Five takeaways from the Patriots’ highly regarded draft weekend, during which Bill Belichick seems to have started gearing up his team for another run at a Super Bowl title on top of potentially picking Tom Brady’s eventual heir…
Is this the draft Pats fans have long been waiting for?
You aren’t likely alone among Patriots fans if you finished watching the Bruins beat the Blue Jackets in overtime on Thursday night and opted to turn in rather than waiting up for pick No. 32 to come around down in Nashville. And you certainly couldn’t be blamed. After years of trading down and/or taking the best available trench warrior, Belichick has so conditioned New England’s fan base to expect the unsexy that it hardly seemed worth sacrificing slumber just to watch the commissioner douse any built anticipation by announcing a trade had been made before the final pick of the first round. Those same expectations would’ve been forgivable Friday night, too, which began for many with a rightful skepticism about how much exciting the second day of the draft would be despite the Pats holding five picks across rounds two and three.
But then, with that 32nd pick, they selected N’Keal Harry — a big, tough, strong-handed, competitive wide receiver. The next day they followed that by trading up to take Joejuan Williams, a cornerback whose long body is built to take on the types of receivers they’re likely to face this coming season. Then in the early third round they pounced on the chance to take Chase Winovich, a high-motor edge defender better known for rushing the quarterback than responsibly setting the boundary. And a day later they spent a fourth rounder on Jarrett Stidham, a physically gifted, high-upside QB who comes straight from the starting ranks of the SEC.
Now, nobody knows how these picks will pan out. Some of the experts who’ve given the Pats high grades for their choices this weekend were probably the same pundits who praised the Raiders for taking JaMarcus Russell first overall years ago. There are so many variables, it’s impossible for even those paid to fixate on these prospects for months to truly predict with any degree of certainty what type of pros they’ll become, or how exactly they project in a system.
But just based on the approach, this seems to finally be the draft Patriots fans have been waiting for. Not only did Belichick buck his own established trend by taking a wideout in the first round for the first time, but it wasn’t until after he’d drafted three guys who could play spotlighted positions, and play them immediately, that he prioritized reinforcing his roster with depth and value. And when he did look for a long-term project, he did it with a quarterback, satisfying the fan base’s itch to identify the next Jimmy Garoppolo and understand the Tom Brady succession plan.
Again, who knows if any of these guys can play? Or how they’ll fit? And they didn’t address an obvious area of pressing need by taking a tight end. However, in the wake of a Super Bowl championship, with another chance to win three titles in four years forthcoming, and with a quarterback who’ll be 42 years old this summer, it appears the Patriots took to the draft with a plan that reflects the undeniably urgency of that formula, and managed to pull it off while simultaneously fortifying parts of their future.
It’d be tough for fans to ask for anything more exciting than that.
Jarrett Stidham could be the one.
If Harry can live up to Herm Edwards’s comparison and is indeed a Dez Bryant-type for the Patriots, he will command the attention. But until the Pats’ top pick starts to showcase his abilities, the most intriguing and talked-about selection figures to be a guy who in a best-case scenario doesn’t see meaningful action for a few years.
The first question Stidham will need to answer is whether he can make the roster, then whether he can challenge Brian Hoyer for the role of New England’s primary backup. But longer term, Patriot Nation has already begun asking the question of whether or not he will be groomed as the heir apparent to the Foxborough throne.
Feels good to be a Patriot! https://t.co/YsLUPsLbSC
— Jarrett Stidham (@Jarrett_Stidham) April 29, 2019
That’s a lot to project, at this point. When that responsibility was seemingly cast upon Garoppolo, he was selected in the second round. Even a year after that, Jacoby Brissett was taken in the third. Stidham was the 133rd overall pick in this year’s draft, 59 spots later than Ryan Mallett was taken in 2011, 29 spots behind where Kevin O’Connell went in 2008.
But this is the natural conversation that occurs every time a quarterback is acquired by — or even linked to — New England, and this time may in fact be different because of what happened after committing to Garoppolo in 2014.
In the wake of his trade to San Francisco, he led the 49ers to six straight wins. One of those was an impressive comeback, and the QB happened to be mic’d up that afternoon. As a result, there was audio of everything he was saying as he led the team from behind, be it conversations with receivers about routes and coverages, or more general positivity and encouragement.
When that audio was aired, the overwhelming reaction was along the lines of, “Wow. Did you see what the Patriots gave away for a second-round pick? This guy gets it. He’s special.”
The folks in Foxborough, however, may have seen it a little differently. They likely already knew what they had — but they also had some idea of how much Garoppolo had grown. Perhaps they saw the same clips, heard the same audio, and thought, “Wow. See what a guy can pick up from the greatness of Belichick and Brady if we commit three years to just letting him watch, learn, and develop? Especially if the physical tools are already there.”
