With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror for the Patriots, we have an updated look at what the team’s roster will look like for the 2020 season. The draft always presents a good window into an NFL team’s true evaluation of its roster, to see which positions it really prioritizes.
For all the brevity and deflections offered up by Bill Belichick to the media, the draft gave us a chance to see what he really thinks about his roster.
Here are the biggest Patriots-specific takeaways from this year’s draft.
1. Addressing the need for speed a top priority
The top two teams in the AFC currently, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens, also happen to be two of the fastest teams in the NFL. That speed has been difficult for the Patriots defense to handle the past two seasons. As NFL offenses continue to increasingly rely on speedy players like Tyreek Hill, Lamar Jackson, Mecole Hardman, and Hollywood Brown, New England will need better athletes who can keep pace with players who feast on matchups versus slower defensive players.
New England’s selection of two athletic, defensive players with their first two draft picks seems to be an acknowledgment of the team’s Achilles’ heel. In Kyle Dugger, the Pats now have an athletic safety who ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Dugger provides the team with another option in the passing game against athletic, pass-catching tight ends like Travis Kelce, and his ability as a run defender should help to neutralize the running game of a team like Baltimore, too.
Josh Uche’s selection is a departure from past selections the team has made at the outside linebacker position, due to his lack of prototypical size, at 6’1” and 245 pounds. But the former Michigan Wolverine brings a fast-twitch element to the defense that the Patriots have been lacking the last few years. If used correctly, Uche can develop into a versatile off-ball linebacker who is capable of rushing the passer and dropping back in coverage. His elite athleticism should help him develop into a Jamie Collins-esque weakside linebacker who excels at making plays in space and can be used several different ways.
Michigan’s Josh Uche locking down Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins🔒 pic.twitter.com/Zk3Iwr9t78
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 22, 2020
2. Building foundational depth with this draft class
The Patriots didn’t draft the flashiest available names and didn’t address an apparent need at the wide receiver position. But the selection of players like Dugger, Anfernee Jennings, Devin Asiasi, and Justin Rohrwasser, while unspectacular, are solid picks that should help the team build the foundation of core players who will carry the next 10+ years of Patriots football.
Dugger has the versatility to become the successor to either Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung, who are both turning 33 years old this season. In a defense like New England’s that relies on dependable safety play, a player like Dugger provides depth in the short-term behind Chung and McCourty, and provides long-term security at a critical position on defense.
Jennings is one of the safer picks made by the Patriots: He’s a high IQ player who is strong against the run and whose well-rounded game should allow him to get on the field early on in his Patriots career.
Asiasi has some character concerns to answer for, having been suspended in 2018, but he has undeniable talent and solid hands, having dropped just one pass on 45 targets last season at UCLA. The Patriots need major help at the tight end position, and Asiasi should help provide it, along with Dalton Keene, who is more of a project right now.
3. Adding youth to an aging defense
When averaging the ages of every NFL defense’s 11 players with the most starts last season, the Patriots had the highest average starter age at 29.27 years old. Despite the elite performance from last year’s team, now is the time to begin adding new talent to the defense, to ensure there is no significant drop-off as players like Chung, the McCourty twins, and Dont’a Hightower begin to decline in the next few years. Drafting three defensive players with the team’s first three picks shows that Belichick and the staff understand the need for some more youth on defense.
4. Jarrett Stidham the real winner of the draft for New England
At every stop along the way this offseason, when presented with the opportunity to add a quarterback to its roster, New England has declined to do so. It’s hard to find a clearer sign of the team’s faith in Jarrett Stidham than that.
That the team passed on even adding a developmental quarterback in the draft — to add depth at the position and some insurance in case Stidham doesn’t work out — is a ringing endorsement that the team believes it’s set with Stidham and Brian Hoyer in 2020, with the possibility that undrafted free agent quarterbacks J’Mar Smith (Louisiana Tech) and Brian Lewerke (Michigan State) could compete to be the third-string quarterback on the roster.
Add in the fact that New England passed on signing Andy Dalton, and it should be apparent that New England has a lot of faith in Stidham.
5. A lot riding on N’Keal Harry
In what was billed as a historically deep wide receiver class in this year’s draft, the Patriots snubbed their nose at those evaluations, choosing not to draft a wide receiver at all. While they did add several undrafted wide receivers in Will Hastings (Auburn), Jeff Thomas (Miami), and Sean Riley (Syracuse), it is surprising they didn’t invest in the position during the draft.
One answer for why they chose to go that route is last year’s first-round draft pick at wide receiver: N’Keal Harry. Harry had a shaky rookie season that was delayed due to injury, but New England’s decision not to add a rookie wide receiver shows that the team still has high hopes for Harry as he heads into his second year. Whether he can stay healthy and contribute in 2020 will go a long way toward determining whether New England was right not to take advantage of the depth that was available at the receiver position.
6. Mohamed Sanu’s chances of staying on roster increase
New England’s inaction at the wide receiver position in the draft also bodes well for Mohamed Sanu, who was acquired last season using New England’s 2020 second-round pick.
