By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — It’s technically the NFL postseason, but in New England, it’s been 2021 season for at least a month.

After the most absurd 19-year run from any team in NFL history, the Patriots didn’t win their division, they didn’t rack up double-digit victories, they didn’t make the playoffs, and they didn’t even win more games than they lost. And with no clear plan at quarterback, as well as significant roster holes at tight end, wide receiver, linebacker and on the defensive line, the path back to the top of the conference looks a bit rocky.

Of course, nobody’s foolhardy enough to say that they’re doomed. Bill Belichick’s track record in building a winner does count for something. But the Patriots’ maestro is going to have to deliver a masterful opus if New England is going to make significant improvement in rapid fashion.

And in that steep climb, the Patriots will be without their full assortment of kicks at the can. As you surely remember, the NFL stripped the team of a third-round pick for that press box video incident in Cleveland late in the 2019 season.

Obviously, this wasn’t the first draft pick punishment of the Patriots, nor was it the most severe. The NFL stripped the Patriots of a first-round pick in 2008 due to Spygate, and then did so again in 2016 after DeflateGate (which was an imaginary, drummed-up charge for which the league has never properly answered, but we don’t have time to explore all of that right now).

The thing was, coming off the undefeated 2007 regular season, the Patriots didn’t desperately need their first-round pick. Plus, the ever-prepared Belichick wasn’t exactly hurt by that punishment, as he owned the 49ers’ first-round pick for that 2008 draft. (He traded down from No. 7 to No. 10 to select Jerod Mayo. Belichick drafted Shawn Crable with the additional pick gained from that trade down.)

In 2016, the league made sure that Belichick didn’t come out looking like a winner after round one, stipulating that if the Patriots acquired a first-round pick, then that higher pick would be the one stripped, thus ensuring that the Patriots would not be making a selection in the first round.

Some good players went off the board shortly after that missed spot at No. 28, like Chris Jones, Xavien Howard, Hunter Henry and Myles Jack. Derrick Henry, Sterling Shepard, and Michael Thomas were selected in the second round. The Patriots obviously would have been a better team from 2017-20 if they had selected one of those players, but sitting here and acting like it’s a certainty that Belichick would have used that pick at all and used it on any one player would be the ultimate case of hindsight history.

Plus, even without that pick, the Patriots were fine. More than fine, some would even say.

Despite the bogus Tom Brady suspension, they won 14 games and pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history to earn championship No. 5 that very season. The next year, they won 13 games and made it back to the Super Bowl, which they could have won if their second-best cornerback had been allowed to play. And the year after that, they went a ho-hum 11-5 before going on a run and winning yet another Super Bowl.

So, did the stripping of a first-round pick in 2016 hurt the Patriots? Yes, of course. But also … no. Not at all.

Now, though, the loss of a third-round pick hurts the team arguably more than it did in both 2008 and and in 2016.

The Patriots are coming off a 7-9 season, their first sub-.500 year since Belichick’s first season on the job in 2000. In their own division, they fell notably behind the Bills (who have a strong operation going, with the coveted quarterback-coach-GM trifecta looking as stable as it’s been in decades). They also slipped behind the Dolphins, though that stumble could just be temporary.

And in the conference, the Patriots are worlds away from the Chiefs, who at least for the time being have maintained a video game offense with a perennial MVP candidate at quarterback and a brilliant head coach who’s reached a higher plane late in his career. The Browns and Ravens appear to be trending upward, and the Titans and Colts remain among the teams that will make it difficult to reach a Super Bowl for the foreseeable future.

All of that is to say that the Patriots have a lot of work to do. And they need as many bullets as possible.

Unfortunately for them, they won’t have their pick in the middle of the third round in this year’s draft. (Noteworthy: The Patriots are expected to be rewarded a compensatory pick at the end of the third round.)

Now, you could point out, say, at least five reasons why that punishment is an insane overreach by the NFL, notably pointing out that if a camera operator were to try to spy on the opposing sideline, he likely wouldn’t move from his last-row seat in the press box so that he could position himself directly in front of a row of staffers from that team. That’s typically not how spy work functions. (And wearing a Boston Bruins shirt, to boot!)

Nevertheless.

The punishment happened, and that’s what the Patriots have to deal with.

You could be a weisenheimer and wonder just howwwww the Patriots will get by without adding another impact player of Dalton Keene’s and Devin Asiasi’s caliber. Or, you could look at the Patriots’ third-round picks from the decade of 2010-19 to get a wider view of the type of player they tend to select in the third round. Let’s break it up into three categories. (Some minor squabbling is allowed; this is just a general picture.)

HITS
QB Jacoby Brissett, 91st overall, 2016
S Duron Harmon, 91st overall, 2013
RB Damien Harris, 87th overall, 2019
RB Stevan Ridley, 73rd overall, 2011
CB Logan Ryan, 83rd overall, 2013
G Joe Thuney, 78th overall, 2016
LB Chase Winovich, 77th overall, 2019

WHIFFS
DE Jake Bequette, 90th overall, 2012
T Yodny Cajuste, 101st overall, 2019
T Antonio Garcia, 85th overall, 2017
DE Geneo Grissom, 97th overall, 2015
QB Ryan Mallett, 74th overall, 2011
WR Taylor Price, 90th overall, 2010
DE Derek Rivers, 83rd overall, 2017
DT Vincent Valentine, 96th overall, 2016

It’s much too soon to apply a hit or whiff label on last year’s three third-round picks — the aforementioned tight end duo of Asiasi and Keene, plus linebacker Anfernee Jennings — but you can still get the general idea. A third-round pick has more or less been a 50-50 proposition for the Patriots in the past decade.

And some of those hits brought about key contributors to multiple Super Bowl victories. Another produced one of the best guards in the NFL. Another produced a starting-caliber NFL quarterback.

Basically, a third-round pick has been a 50-50 lottery ticket for Belichick. Any executive would take those odds.

This year, though, as the Patriots try to ensure they improve instead of falling further back from contention, they’ll have one fewer (potentially critical) dart to throw at the board of prospects.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here. You can email him or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.