In the world of sports, winning is just as polarizing as losing—just ask the Cleveland Browns! With winning comes the continual scrutiny of everything a team does, to include players, coaches and even—ahem—the equipment crew. Simply put, people are curious about what makes teams and people great. Similarly, people love the hero’s journey: players or teams that battle their way from last place, facing and beating the odds and ultimately attaining championship glory. Unless you’re a fan of that team, not everyone likes it when a team keeps doing it! The New England Patriots are one such example.
The Patriots are one of the most polarizing teams in the National Football League (NFL) and all sports. In 2000, the Patriots finished with a 5 – 11 record. However, the 2001 season was the inverse as the Patriots finished with an 11 – 5 record and the franchise’s first Super Bowl win. Fast forward to present and New England’s six trips to the Super Bowl and their four wins leaves little doubt they are a franchise used to winning.
New England couldn’t have enjoyed their winning ways since the turn of the 21st century without significant player contributions. Living and playing the “Patriot way” has been easier for some players more than others. The following list will highlight the best players who have contributed to the New England Patriot's current legacy and those heralded players who did not live up to expectations.
15 BEST: Richard Seymour (DT/DE)
It’s no accident that New England’s Super Bowl wins during the early decade coincided with the arrival of Richard Seymour in 2001. Seymour was an absolute force whether playing defensive tackle or defensive end within the team’s diverse defensive schemes, even before the arrival of nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Whether playing the 3-4 or 4-3 defense, Seymour made life rough for both opposing run and passing attacks while averaging five sacks and close to 30 tackles a season until he was dealt to the Oakland Raiders in 2010. Unfortunately, he didn’t experience that winning feeling on the West Coast as the Raiders never made the playoffs during his tenure. Richard Seymour concluded his career in 2012, garnering seven Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl rings.
14 WORST: John Friesz (QB)
There haven’t been many New England Patriot quarterbacks since 2000, save for Tom Brady’s season-ending injury in 2008 and his recent suspension. Nevertheless, quarterback John Friesz’s lone performance during the 2000 season was enough for the Patriots to move on from his role as back-up to then quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Friesz, a ten year journeyman, had a record of four wins and 12 losses in his only year of starting for the San Diego Chargers in 1991. In his only game of relief for an injured Drew Bledsoe, Friesz was unable to generate much offense—66 yards and an interception—in a 16 – 13 loss to the Buffalo Bills during the 2000 season. Contrast that with Tom Brady who filled in for the injured Bledsoe during the 2001 season. Well, you know the story!
13 BEST: Tedy Bruschi (LB)
Tedy Bruschi’s play as well as his story is amazing! Bruschi anchored the middle linebacker position for 13 seasons, amassing 521 tackles from 2000 to 2008. Moreover, he was a ball-hawk nabbing 12 career interceptions—four of those for touchdowns. Bruschi’s presence was felt during the 2004 Super Bowl when he intercepted and sacked quarterback Donavan McNabb during the Patriot’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Sadly, Bruschi suffered a minor stroke after the 2004 - 2005 season; thus, forcing him to sit out the several games of the 2005 – 2006 season. Remarkably, Bruschi recovered and was able to resume his career during the 2005 - 2006 season, thereby receiving the NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. He retired as a three time Super Bowl champion in 2008.
12 WORST: Chad Johnson (WR)
Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson was the real deal when playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. There he averaged 1,078 yards and seven touchdowns a season from 2001 to 2010 with John Kitna and Carson Palmer throwing to him. Moreover, he was a six-time Pro Bowler. In 2011, the Patriots looked to capitalize on the last few years of his prime by trading two draft picks—a fifth and sixth rounder—for Johnson. What the Patriots received in return was a player who was unable to pick up the Patriot’s offensive playbook. As a result, Johnson played sparingly throughout the regular season and playoffs, starting three games in total . His last catch as a pro came in New England’s defeat by The New York Giants during the 2011 Super Bowl.