Sanu started out hot after being acquired from the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of the season, catching 10 passes in his second game with the Patriots, against Baltimore, but an ankle injury limited him to just 26 total catches for 207 yards and one touchdown.
His $6.5 million price tag for 2020 has led to some speculation that Sanu could be a candidate to be traded or released, but comments made by Belichick after the draft seemed to indicate that Sanu is still in the team’s plans for 2020.
“I think that will be a very good group,” Belichick said when asked about the team’s receiving corps. “There’s a lot of different ways and times to build your team. The draft is one of them. As I mentioned, whether it’s Sanu or free agents signing like [Damiere] Byrd, whatever the case might be, there’s multiple ways to build your roster, and this is one of them.”
7. With uncertainty along the interior offensive line in 2020 and beyond, adding depth a priority
With David Andrews returning from a blood clot in his lungs that sidelined him for all of 2019, and Joe Thuney having yet to agree to an extension with the team after signing his franchise tag tender for 2020, the team could be in a pickle, quickly, if Andrews isn’t able to return to form and Thuney leaves after 2020. That explains why the Pats drafted three offensive linemen between the sixth and seventh rounds to build up depth where it was lacking.
It’s possible that Michael Onwenu, Justin Herron, and Dustin Woodard won’t make the team in 2020, but the team lacked options on the interior, with Hjalte Froholdt, Jermaine Eluemunor, and Najee Toran all having question marks. Adding three rookie interior linemen should add competition to the position during training camp, and help to build depth at a position that needs it, especially with a second-year quarterback expected to be running the show this year.
8. Emphasizing the run in 2020
We all know that Belichick loves to zig when everybody else zags. As NFL teams continue to emphasize the pass more and more, Belichick continues to resist following the masses.
By not drafting a quarterback or any wide receivers, could Belichick be putting his faith once again in his team’s running game to carry the offense next year? Certainly, it worked during 2018’s Super Bowl run, and the moves in the draft lend credence to the idea that the Pats could be poised to be a run-first team in 2020 as well. With a second-year quarterback set to start in 2020, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to have a solid running game to make life easier for Stidham.
Despite the retirement of fullback James Develin, New England still has two fullbacks on its team, in Dan Vitale and Jakob Johnson; a deep stable of running backs in James White, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, and last year’s third-round pick Damien Harris; and also just drafted three offensive linemen. It has all the ingredients it needs to have a dominant run game in a league where defenses are becoming smaller and less equipped to handle teams with bruising running games.
9. Versatility a common trait amongst most picks
Belichick has always shown an affinity for players who can fill multiple roles on his team, and this year’s draft class is no different.
Dugger is a hard-hitting safety with the range to play at free safety, and the physicality to play down in the box as well. Uche is an athletic edge defender who is almost as good in coverage as he is rushing the passer.
“He’s out for blood every snap, I even think at 217, you even play linebacker”
Kyle Dugger is a versatile chess piece that will thrive in the Bill Belichick system.
— PFF NE Patriots (@PFF_Patriots) May 1, 2020
On offense, Belichick drafted two tight ends who can catch the ball and be dependable blockers in the run game. Keene, especially, is a player who lined up all over the offense in college at Virginia Tech, spending a lot of time as an H-back for the Hokies.
Justin Herron, one of the team’s sixth-round selections, was an offensive tackle at Wake Forest, but projects to kick inside to one of the guard positions in the NFL, a transition reminiscent to the one made by Joe Thuney when he was drafted by New England out of NC State, where he played left tackle. His ability to play inside and out could come in handy and help to improve his chances at making the team this season.
10. Complementary skillsets at positions where the team double-dipped
New England double-dipped at three positions in this year’s draft: outside linebacker, tight end, and offensive guard. What’s interesting is that the selected players have skillsets that balance out each other well.
At outside linebacker, Uche is an athletic pass rusher with great burst and the ability to play in space. Anfernee Jennings, the other player selected at that position, is a more stout player who is better against the run than he is a pass rusher. Where Uche excels with speed and quickness, Jennings is a slower player who wins with power and anticipation rather than speed and natural athleticism.
Asiasi and Keene both have the ability to rack up yards after the catch, but from different parts of the field and in different ways: Asiasi is more of a traditional inline tight end who uses his frame to run through his defenders when he gets the chance, while Keene lines up from an array of positions on offense and tends to do most of his work near the line of scrimmage, where he likes to block and release into the flat to catch the ball on designed screens and short passes. Keene is more likely to run around a defender than through a defender like Asiasi tends to do.
At guard, the Patriots drafted a mauler of a player in Michael Onwenu, who is listed at 344 pounds, but told the media in his first conference call as a Patriot that he played last season at Michigan at 368 pounds. Onwenu is a powerful player who is better as a pass protector right now, having given up only 13 pressures over the last two seasons. Herron, on the other hand, is a lighter, more athletic player, who does well as a second-level blocker in the run game, but lacks the functional strength that Onwenu has. Both players have something the other doesn’t.