Why Does Bill Belichick Hate the Fifth Round? (updated)

For the Patriots, as with everyone else, the draft is a critical time to address your needs. Not only their success but also Bill Belichick’s emphasis on versatility makes his drafting strategy one of interest. So, Dave Archibald wonders, what the heck is with the fifth round?

On Friday, the New England Patriots traded a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for veteran pass-rusher Michael Bennett. This deal fits a definite pattern of Belichick’s – trading a away a fifth-round pick for a veteran player. The 2020 draft will mark the ninth consecutive year New England has dealt its fifth-round pick. So, why does Belichick hate the fifth round so much?

These are not the only deals where Belichick has traded a mid-to-late-round draft pick for a player. In the last decade they acquired cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Eric Rowe and tight ends Martellus Bennett (Michael’s Brother) and Dwayne Allen for fourth-rounders while picking up linebackers Jon Bostic and Akeem Ayers and defensive backs Johnson Bademosi and Jason McCourty for sixth-round picks.

There are two kinds of trades represented in the fifth-round deals: Offseason deals for veterans with upside and in-season deals for stopgap solutions at a position of need.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Taking a Home Run Swing

Bennett has produced throughout his NFL career, and the last two seasons have been no exception, with 17.5 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and 54 quarterback hits. While he shows few signs of slowing down, he does turn 34 during the 2019 season, and the Eagles, tight against the salary cap, thought his $15.7 MM cap hits over the next two seasons could be better-spent elsewhere. The Patriots are taking a low-risk gamble that Bennett can sustain his production into an age where most players are retired.

This is not the first time New England has made such a bet. They made two upside plays in 2011, dealing for Chad Johnson (aka Ochocinco) and Albert Haynesworth. Johnson cost a 2012 5th-rounder and a 2013 6th-rounder, while Haynesworth cost the team its 2013 5th-rounder. Johnson and Haynesworth were both veterans hoping to return to previous levels of success. Johnson posted 1,000 receiving yards seven times in eight seasons from 2002 to 2009, but slipped to 831 in 2010. Haynesworth was a first-team All-Pro in 2007 and 2008. The Patriots gambled that the duo could capture some of their former glory, but they could not. The team cut Haynesworth after only six games, while Johnson caught only 15 passes for 276 yards on the season and was cut the following spring.

The Patriots looked to the other end of the age spectrum in their 2016 deal for former top-five pick Barkevious Mingo. The sixth-overall pick in the 2013 draft, Mingo excelled as an athletic, undersized edge rusher in college but had yet to find his optimal NFL role. That continued to be the case in New England, as he played only 47 defensive snaps all season, though he did contribute with 323 special teams plays.

These kind of trades have a bit of downside because of the salaries paid to the players. Bennett will cost up to $7.2 MM against the 2019 cap, Mingo had a cap hit of $2.5 MM, all guaranteed, and New England incurred a dead-money hit of more than $3 MM when cutting Johnson. Still, the team that trades for a player isn’t responsible for his signing bonus, which gives the team leverage to renegotiate because they can cut the player with little penalty. Washington ended up paying most of the freight on Haynesworth’s contract with the Patriots owing only $1.5 MM. Johnson was scheduled to make $6.35 MM for one season before New England acquired him, but settled for a deal paying that figure over three seasons.

The Haynesworth, Johnson, and Mingo deals didn’t pay off, but they were home run swings with little downside. Belichick is willing to take shots that have a high likelihood of failure if the potential return is high enough; perhaps no general manager in the game understands risk as thoroughly.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Band-Aids

The offseason is the time for home run swings, but in-season trades are mostly about just trying to get on base any way you can. Injuries can strike anywhere and the Patriots are not shy about making a move to shore up a weakness.

That was the case in 2018, when the offseason losses of Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, a suspension to Julian Edelman, and various preseason injuries left the Patriots with a severely depleted wide receiving corps. They struck quickly to address this, dealing a fifth to the Browns for talented, troubled wideout Josh Gordon (and getting a 7th back). Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards back in 2013 but spent most of the next four seasons suspended as he struggled with drug addiction. His talent and troubles were both on display for the Patriots in 2018; he racked up 720 yards in only 11 games, but was suspended down the stretch after another relapse. Ultimately, the trade worked out, as Gordon helped to stabilize the wide receiver group during an uncertain period.

Gordon was hardly the only in-season pickup for the Patriots. Longtime nose tackle Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles’ tendon early in 2013, decimating the New England run defense. The Patriots picked up Isaac Sopoaga from the Philadelphia Eagles who played in six games, starting two, before ultimately losing his job down the stretch. New England gave up a fifth-rounder for the veteran but received a sixth-rounder back, so the Patriots kept the same number of picks; they moved back just 29 spots in the exchange.

