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