11 BEST: Rob Gronkowski (TE)
Coming into the 2016 season, “Gronk” has averaged 926 yards and 11 touchdowns per year at the tight end position since 2010. The only way defenders seem to get an upper hand is when he’s not on the field due to injury. When healthy, Gronkowski is considered the best tight end in football. In the 2014 playoffs, he blistered the Baltimore Ravens for 108 yards and a touchdown in the Divisional Championship game. Likewise, Gronkowski proved to be a coverage nightmare with a key touchdown in the Patriots comeback and eventual win over the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 Super Bowl. There’s a feeling that Rob Gronkowski has yet to reach his apex and that he’ll have a few more visits to the Super Bowl.
10 WORST: Chad Brown (LB)
Chad Brown was a sack and tackle machine for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their “Blitzburgh” years. After being mentored by such greats as Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, he took his defensive prowess via free agency to the Seattle Seahawks, continuing his assault on opponents across the league. Then in 2005, Brown—who was coming off his own injury—signed with the Patriots to replace Tedy Bruschi, who was convalescing from his stroke. However, the coaching staff was unimpressed by the veteran’s play and placed him solely on special teams. Brown was released by the Patriots only to be resigned a few years later when he replaced another injured player. Unfortunately, he was released before the Patriot’s postseason run and eventual Super Bowl appearance in 2007.
9 BEST: Mike Vrabel (LB)
This is a toss-up between fellow linebacker Willie McGinnest, the NFL career playoff leader in sacks. However, Mike Vrabel’s contributions on both sides of the ball during the playoffs—to include the Super Bowl—are the deciding factor. Similar to Tedy Bruschi’s regular season numbers, Vrabel recorded 411 tackles, 46 sacks and 11 interceptions during his Patriot tenure. He wasn’t just a linebacker but played a hybrid fullback and tight end position as well, catching eight career touchdowns. Vrabel would put on a show in both the 2003 and 2004 Super Bowls, catching a touchdown and recording sacks in each game. The dude was a gamer! Originally a Pittsburgh Steelers castoff, Vrabel would be traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, and then retire in 2010.
8 Worst: Shawn Springs (CB)
You didn’t find too many quarterbacks looking to challenge Shawn Springs’ side of the field during his prime years with the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins. When playing a full season, Springs would average four interceptions and 6o tackles. At 34, he was getting long in the tooth, prone to injury and his play was already on a downward trajectory in 2008. The Patriots thought it wise to continue their trend of signing free agent defensive backs and hoped that Springs would bolster their secondary in 2009. Regrettably, he didn’t while registering one interception and 35 tackles. The Patriots wouldn’t get a return on their three-year $10 million investment on Springs as he would fail a team physical leading up to his release from the team in 2010.
7 BEST: Ty Law (CB)
Former Patriot Asante Samuel’s name and play may come to mind but Ty Law’s cornerback play from 2000 to 2004 was instrumental in the Patriots getting to and winning the 2001 and 2003 Super Bowls, respectively. His presence was felt in the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win in 2001 with a 47 yard interception for touchdown off St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. In the 2003 AFC Conference Championship, Law recorded three interceptions against quarterback Peyton Manning, leading the Pats past the Indianapolis Colts to the 2003 Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers. Although clutch in postseason play, Law was equally effective from 2000 to 2004 averaging three interceptions and 60 tackles leading up to his injury in 2004 and his release from the Patriots in 2005.
6 WORST: Adalius Thomas (OLB)
Adalius Thomas was part of a fierce Baltimore Ravens defensive unit where he averaged nine sacks and 63 tackles over a three year period before joining the Patriots in 2007. The Patriots were giddy for Thomas’ services to say the least, paying him $35 million for five seasons with $20 million in guaranteed money after his career year of 11 quarterback sacks and deserved Pro Bowl selection. However, what they got was a player who underperformed, averaging 5 sacks and 36 tackles over the next three years. Additionally, Thomas was cited for being unmotivated and not adhering to team rules as noted by his many game deactivations leading up to his release from the team after the 2009 - 2010 season. Thomas would retire soon thereafter.