In 2014, linebacker Jerod Mayo landed on injured reserve with a torn patellar tendon. The Patriots traded a fifth-rounder to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a sixth-rounder and Jonathan Casillas, who provided depth on defense and served as a core player on special teams. They also traded for Akeem Ayers, who added depth at linebacker and at defensive end when Chandler Jones was sidelined with a hip injury. That helped keep the Patriots afloat and maintain the #1 seed for their Super Bowl run. And as with the Sopoaga trade, they maintained the same number of draft picks in both these deals.

In 2015, wideout Brandon LaFell started the season on the PUP list, prompting the Patriots to deal for fourth-year receiver Keshawn Martin after Week 1. This depth proved helpful when injuries struck fellow receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Aaron Dobson. Martin wound up starting eight games for New England, posted a career-high 24 catches for 269 yards, and also contributed in the return game. And again, the Patriots got a sixth-round pick back.

Belichick frequently tinkers with the back of the roster, sometimes to comic effect, as when reserve safety Ross Ventrone was cut, signed, and promoted 22 times during the 2011 season. At other times, this tinkering has produced dramatic results, as when they signed Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler in some preseason mixing-and-matching. The key play in any game could come down to almost anyone on the roster, and Belichick is constantly evaluating the back end and looking for improvements.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Cost

There’s some merit to both the upside gambles and the short-term solutions, but why fifth-round picks? While the Patriots have dealt away other mid- and late-round picks, the fifth round seems to be the sweet spot. That round appears to be the point where the star talent largely dries up – the “stud” rate falls about 45% from round four to round five. Since 1999 the fifth round has combined for only 20 All-Pro appearances, and more than half of those (11) are for special teams contributions. New England’s performance in the round is typical:

Of the 15 fifth-round picks the Patriots did select, six (Lee Smith, Clint Oldenburg, Dave Stachelski, George Bussey, Ryan Claridge, and Jeff Marriott) never suited up for the team. P.K. Sam and Hakim Akbar were cut after one season, Ryan O’Callaghan after two. Dan Koppen is a hit, an undersized player at a non-premium position who went on to a terrific career. Marcus Cannon was considered a mid-round talent who fell in part because of a lymphoma diagnosis.

It is an indication of the lack of star potential in the fifth round that two of the Patriots’ most recent draft choices contribute exclusively on special teams. Joe Cardona is a fairly high pick at the game’s lowest-paid position. The Patriots traded out of the their original fifth-round pick, nabbed another selection via trade, then traded back into the fifth round to choose the Navy product. Zoltan Mesko was the first punter selected in 2010. Matthew Slater has chipped in on both offense and defense at times, but special teams is where he earns his keep.

On the face of things, the caliber of talent available in the fifth round does not seem dissimilar to that available in the sixth or seventh round. The modified adjusted value per year (MAVPY), a heuristic that serves as a rough indicator of value, dips from 1.15 to 0.51 between rounds five and six. On a relative basis, this looks like a large percentage drop, but compared to the average starter (5.26 MAVPY), the difference is minor. The Patriots have done just as well with their late-round picks and undrafted signings as with fifth round picks – aside from sixth-round legend Tom Brady, they’ve nabbed receivers Julian Edelman and David Givens (both seventh round), starting corner Malcolm Butler (undrafted), longtime interior offensive line starters Steve NealRyan Wendell, and David Andrews (all undrafted), special teams standout Nate Ebner (sixth), and useful contributors in linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, Alfonzo Dennard, and Matt Cassel (all seventh-rounders). The psychological benefit to the receiving team of getting a fifth-round pick versus a sixth or seventh is probably more than the on-field cost to the giving team.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Taking the Fifth

To the surprise of no one who is paying attention, Belichick has a method to his madness. A fifth-round pick is a longshot anyway, and by trading it, New England can improve their potential payoff by obtaining a higher-upside player or a high-floor veteran at a position of need. Either approach has value compared to staying put and making the draft pick, even if this strategy has not delivered impressive returns to date.

Different teams might not be in a position to make deals like the Patriots do. A less competitive team with a shallower roster might be in a better position to take a flyer on a developmental player with a draft pick. A team with little cap room might prefer the low cost of a rookie. It is unreasonable to expect every team to see things the same way as New England. Where teams can emulate the Patriots is their commitment to ensuring the quality of the back end of their roster, building the right mix of developmental players, serviceable backups, and special teams contributors. The league’s most successful franchise over the past decade-and-a-half is continually evaluating the players at the end of their bench; shouldn’t the rest of the league be doing the same?

Thanks to Ethan Young (@EthanYoungFB) for contributing statistics to this piece. All other statistics courtesy of pro-football-reference.com. All contract data courtesy of overthecap.com.

Follow @davearchie on Twitter. Check out his other work here, like his look at the Patriot’s selection of Sony Michel, his elegy for sportswriter Dr. Z and other lost legends, and the hidden game of Super Bowl 53.

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