The New England Patriots just won't stop winning.
Though other NFL franchises have had success, no team has sustained it quite like the Patriots.
The Patriots haven't had a losing season since 2001. In that span, they've missed the playoffs only twice. To dominate like that, you must build through the NFL Draft. Hordes of people have attempted to figure out the Patriots' secret draft formula, but on the surface there are few distinguishing factors. The Patriots like big, fast, athletic, explosive, smart players—but so does every other NFL franchise.
But when you look closer, you realize there's a common thread uniting many of the Patriots' most successful picks. That thread? Versatility.
In the Patriots' system, the more a player can do, the better. Versatility is a big reason why the Patriots have found a role for so many of their draft picks and UDFA signings. It's the same reason the Patriots are able to overcome injuries so seamlessly. When nearly every player on the roster can play more than one position, covering for an injured player becomes effortless. The Patriots do not have a general manager. Bill Belichick is both the team's head coach and its GM. On draft day, Belichick is the one who calls the shots. Belichick's appreciation for versatility has helped create the Patriots' football empire.
The coaching mastermind outlined why he prizes versatility at a recent press conference. "The more [versatility], the better," Belichick said. "Sometimes it can be a real advantage. Because you can go in a couple of different directions depending on what your team needs and what the situation is from week to week or even within a game."
Player versatility allows the Patriots to be nimble, effective and unpredictable. Despite the constraints of a 53-man roster, the Patriots always have the weapons they need to attack their opponents' weaknesses during any given game.
Matthew Slater is the perfect example.
At UCLA, Slater did it all. He split time between wide receiver and defensive back and was also an excellent kick returner. That skill-set helped convince the Patriots he was worth a fifth-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Slater was given both an offensive and defensive playbook as soon as he joined the team. He picked it up fast, and the Patriots have deployed him in a variety of ways. He's rushed the ball, caught the ball and made tackles on defense. Slater's biggest role is as a special teams ace, where he's a tackling machine and a sure-handed returner. He was just elected to his sixth Pro Bowl.
Julian Edelman is another player the Patriots drafted because of his extreme versatility. He was a dynamic dual-threat quarterback at Kent State, rushing for over 1,000 yards his senior season. He also returned kicks and occasionally served as the team's punter. You rarely see a starting D-I QB do so much, which is exactly what attracted the Patriots to Edelman. Though many evaluators considered Edelman too small to succeed in the NFL, the Patriots adored his athleticism.
"The Patriots really did the best job evaluating Julian. If I remember correctly, six different assistant coaches—not scouts—came to interview him, put him on the board and worked him out," former Kent State head coach Doug Martin told Bleacher Report. The Patriots went on to draft Edelman in the 7th round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
BB to Edelman after draft: "We don't know what you're gonna play, but you can play football. See you at mini camp." pic.twitter.com/lUKA8bIYge
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) January 16, 2016
While many believed Edelman would be used primarily as a "Wildcat" quarterback, the Patriots quickly took advantage of his versatility in a variety of ways. He's now mainly a receiver, but over his NFL career, he has truly done it all. He's caught the ball, run the ball, thrown the ball, returned punts and kicks, made tackles on special teams and even played at cornerback. Versatility!
There are plenty more examples, of course.
The Ringer recently published an article about the Patriots defense. Here's an excerpt:
Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's defense is built upon versatility. And that comes from a group of five shape-shifters: lineman Trey Flowers, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, cornerback Logan Ryan, and safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty. With each player capable of moving around the field to effectively play multiple roles against either the run or the pass, it doesn't matter what personnel grouping the Patriots have on the field. Whether it's a run or a pass, New England has the players to defend either option.
Those five "shape-shifters?" New England drafted every single one of them. That's not a coincidence—it's a philosophy. The Patriots seem to value versatility above almost anything else, and the strategy has paid off. They've developed a team where no one player is indispensable thanks to the overall versatility of the unit. This makes the Patriots incredibly difficult to game plan for.
A Twitter search unearths even more evidence of the franchise's love for versatile players . Every player mentioned here is currently on New England's roster and was either drafted by the team or signed as an UDFA):
"He's worked hard. Lots of versatility." BB on Joe Thuney
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) August 7, 2016
#Patriots nabbed the biggest Combine snub w/ Shaq Mason. Versatile OG/OC who moves like a tight end. One of my favorites this year.
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) May 2, 2015
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) May 11, 2016
"His versatility at that position is hard to find." - Belichick re: RB Brandon Bolden
— Adam Kurkjian (@AdamKurkjian) December 23, 2014
Belichick on Nate Solder working at RT: "He's versatile and flexible... He seems pretty comfortable wherever we put him."
— Brian Lowe (@_BLowe) September 9, 2011
— NESN (@NESN) September 15, 2016
— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) April 30, 2016
BB says Marcus Cannon "has come a long way" in his development. Particularly in his versatility. #Patriots
— Andy Hart (@JumboHart) September 27, 2013
Bill Belichick is hilarious. Just picked an OSU safety named Nate Ebner who is a rugby star who walked on & played special teams. Too funny
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 28, 2012
Duron Harmon Receives Praise From Bill Belichick for Intelligence, Instincts, Versatility http://t.co/f5PPu9hcRy
— NESN (@NESN) August 13, 2013
— CSN New England (@CSNNE) May 11, 2014
Belichick praising Ted Karras' versatility. Says it brings a new wrinkle to the Pats' O-line.
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) September 4, 2016
— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) May 2, 2015
You get the idea, right?
When the Patriots are on the clock this April, look for them to select players who've shown the ability to contribute to a team in multiple ways. Player versatility is now part of the franchise's DNA, and it's a huge reason why they seem immune to failure. It's what gives the Patriots their trademark flexibility. Even when the odds seem stacked against them, their versatile roster gives them the freedom to implement almost any type of scheme or strategy. If the game of football is truly a chess match, versatility is the ultimate game changer. The Patriots have figured this out, and it's a huge reason for their enduring success.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock