When the Patriots actually have picked in the fifth, Bill Belichick has taken two punters, a long snapper, a tight end, an offensive tackle, a linebacker, and a defensive lineman.
It’s a varied group that includes a major success story: Marcus Cannon. And going back even farther (to 2008), the fifth round is also where the Patriots found Matthew Slater; another successful — albeit unconventional — draft-day addition.
In 2019, Belichick traded up to select punter Jake Bailey in the middle of the fifth. This unorthodox move may have overshadowed the Patriots’ other pick in the 2019 fifth round: defensive lineman Byron Cowart.
Cowart — who was also selected by the Patriots after a trade — arrives in the NFL after a roundabout college experience. Once seen as the best player in the country coming out of high school, his stock fell almost completely off NFL draft-boards. Just before it was too late, he found his footing in time to make a case for NFL redemption.
The Patriots could be the potential beneficiaries.
A bizarre signing day
As a senior at Armwood High School in 2014, Cowart was a name known to every major college football coach in the country. In the days before he played in Florida’s Class 6A state championship game, he met with then-head coach of the Florida Gators, Jim McElwain. He’d already completed his visit to Alabama, among other schools.
Byron Cowart was the No. 1️⃣ overall player in America coming out of @Armwood_Hawks.
He brings the BOOM!😤 @Patriots
— MaxPreps (@MaxPreps) April 27, 2019
In the end, it came down to Florida and Auburn as his two choices for college. The Gators were his hometown team, while Auburn — which had just hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp as the new defensive coordinator —was also a strong possibility.
At a press conference on national signing day, Cowart sat next to his mother as he announced his decision to attend Auburn. An interesting footnote was that he also sat next to a Chucky doll he’d been carrying around, a reference to other former Florida players who embraced the odd tradition (including former Patriots first round pick Dominique Easley).
Cowart inks his National Letter of Intent with Auburn (with the Chucky doll) pic.twitter.com/UJM6rUa8lr
— Graham Hall (@GrahamHall_) February 4, 2015
A bizarre story followed Cowart that day when his signed letter of intent to play for Auburn took hours to be faxed over, causing media speculation that he might reconsider. Disagreement over why the delay took place foreshadowed his disjointed time at Auburn.
“The whole situation humbled me”
After being touted as one of the nation’s impact recruits for months, Cowart struggled to acclimate at Auburn in 2015. During the early going on the football field, Cowart thought he was being singled out for criticism.
He used his (since deleted) Twitter to vent frustration.
“Being penalized because I was number 1 player but I’m struggling I don’t care about the stars. So why when I struggle its thrown in my face,” wrote Cowart. He later apologized, but the on-field struggles continued.
Though he wasn’t named a starter, Cowart still saw plenty of snaps as Muschamp tried to work him into the defensive line rotation. For whatever reason, Cowart didn’t take to the Tigers’ defense. He recorded no sacks and managed just one solo tackle in his freshman season.
“I never once thought, ‘What if I don’t fit this scheme or this team,'” Cowart said of his time in Auburn in a 2019 interview on the Glenn Clark Radio Show. “I didn’t even know what adversity was.”
Things worsened for Cowart when Muschamp left to become the head coach at South Carolina. His main link to the school was gone.
In between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Cowart was one of four Auburn players who were arrested for second-degree possession of marijuana (which is a second-degree misdemeanor in Alabama).
An additional setback occurred prior to his second season when Cowart had to undergo emergency appendectomy surgery, limiting his time on the field. After another season, he still had zero sacks in his Auburn career.
With two years gone by, Cowart was yet to fulfill the high-profile billing he’d received as a recruit.
“The whole situation humbled me,” Cowart told Clark.
“I didn’t do the extra stuff, because I’m thinking it just happens on Saturday,” Cowart would later tell Tampa Bay Times reporter Joey Knight of his Auburn experience. “Practice a little bit, have success. But I didn’t know about the preparation and all that stuff.”
In the fall of 2017, citing a lack of playing time and a chance to be closer to his mother in Florida (who had been diagnosed with fibroid tumors), Cowart left Auburn three games into his junior season. He enrolled at Hillsborough Community College for the remainder of the year.
“Like a breath of fresh air”
In late 2017, Cowart rejoined the ranks of Division-I football, committing to Maryland. Chasing the possibility of a clean slate with one year of NCAA eligibility remaining, he sought a chance to showcase himself for NFL scouts.
The Cowart who showed up in Maryland sounded like a person who had matured through hard experience.
“For me, it’s funny, because I’m a big guy, I’m a jokester, I’m always happy. But when I was [at Auburn], I didn’t believe in depression, but I was in my bed crying — not wanting to leave, just trying to pray,” Cowart told Don Markus of The Baltimore Sun. “I was in a sunken place. I wasn’t happy. I felt like I failed myself and my family, everybody.”
“Coming here was like a breath of fresh air,” Cowart told Markus. “The monkey was off my back.”
Still, Cowart had to persevere through more adversity while at Maryland. Teammate Jordan McNair’s death due to heatstroke he suffered at a spring practice eventually led to an investigation that resulted in the team’s coach, D.J. Durkin, getting fired.
The series of events left players shaken, and Cowart — along with other seniors — stepped into leadership roles to try and lift their teammates up.
“I wanted to be one of the guys who could say, ‘Hey man, you going through something? Talk to me,’” Cowart told Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko. “Come cry on me.”
The tragedy was yet another step in Cowart’s growth.
“At Maryland, I grew as a person, as a football player,” he told Knight.
Cowart’s stats in his lone season at Maryland weren’t standout, but showed a noticeable improvement. He totaled 38 tackles with three sacks. He also intercepted two passes, though he fumbled one of them at the goal-line.
This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life. pic.twitter.com/IGq4E0yM1X
— Jared Goldstein (@_jgoldy17) November 3, 2018
At the end of his time as a college player, Cowart expressed how his self-perception of an NFL future had changed. It was a stark reminder of what he had gone through.
“I thought I was going to be Jadeveon Clowney, get three-and-out, drafted top of the first round,” Cowart told reporters during Maryland’s pro day before the draft. “But my journey was different. I still had to go through some adversity and grow as a player. I still think I’m first-round talent, but at this point, I just want the opportunity to get drafted and then play in the league.”
With the 159th pick, the Patriots made Cowart’s dream come true. It was a long way from the pick number he’d foreseen as a highly-touted high school senior, but the former five-star recruit has kept it in perspective since leaving Auburn.
“Before every game at Maryland, I looked at that,” Cowart told Knight. “It was just motivation, man.”
Entering the NFL as a fifth round pick at the end of a circuitous college journey, Cowart should still have plenty of motivation left.