Belichick builds champions in April

Bill Belichick photo courtesy of USA Today

Bill Belichick has excelled at the back end of drafts, Rounds 4 through 7, in building the Patriots into champions

Bill Belichick’s legacy as a drafter starts with Tom Brady as a sixth-round selection in 2000.

But it doesn’t end there.

The draft can accelerate a team’s building process if you know what you’re looking for. In April, Belichick has long been the smartest guy in the room. He knows exactly what he’s looking for.

Sure, Belichick found championship cornerstones in Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Dont’a Hightower in the first round, Deion Branch and Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Duron Harmon and Joe Thuney in the third.

Those are the premium rounds of a draft -- the easy rounds of the draft. Everyone should be able to draft well in the first three rounds because the names and talents are easily recognizable to scouts and fans alike. They are the All-Americas, the award winners and the players you see every Saturday in the fall on national television.

But it’s the traditional second day of the draft, Rounds 4 through 7, where the good drafters shine. Scouting departments have to dig a little deeper and project a little farther out in those rounds to find the gems. How you do in those rounds are what can make a good draft great.

Since 2000, 94.8 percent of all players drafted in the first three rounds have earned roster spots as rookies. But from the fourth round on, it sinks to just 66.1 percent. So value at the back end becomes a draft-day bonus.

I always thought Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf was the greatest second-day drafter in the history of the planet. Belichick has become the best of his era. If he wasn’t a shoo-in Hall of Fame candidate as a head coach, he’d be a worthy candidate for his personnel skills in the contributor category.

What Belichick has done at the back end of drafts has played a major role in separating the Patriots from the NFL’s pack these last two decades – 16 AFC East titles, nine AFC championships and five Lombardi Trophies. In his 19 drafts at New England, Belichick has had 51 of his selections from Rounds 4-7 earn roster spots on the Patriots. Thirty-five started games and 16 started Super Bowls.

Five of his starters in the Super Bowl this Sunday against the Rams will be players selected in the fourth round or later – Brady, guard Shaq Mason, tackle Marcus Cannon, wide receiver Julian Edelman and defensive end Trey Flowers. Two other starters were undrafted college free agents, center David Andrews and cornerback J.C. Jackson.

I always considered the pool of undrafteds an unofficial Round 8. Belichick has had few peers there as well. Jackson will become the seventh undrafted college free agent to start a Super Bowl for Belichick. Another of the seven, cornerback Malcom Butler, became a Pro Bowler and made the play that sealed the 2015 Super Bowl for the Patriots – an interception on the goal line of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson in the game’s final minute of a 28-24 victory.

Belichick’s selections from Round 4 and beyond have started 1,315 games for the Patriots. Brady has 267 of those starts. Center Dan Koppen, a fifth rounder in 2003, started 120 games. Edelman, a seventh-rounder in 2009, has started 71 games. Mason and Cannon are chugging along at 55 and 54 starts respectively. Mason was a fourth rounder in 2015 and Cannon a fifth rounder in 2011.

How deep do the Patriots dig in the draft evaluation process? Mason was not one of the 334 players invited to the NFL scouting combine in his draft year. Belichick still made him the 131st overall pick of the draft. Stephen Gostkowski also didn’t get an invitation to the combine in 2006. Belichick made him the 118th overall choice that year. Gostkowski is now the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. He has led the NFL in scoring a record five times and gone to four Pro Bowls.

Edelman wasn’t invited to the 2009 combine. He was an undersized option quarterback at Kent State whom Belichick projected as a wide receiver in the NFL. He caught 105 passes in 2013 and now ranks as the fourth all-time leading receiver in franchise history with 499. He caught nine passes for 151 yards in the AFC semifinals this post-season against the Chargers.

The Patriots didn’t see anything special in Brady back in April 2000. If they had, they wouldn’t have waited to take him until the sixth round – much less their second selection of that round. What they saw in Brady – and in Gostkowski and Edelman, for that matter – was a player whose talent was worth the value at that particular draft spot. A player worth taking a chance on.

The Patriots saw the same value in Asante Samuel in the fourth round in 2003. He became a Pro Bowl cornerback. They saw the same value in Matthew Slater, essentially a player without a position, in 2008. Belichick drafted him in the seventh round, projecting him as a special-teams ace, and Slater has rewarded the Patriots with seven Pro Bowl selections.

David Givens was a seventh-round pick in 2002. He caught touchdown passes against the Panthers in the 2004 Super Bowl and the Eagles in the 2005 Super Bowl. Trey Flowers was a fourth-round pick in 2015. He has led the Patriots in sacks each of the last three seasons, which all resulted in AFC championships.

Then there’s James White. The Patriots waited until the 130th overall pick in the fourth round in 2014 to claim him after 11 running backs had already been selected. He scored three touchdowns in the 2017 Super Bowl against Atlanta, two on the ground and one through the air, including the game-winning TD on a one-yard run in the game’s final minute. White caught 87 passes to lead the Patriots last season and also finish second among NFL running backs.

NFL championships are won in February. But those championship teams are built in April – and no one in today’s NFL builds them better than Belichick.