Boston Week is the perfect time to step back and appreciate the city’s sports teams and the players we’ve cheered on over the years.
Following the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl title this winter, I took some time to evaluate the many, many players who have donned the Flying Elvis since the first Super Bowl winning season in 2001.
Below are this author’s thoughts on the best Patriots by position, with honorable mentions included, from 2001 through 2018, aka “the Brady era”. *
I’m sure there are plenty of debates to be had and players I’ve forgotten. Please leave any thoughts, gripes, or omissions in the comments!
*Note: some positions, like wide receiver, have multiple players listed. Offensive line was treated as a five-man unit rather than individual positions.
Need we say more? Six Super Bowl titles. Nine AFC Championships. Three MVP trophies. And still playing at age 42.
Honorable Mention: Drew Bledsoe. His heroic second half substitution in the 2001 AFC Championship Game against the Steelers stands as one of the great clutch playoff moments in Patriots history.
This was a tough call – the Patriots have had a number of solid running backs over the years, including bruisers like Corey Dillon and LeGarrette Blount, speedsters like Dion Lewis, and versatile backs like Kevin Faulk. But James White gets the nod here thanks to his three Super Bowl rings, including a star turn against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51. White has been a foundational piece of the Patriots offense for five years, the natural evolution of the “third down back” role that Faulk perfected in the early days of the Patriots run.
Honorable Mention: Dion Lewis. This may be recency bias, but no other Patriots running back of the past 20 years combined Lewis’ explosiveness with his toughness between the tackles. You could plug him in to any team and he’d be an offensive dynamo.
Wide Receiver (3)
Outside of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, this is one of the easiest calls to make. In the doomed 2007 season, Randy Moss reached heights that few receivers could ever dream of.
With a Super Bowl MVP, three rings, and arguably the greatest catch in Patriots playoff history (versus the Falcons in Super Bowl 51), Julian Edelman has defined “clutch.” Remember when he spent time as a fill-in cornerback early in his career? Good thing he eventually solidified his role in the receiving corps.
Troy Brown was Julian Edelman before Julian Edelman. The receiver/returner/defensive back extraordinaire supplied some of the most memorable moments early in the Brady run.
Honorable Mention: Deion Branch. Won a Super Bowl MVP and had stretches of stardom. Wes Welker also deserves a mention. Despite never winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots, Welker helped redefine the slot receiver position and served as Brady’s safety valve for years.
Arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history. An unstoppable offensive force with an equally unstoppable personality. Despite a relatively short nine year career, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots without Gronk.
Honorable Mention: Martellus Bennett. Although his time in New England was brief, he helped bring home a Super Bowl trophy and provided a mix of offensive skill and blocking capability mirroring that of Gronk, taking pressure off of number 87.
Offensive Line (season-long unit)
2018 Offensive Line
Tackles: Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon
Guards: Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason
Center: David Andrews
I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to effectively evaluate individual offensive linemen, so instead, I’ve decided to nominate a season-long unit. Again, recency bias is likely at play here, but the 2018 offensive line did an incredible job keeping Tom Brady upright in the pocket throughout the regular season and playoffs – in fact, they surrendered only 21 sacks last season, the third-fewest in the league. They also helped Sony Michel, a rookie running back, establish himself as a workhorse, averaging 4.45 yards per carry and nearly 1,000 yards for the season over 13 games.
Honorable Mention: I’d like to use this space to shout-out a few individual standouts from Patriots’ offensive lines past, including Logan Mankins, Matt Light, Nate Solder, Dan Koppen, Sebastian Vollmer, and Joe Andruzzi. They did the dirty work in the trenches that rarely gets the spotlight but is nevertheless integral to the team’s success.
Defensive Line (3)
The big fella, with smooth dance moves and even smoother skills with a grill, anchored the Patriots defense for 11 years. Appropriately, he bookended his time in New England with Super Bowl championships in 2004 and 2014, bridging the two “mini dynasties.”
