Five thoughts on the Patriots’ 36-20 win over the Raiders …
1. I know, it’s only three games, but we are starting to stockpile more evidence, as if we needed any, that it’s foolish to judge a draft class in its first year – or even after a couple of years.
The Patriots’ 2019 cast of rookies was a source of frustration last year. This year? Well, first-rounder N’Keal Harry is certainly an enigma, and he still doesn’t look like he’s in the right spot half the time, but he’s already surpassed his rookie year reception total (15 to 12), and Cam Newton seems intent on doing everything in his power to bring out his best in him.
The real revelations might come from players picked later, a couple of whom basically redshirted last season. Second-rounder Joejuan Williams has already emerged as a valuable piece in a deep and versatile defensive backfield, playing a supporting role in holding Raiders stalwart tight end Darren Waller to two catches for 9 yards Sunday.
Third-rounder Damien Harris, whom trustworthy eyes saw as the Patriots’ best running back in camp, is now eligible to come off injured reserve and should be a factor in their diverse running game later in the season.
Fellow third-rounder Chase Winovich, who had a strip-sack of Derek Carr and was in his face all day, might be the most improved player on the defense. And they also got Jake Bailey and Jarrett Stidham — the QB of the future, maybe? — in that draft. It looks a heck of a lot better now than it did at the end of last season.
2. This year’s rookie class is already ahead of the game when it comes to aiding the cause, even though the Patriots didn’t have a first-round pick in 2020 and a dog appeared to be running their draft board at one point.
Kyle Dugger, who played 25 snaps (more than Williams) and was instrumental in holding Waller without even a target in the first half, is going to be a fan favorite, a big, rangy, ridiculously athletic safety who is already silencing anyone who mocked Bill Belichick for using his second-round pick on a supposed project from Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne.
Sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu played all 69 snaps at left guard and mauled some Raiders in the running game, while fellow sixth-rounder Justin Herron filled in for Isaiah Wynn for 10 snaps at left tackle and performed well.
Undrafted free agent J.J. Taylor, who jump-started the running game with eight carries for 36 yards in the first half, adds a speedy, shifty dimension to the running game that the Patriots lacked last year.
Third-rounder Devin Asiasi played 29 snaps, cutting into Ryan Izzo’s workload at tight end, and I’ll bet you he’s a factor in the passing game as the season progresses.
This draft will look even better when second-rounder Josh Uche and third-rounder Anfernee Jennings get healthy and eventually take on more responsibilities at linebacker. This team is getting an infusion of youth that is already paying off.
3. The comparison of Taylor (11 carries, 43 yards Sunday) with “Mini” Mack Herron has already become an irresistible one for Patriots of a certain age. If you’re not familiar with Herron, who was listed a 5 feet 5 inches, an inch shorter than Taylor, he was a shooting star for the Patriots from 1973-75 before drug problems derailed his career.
His best season was in ’74, when he had 824 rushing yards, 474 receiving yards, and an NFL-best 2,444 all-purpose yards with gains on punt and kick returns factored in.
It’s certainly a logical comp, though Taylor reminds me more of Dion Lewis arriving on the scene in 2015 and immediately juking his way into Patriots’ fans hearts.
One on-field area Taylor doesn’t want to imitate Herron? Ball protection. Herron fumbled 26 times in 35 games with the Patriots. For context, Kevin Faulk fumbled 25 times in 161 games. And we thought Faulk was a fumbler early in his career.
4. Capable. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of Rex Burkhead and his contributions to the Patriots in his four seasons as a Patriot.
Capable of stepping in and being a factor in the running game when running backs with higher salaries and draft positions aren’t getting the job done on a given Sunday. Capable of stepping in and being a factor in the passing game when reliable James White is away dealing with much more important matters, or when the defense is focusing on other options.
Burkhead delivered a terrific performance Sunday, running six times for 49 yards and a pair of touchdowns and catching seven passes on 10 targets for another 49 yards and a score. It might have been his best game as a Patriot, but it also served as a reminder that this guy, the kind of quality depth so many top-heavy teams lack, has a habit of coming through when called upon.
5. I’ll admit it if you will: I didn’t figure we’d ever see Sony Michel eclipse 100 yards in a single game as a Patriot ever again. Michel, who gained his 117 yards on just nine carries Sunday, hadn’t supplied a 100-yard performance since he went for 113 yards against the Chiefs in the 2018 AFC Championship Game.
With the emergence of Harris in camp (before his injury), the ascent of Taylor, and Burkhead’s steady, yes, capability, Michel seemed to be sliding down the depth chart on a career arc reminiscent of Laurence Maroney.
But there he was, playing downright excellent football Sunday, taking advantage of the holes the line created with constant hard running. He’s not a threat to take it to the house even when he breaks loose — he reminds me of Robert Edwards in that regard — but he does have sharp vision and is shifty in the open field.
Maybe there’s some redemption coming for him yet. This is a player, after all, who ran for 326 yards and six touchdowns in three postseason games just two years ago.
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