second season after the Eagles defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. The linebacker the Patriots should have selected with this pick they ended up taking just six selections later: Elandon Roberts.
Round 6 (Pick 214)
Elandon Roberts is one of the three Patriots players taken in this draft who still occupy roster spots today. A former Houston Cougar, Roberts earned the backup middle linebacker spot on the depth chart behind Dont’a Hightower as a rookie. He was a starting linebacker for most of the 2017 season, and started 11 of the 16 games he played in this past season, losing time due to the emergence of Kyle Van Noy. Overall, it’s hard to argue with this pick by the Patriots, and there were no linebackers drafted after him by other teams that have since had better careers.
Round 6 (Pick 221)
Seven picks after the Patriots selected Elandon Roberts, they drafted Ted Karras, an offensive lineman out of Illinois. Karras actually started at right guard as a rookie after injuries knocked out Shaq Mason and Jonathan Cooper to start the year, but later was relegated to backup duty once Mason was healthy enough to return. Karras has lasted as long as he has on the New England roster partly due to his versatility, being able to play guard as well as center. He is the third Patriot from the 2016 NFL Draft who is still on the 2019 roster (along with Joe Thuney and Elandon Roberts). New England got good value in picking Karras where they did here.
Round 7 (Pick 225)
Devin Lucien played college football at UCLA before entering the NFL as the Patriots’ final draft selection in the seventh round back in 2016. He was released from the active roster as a rookie and signed to the team’s practice squad, where he lasted for a year before getting waived in September of 2017. Lucien bounced around with several other NFL teams before eventually finding himself out of the NFL altogether; he currently plays for the Memphis Express in the Alliance of American Football. If the Patriots could have this pick back, they should have used it on Robby Anderson, who went undrafted in 2016 before signing with the New York Jets, a team he currently starts for at receiver.
Overall, the Patriots had an uncharacteristically poor draft in 2016. While it certainly didn’t help that their first-round draft pick was forfeited due to Deflategate, they still could have made better choices almost across the board while trying to plug holes at defensive tackle, wide receiver, and linebacker. Joe Thuney, Ted Karras, and Elandon Roberts were “keepers” from this particular draft; Cyrus Jones, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Vincent Valentine stand out as clear misfires.
All that being said, most of these guys drafted ended up with Super Bowl rings. Even if this class mostly busted as far as producing stars, Belichick managed to draft guys like Karras and Mitchell who ended up producing on teams that delivered a title or two to Boston.