5 BEST: Troy Brown (WR)
Troy Brown’s career didn’t take flight until the 2000 season when he climbed atop the Patriot’s wide receiver depth chart as well as solidified his role as punt returner. When Tom Brady took the quarterback helm in 2001, Brown enjoyed his best season with 1,199 receiving yards and five touchdowns while leading the Patriots to their first Super Bowl win. Brown remained one of Brady’s favorite targets as well as the team’s preferred punt returner until the 2003 season. He ultimately finished as the team’s career leader in return yards and touchdowns. Yet, it was Brown’s versatility—not to mention his longevity—that made him special. In 2004, he played wide receiver, punt-returner and played cornerback en route to the Pat’s third Super Bowl win. Brown spent his entire fifteen year career with the Patriots, retiring in 2008.
4 WORST: Reche Caldwell (WR)
Reche Caldwell was brought into New England to bolster the team’s receiving corps in 2006. Things were looking good as Caldwell led the team in receiving yards and was tied for touchdowns going into the playoffs. There he would exact a little revenge with 80 yards and touchdown against his former team, the Sand Diego Chargers, in the Patriots second playoff win. However, Caldwell’s two critical drops against the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Conference Championship game kept the Patriots from advancing to the Super Bowl. As with many past Patriot players who incessantly turn the ball over, Caldwell was ousted before start of the next season. Thankfully, the Patriots freed themselves of Caldwell who would eventually do prison time for receiving drugs in the mail and for running a gambling parlour in close proximity to a school.
3 BEST: Tom Brady (QB)
Oh, you thought he was going to be number one? Say what you want—it’s the system, he’s a cheat or he has hair like Moe from The Three Stooges—the dude is a great quarterback! Even at his age, half the teams in the league would take him in a second. Brady was drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, making his journey extraordinary. He was thrust into the starting quarterback position filling in for Drew Bledsoe during the latter’s injury plagued 2000-2001 season. In a twist of irony, Bledsoe filled in for an injured Brady during the AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bledsoe relinquished the helm upon Brady’s return to health before the 2001 Super Bowl. Brady has never looked back, amassing close to 60,000 passing yards and over 400 touchdowns while winning two league MVP awards, garnering eleven Pro Bowl selections and winning four out of six Super Bowls. Yeah, overrated, huh?
2 WORST: Aaron Hernandez (TE)
Aaron Hernandez went from being an offensive co-star with fellow tight-end Rob Gronkwoski to a throw it all away poster-boy given his off-field issues. He and Gronkowski formed a formidable one-two punch; with some arguing Hernandez might have been the more versatile and dangerous of the two given his usage in the running game. Inconceivably, Hernandez’s career was cut short due to his conviction of murder in Boston as well as his potential ties to other crimes in Florida. Dude, seriously? Hernandez’s off-field issues cost New England an offensive weapon, negative publicity and salary cap leverage for two years due to his frozen contract. Had Hernandez kept himself out of trouble, the Patriots may have earned an additional trip to the big game given the offensive potential.
1 BEST: Adam Vinatieri (K)
Expecting someone else? Tom Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick may have received all the publicity, however, Adam Vinatieri was a significant reason why the Patriots won their 2001 and 2003 Super Bowls. In the 2001 Super Bowl, Vinatieri hit two field goals with the second coming on the last few seconds of the play clock. In 2003, Vinatieri nailed a 41 yard field goal as time expired, giving the Pats their second Super Bowl win in three years. Vinatieri would make a mark in the Patriot’s 2004 Super Bowl win as well, helping the Patriots to their and his third Super Bowl win with the team. Vinatieri would go on to win a fourth Super Bowl ring as a member of the rival Indianapolis Colts in 2006, matching Brady's ring count.