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How the New England Patriots were built

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Bill Belichick, draft impresario, was not helping Bill Belichick the football coach at the end of the last decade. The Patriots were struggling to identify future stars on draft day. They misfired on picks at cornerback and wideout, took too many gambles on injury-prone players, and traded back one time too many.

The team's blowout playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens after the 2009 season represented the lowest point in the Belichick era, with boos wafting through a half-empty stadium. Three months later, the turnaround started with New England's first two draft picks: Devin McCourty and Rob Gronkowski.

Belichick started to hit on his early picks: Gronk, McCourty, Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley (on I.R), Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, and Jamie Collins were all taken in the first two rounds of drafts between 2010-2013. They have turned into stars or quality starters, helping to define this era of Patriots dominance.

McCourty and Gronkowski don't own a Super Bowl ring, but they also only know what it's like to be on a top-five NFL team. The Patriots have earned a playoff bye every season for five straight years since the two players were drafted, which is an NFL record.

The improved draft performance has allowed the Patriots to fill roster gaps with role players in free agency. (Darrelle Revis being a notable exception here.) While the first Belichick Super Bowl run after the 2001 season was built on the backs of an incredible group of free agents, this squad is more like the 2003-2004 champs. The best talent is homegrown.

Let's take a look at how these Patriots were built:

How the Patriots were built
Year
Draft
Free Agent
Trade/Waivers/Practice Squad
2000
2004
2006
2008
LB Jerod Mayo (IR)
G Dan Connolly
2009
2010
2011
LS Danny Aiken (W, BUF)
RB Stevan Ridley (IR)
2012
LB Dont'a Hightwoer
CB Alfonzo Dennard (IR)
2013
DT Chris Jones (W, TB)
WR Aaron Dobson (IR)
LB Chris White
2014
LB Akeem Ayers (T, TEN)
LB Jonathan Casillas (T, TB)
 
TE Tim Wright (T, TB)
RB Tyler Gaffney (IR)

WR Greg Orton (IR)
LB Cameron Gordon (IR)
LB James Morris (IR)

» It's hard to overstate how different this Patriots team is compared to previous Super Bowl editions. Only Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork remain from the last time New England won a title. (Wilfork was a rookie on that team.) Only three Patriots were on the undefeated regular season team in 2007, with Stephen Gostkowski added to the Patriots.

Go back just three years, and the roster has still turned over an incredible amount. Only 16 Patriots who will suit up on Sunday remain from the team that lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

» Jones, Hightower and Collins were the key picks in transforming the Patriots' defense. Belichick has been searching for trustworthy, versatile players in the front seven since Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour left the building. The team's new trio is far less stout against the run, but they are a wildly athletic group who can rush the passer and assist in pass coverage. They give Belichick a license to get creative, which was lacking in previous seasons.

» While the draft was key in building the front seven, New England remade their secondary last offseason through free agency. Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Patrick Chung have played enormous roles in improving a long-term weakness. (Chung returned to the team after a stint in Philadelphia.)

Belichick has long been lousy drafting players in the secondary; perhaps he should stick to giving veterans short-term deals to fill the gaps.

» The Patriots believe in using premium picks on premium positions. Their starting tackles are both high draft picks; the guards were undrafted free agents. They have invested two early picks on young backup quarterbacks, including Jimmy Garoppolo.

» Veteran free agent role players have been a huge part of New England's team-building since 2001. This season, Alan Branch, LeGarrette Blount, Sealver Siliga and Brandon LaFell are among the crucial acquisitions. Belichick never stops looking for a place to upgrade; Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas are two role players picked up in midseason trades that have helped along the way.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast reacts to the Patriots' deflated footballs controversy and tells you whom to trust in Super Bowl XLIX. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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