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Rob Gronkowski is often referenced as an example of why the New England Patriots draft the way they do. At a hair under 6-foot-7, Gronkowski is 265 pounds, can run the 40 in the 4.64 range, and has hands that are nearly as long as the width of a medium pizza. The Patriots landed him with the No. 42 pick in the 2010 draft, and his presence, along with that of Aaron Hernandez -- drafted 71 picks later -- has helped transform the New England offense.
Talent can be found late. When you ask scouts the most obvious case of game-changing, elite talent on the Patriots' roster right now, outside of quarterback, most point to Gronkowski. "Not close for me," says one. "And he's 22." There is nothing "system" about Gronkowski -- put him on any team, and their passing offense is better. And this is New England, seeing value where others didn't.
But that's not really true.
Everybody knew about Gronkowski. Maybe too much. They knew he was an exceptional talent but didn't play his entire junior season at Arizona. They knew that in 2009, surgeons had to shave down a disk in his neck so it wouldn't interfere with his spinal cord. They'd heard the rumors that he had the same condition that ended Michael Irvin's career and had listened to Gronkowski's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, work hard to correctly refute those rumors. But New England drafted him anyway.
In the same way the draft has, for years, created enormous risk-reward propositions for teams that draft high, in landing their most elite talent not named Tom Brady, the Patriots assumed great risk. If Gronkowski took a head shot in Week 2 of last season and was carted off the field while the announcers spoke in grave terms about his medical history, pundits and fans would have scolded them: "They should have known! The 42nd pick on a guy who had spine surgery?"
This season, there's been a lot of talk surrounding New England's apparent lack of talent.
"Belichick the general manager has let down Belichick the coach. The Patriots simply don't have enough talent to beat the elite teams in this league," Greg Bedard wrote recently.
And it's a common narrative: Belichick, many claim, has let his addiction to system players who can understand his schemes go too far; obsessing over draft value, he trades down and never gets elite talent; he's simply arrogant and would rather win with untalented disciples than gifted athletes who can dominate in any system; he wants to feed the narrative that he's football Gepetto, breathing life into the inanimate; it's hardly a surprise that the great singular talent of recent years they've acquired, Randy Moss, was practically a gift.
So is it all true?
The prosecution's case might look like this:
• The Patriots have traded away a remarkable 40 different picks since 2007, and even with all the picks they get in return, they never move up. Their average draft position is No. 22, which isn't as low as their win total would imply, but they refuse to use their arsenal of picks to get into position to target elite talent.
• The team is addicted to undrafted free agents. Right now they are carrying 17, a whopping 32 percent of a 53-man roster. Neither BenJarvus Green-Ellis nor Danny Woodhead, who lead the team in carries respectively, were drafted.
• They've had more picks in the top three rounds than any team since 2007, 21 in total, but they miss a lot. Only 14 are still with the team.
• Because of that, the Patriots seem to rely on a yearly band of aging mercenaries. Bryan Cox, Anthony Pleasant, Larry Centers, Roman Phifer, Christian Fauria, Junior Seau, Chad Brown, Adalius Thomas, Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, even Deion Branch. Why is Belichick always getting these guys to spackle the roster? Are they taking the place of young, developing players with higher upside, guys the team will never see because they refused to wait?
The evidence adds up.
But you can't prosecute Belichick without listening to the defense. Consider:
• Traded picks don't just turn to gold. Of the 40 picks New England has dealt since 2007, exactly one has turned into a Pro Bowl player. That was Clay Matthews who, until weeks before the draft, was often considered the third-best linebacker on his college team.
• There's zero correlation between piling up UFAs and winning or losing. The Patriots could be called the scrappy group of nobodies that beat the New York Jets last week, but the Jets have even more UFAs on their roster (19). The New Orleans Saints (18) and St. Louis Rams (22) also have more. Many teams bring in a lot of UFAs. It's a constant with the seven-round draft.
• Because the Patriots have piled up picks, they can afford to miss. The Patriots have made 59 picks since 2006, most in football. Trailing them by two is the Green Bay Packers, a part of the reason the Packers were able to win a Super Bowl with 14 guys on injured reserve. Bring in a lot of players, only the best ones stick. It doesn't mean you "missed" a lot. And of course some high picks didn't pan out -- NFL teams turn over almost 20 percent of their rosters each year on average.
• Sometimes those veteran "mercenaries" work out. Rodney Harrison didn't join the Patriots until he was 31. Corey Dillon was 30. For the price, why not look? Andre Carter has 8.5 sacks in nine games this year. He's 32.
The reality is neither side of the debate has a slam-dunk case.
The Patriots may appear to lack talent right now, but, "It's really because they lack it at the splash positions," says one NFC evaluator. "They don't have a 'name' running back, and they don't have huge names at wideout, or with the pass-rushers."
It's true. In the most recent draft, New England had a chance to draft a pass-rusher at multiple spots but instead opted to help Brady by solidifying the O-line and adding running back depth. The Patriots have tried to maximize a window of great quarterbacking with Brady by shifting their offense and wrapping it around personnel in the same way the Atlanta Falcons are trying to maximize theirs with Matt Ryan by trading up for the right to draft Julio Jones to pair with Roddy White.
It just lacks splash. But splash-free, the Patriots' offense is second only to New Orleans in yards per game in 2011. They might lack deep threats, but teams aren't consistently stopping the Patriots.
Some veteran signings work out.And there's something to be said for how brilliantly pliable the New England offense has been. Moss wasn't expendable because he couldn't play; he was because he wasn't needed. Last year, Brady had one of the best seasons a quarterback has ever had, with a 36-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio. New England shifted its offense to a short-passing model, running a ton of two-tight-end sets, exploiting the talent they have. Just because the tight end position lacks flash doesn't mean there aren't talent advantages. And you can't just turn over rocks and find game-changing deep threats. It's a terribly unpredictable position to target.
Even the much-maligned defense, particularly the pass defense, will improve despite the perceived lack of elite talent. If you play Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tony Romo in a two-month span while working in a number of young players, the numbers suffer. If you play Tyler Palko, Vince Young, Curtis Painter, Rex Grossman and Tim Tebow in consecutive weeks, they recover. The Patriots are about to do just that.
Maybe the Patriots lack more elite talent than they've had in the past, but they still thrive on versatility and have been creative in the draft, with personnel and with systems. There's also the question of whether we assume New England lacks talent not merely because of their methods, but because people think Belichick is always maximizing what he has. If he had more talent, the reasoning goes, they'd be unstoppable. That's worth another couple thousand words. Regardless, this is a team that has won the most games over the past decade, and it's not merely through resourcefulness and systems. It's because they have talent, too. Yes, it starts with Brady. But look at Indy right now -- the Patriots have dealt with a similar situation and still won.
And in a case like Gronkowski, you can see that merely drafting high isn't the only kind of risk a team will take in the hunt for talent.
Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for research assistance.
Chris Sprow is a senior editor for ESPN The Magazine and Insider. He reports and edits on many sports and works year-round with Mel Kiper on NFL draft coverage. He also oversees ESPN's Rumor Central and has been a regular guest on ESPN networks in that role. You can find his ESPN archives here and find him on Twitter here.