At 6’6” and over 300 pounds, Richard Seymour was an absolute beast on the defensive line for the Patriots’ first three Super Bowl victories in 2001, 2003 and 2004. He was also one of the first instances of Belichick selling high on an established star when he was traded to the Oakland Raiders for a first round pick following the 2008 season.
Now on the Arizona Cardinals, where he remains one of the premier pash rushers in the league, Chandler Jones spent the first four years of his career in New England, during which time he helped lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl 49 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Honorable Mention: Trey Flowers. Despite racking up just 21 sacks through the first four years of his career, Flowers always seemed to come up with big plays in the playoffs, highlighted by his 2.5 sacks in Super Bowls 51 against the Atlanta Falcons. Flowers signed with the Detroit Lions after the 2018 season to reunite with Lions Head Coach, and former Patriots Defensive Coordinator, Matt Patricia.
It doesn’t get more clutch than Dont’a Hightower. Despite battling injuries throughout his career, Hightower has earned his place among the all-time New England greats with championship-winning plays, including stopping Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in Super Bowl 49 and strip-sacking Matt Ryan in Super Bowl 51.
A terrifying pass rusher for the early-Brady era, Willie McGinest helped win three Super Bowls for New England and set the tone for the Patriots defense. Despite retiring more than ten years ago, McGinest looks like he could still suit up and tally a sack or two.
The face of the New England defense in the early-Brady years, Tedy Bruschi deserves this spot based solely on his play on the field. But his comeback from a stroke during his playing career truly cemented his place in Patriots history.
Jerod Mayo was the heart of the New England defense for his entire eight year career, highlighted by a Super Bowl ring in 2004. He’s now returning to New England to coach under Bill Belichick.
Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel. One of the key defensive contributors to the Patriots’ first three Super Bowl victories, Mike Vrabel now serves as Head Coach of the Tennessee Titans.
Ty Law was the quintessential “number one” cornerback and anchored the back end of the defenses that defined the Patriots from 2001-2004. His pick-six against the St Louis Rams in Super Bowl 36 stands as one of the most iconic clutch plays in Patriots history.
Although he is a relative newcomer to the Patriots, having signed as a free agent prior to the 2017 season, Stephon Gilmore has already left his mark. Gilmore has worked under two Defensive Coordinators, covered top receivers during a league-wide movement towards explosive passing attacks, played in two Super Bowls, and repeatedly stepped up in big-game situations, including a game-clinching pass deflection against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2017 AFC Championship Game.
Honorable Mention: Darrelle Revis, whose brief (one year) stint with the Patriots culminated in the unforgettable Super Bowl 49 victory over Seattle. Arguably one of the greatest cornerbacks of all time, Revis was in peak form in New England.
It’s difficult to a remember the Patriots defense before Devin McCourty. The ten year New England veteran has been a reliable leader for the defensive unit, winning three Super Bowl championships and anchoring the secondary while working against record-breaking offenses year after year.
This heavy hitter brought personality, toughness, and leadership to the Pats defense, joining the early-Brady era defense in 2003 and taking it to the next level on the way to two Super Bowl rings.
Honorable Mention: Lawyer Milloy. One of the top safeties in the league when Brady arrived in New England, Milloy was a key contributor to the 2001 Patriots Super Bowl win.
For the sake of brevity, no Honorable Mentions were included in this section.
Two kicks in the “Snow Bowl” versus the Oakland Raiders. Two walk-off Super Bowl winning kicks. This spot is Vinatieri’s forever (even if he’s had a long post-New England career with the Indianapolis Colts).
I don’t have an eye for talent at punter, so this slot goes to Ryan Allen, who has punted for the past three Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams.
He did it all, and his punt return touchdown in the 2001 AFC Championship Game helped spark the Patriots’ upset victory over the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers.
Special Teams Ace
Let’s be honest – a list of great Patriots would be incomplete with Matthew Slater. A longtime team captain and fan favorite, Slater embodies the “do your job” mantra that permeates Patriots football.