For what it’s worth, three years aligns quite nicely with Brady’s stated desire to play until he’s 45.
Beware the second-round defensive back.
A couple weeks before the draft, Belichick gave reporters a hint of where he was leaning in trying to fill out his defensive backfield.
“This is another year where there’s a lot of big receivers – 6-4, 225, 230, whatever they are,” Belichick said. “Somebody’s going to have to cover those guys one of these days.”
Friday night he went out and acquired one of those somebodies, drafting Williams, a 6-foot, 4-inch cornerback out of Vanderbilt. The body type makes sense, as do the ball skills, with four interceptions and 14 pass breakups earning him all-SEC honors as a junior.
THANK YOU GOD!!! IM A PATRIOT https://t.co/1qOYbd0ij4
— Joejuan Williams (@JoejuanW) April 27, 2019
By now, though, Patriots fans should be weary of defensive backs selected in the second round. Eugene Wilson was a hit in 2003, albeit after switching positions. And Patrick Chung has been an anchor on three championship teams, but he had to spend a season in Philadelphia for the Pats to figure out how to use him. The rest of the DBs drafted in the second round by Belichick have been wastes, at least during their time in New England: Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Ras-I Dowling, Tavon Wilson, Jordan Richards, and Cyrus Jones.
The most recent before Williams was Duke Dawson, who has yet to appear in a game after spending most of his rookie season on injured reserve, and doesn’t appear to have a role at his natural cornerback position entering year two. Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty were both re-signed, Stephon Gilmore is an All-Pro, J.C. Jackson earned himself more opportunity during the playoffs, and now there’s a new dimension with Williams.
A shift to safety could be coming for Dawson — but that could depend on what the Pats believe they have in Williams. They like the player enough to move up 11 spots and sacrifice a third-round pick for the right to take him at No. 45, but it’s worth pointing out that there were five other corners taken between Nos. 30 and 44. That means five other teams also targeting the position, and presumably just as aware that NFL receivers are getting bigger, opted for other players in that range of the draft.
On most things, you’d trust Belichick’s evaluation before any of those others. But maybe not in the realm of second-round defensive backs.
A running back? And a punter?
As the draft unfolded, it was no surprise to see the Patriots pick a couple of raw offensive linemen who could be interesting projects. But given the current composition of their roster, there were a couple of middle-round picks that were curious enough to raise questions about what they could mean for the incumbent Patriots.
The first was the choice of Damien Harris at No. 87 overall. Running back appeared to be an area where the Patriots were deep, having taken Sony Michel in the first round last year, and still having both Rex Burkhead and James White. The club also brought back Brandon Bolden earlier this spring, and while he’s primarily a special teamer, he’d still occupy a roster spot as a running back. So would fullback James Develin.
Harris’s addition makes six in the backfield, and every one of them is signed for at least the next two seasons. So, may Bolden be cut again as training camp concludes? Do Develin’s hybrid abilities give them the option to carry one fewer tight end? Or are there enough concerns that the injury histories of both Burkhead and Michel could require the presence of another early down back — given that their absences last season forced the Pats to use receiver Cordarelle Patterson as a running back at times?
That’s a situation to be monitored. So is the developing predicament at punter. A punter was never going to be the MVP of the Super Bowl, but Ryan Allen was immensely important in the Patriots victory over the Rams, and the team recently re-signed him to a one-year deal.
They’re slated to pay him $1.5 million, but by trading up in the fifth round (and giving up a seventh-round choice, too), the Pats will have in camp the best punter of this year’s draft class, Jake Bailey. It’s the second straight year that Allen will have competition during the exhibition season, although this year the team has invested something in the other option, which would seem to add validity to the idea that the job is up for grabs.
No tight ends
One line of pre-draft thinking was that the Patriots would use their plethora of early picks to add a tight end in the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, but the Pats didn’t extend themselves for one of the bigger names at that position — and didn’t take a tight end at all.
Part of the reason may be that New England’s front office doesn’t believe the team is as deficient in that area as outsiders may. They have signed two 26-year-old free agents, Matt LaCosse and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the latter of whom is considered to have untapped potential as a pass-catcher. The Pats also have Jacob Hollister, who enters his third year as a player Brady has shown some level of comfort in throwing to when he’s managed to stay on the field, and Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round pick in 2018.
That might be enough, especially if the postseason was a preview of where the offense is headed, and the Patriots plan to keep adding emphasis to the run. And if it isn’t enough, all of their maneuvering this weekend has the Patriots well-stocked with assets related to the 2020 draft, and could theoretically swing some combination of their three third-rounders, two fourth-rounders, three sixth-rounders, or three seventh-rounders to make a trade for a piece that becomes available between now and opening day.
Or, they could wait to see if Gronkowski changes his mind after some time away from the rigor and restrictions of life in the NFL.
That would fit into the category of things Pats fans have been hoping to see, too.