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In recent years, Patriots fans have looked back at their team’s draft classes and wondered what could have been if they had picked other players selected later.
The 2021 draft class appears to be different, though. New England has already received contributions from their rookies, especially starting quarterback Mac Jones. Let’s take a look at how Jones and the other Patriots’ top draft picks are performing in relation to those selected around them and their fellow rookies at their positions.
It’s pretty clear that Mac Jones has been the top-performing rookie quarterback this season. He leads all rookies in passing yards (2,869), passing touchdowns (16), completion percentage (70.3 percent), and passer rating (97.0). His nine wins as a starter are also more than every other rookie quarterback combined, which is why it’s reasonable that Jones is the clear favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
While Jones is the clear leader of the pack among his fellow rookie quarterbacks, the players selected around him have stood out so far. In particular, Chargers offensive tackle Rashawn Slater has shined this season. Slater, who was selected with the 13th overall pick, has started every game at left tackle and hasn’t missed an offensive snap this season. His 82.3 grade from Pro Football Focus is the seventh-best amongst all offensive tackles, leading some analysts to say that Slater should get some recognition for Rookie of the Year.
With Jones playing the way he’s been playing, the Patriots probably aren’t losing sleep over Slater nearly dropping to them. And while they didn’t have a pressing need at tackle entering the draft, they do have some long-term questions there. At left tackle, Isaiah Wynn’s had trouble staying healthy through the first four years of his career and is only under contract through 2022. Starting right tackle Trent Brown’s provided a boost to the Patriots offense since he returned from injury in Week 10, but he’s a free agent at season’s end.
Those reasons might have played a factor in the Patriots’ reported interest in USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, who the Jets selected by trading up to the No. 14 overall pick. Vera-Tucker’s played left guard for the Jets this season, but scouts believed he had the possibility of playing both guard and tackle entering the NFL.
Vera-Tucker’s had a solid rookie campaign. He’s allowed just one sack this season, which was good enough for Pro Football Focus to name him to its Midseason All-Rookie Team. PFF’s Mike Renner wrote then that Vera-Tucker’s “looked like a Pro Bowl-caliber guard.”
The two players selected prior to Jones have had strong seasons, but the two selected after him haven’t. Linebacker Zaven Collins, who was selected 16th overall by the Cardinals, and tackle Alex Leatherwood, who was selected 17th overall by the Raiders, have underperformed as rookies. Collins has struggled to see the field for the Cardinals in recent weeks, playing just 32 snaps over their last four games. Leatherwood was moved from right tackle to right guard due to poor play and injuries with PFF giving him a 44.4 grade so far this season.
The Patriots didn’t want to wait around to select Christian Barmore in the draft, moving up from the 46th overall pick to the 38th pick in order to get him. So far, that decision has paid off.
Barmore has 31 tackles (two for a loss) and 0.5 sacks this season. But the advanced metrics are fans of Barmore, too. Entering Week 13, Barmore had a 7.8 percent pass rush win rate, which was the best among rookie interior linemen. PFF also named Barmore to its Midseason All-Rookie Team, writing that “While he’s still earned just a 52.0 overall grade, no defensive tackle in the class has come close to flashing as much as Barmore.”
As for those selected around Barmore, the Dolphins picked safety Jevon Holland with the No. 36 pick and the Eagles selected center Landon Dickerson with the 37th pick. Holland has been stellar, recording 51 tackles, two sacks, and two interceptions as he also got a spot on PFF’s Midseason All-Rookie Team. Dickerson moved from center to guard upon his return from injury in Week 3, helping an Eagles offensive line that’s regarded as one of the best in the NFL. Dickerson’s head coach, Nick Sirianni, even compared him to All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson.
While both players have played well, the Patriots didn’t have a need at either position. The Patriots selected Kyle Dugger in the second round a year prior and already have veterans Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips in place, which would have made it difficult for Holland to find playing time. New England possibly could’ve used someone like Dickerson when it was dealing with its injury problems on the offensive line in October, but the Patriots have received strong interior line play there since then.
The Bears selected offensive tackle Teven Jenkins with the next pick after Barmore and the Falcons took safety Richie Grant right after. Jenkins didn’t make his NFL debut until Week 13 due to a back injury while Grant has mostly played on special teams this season, playing in just 25 percent of the Falcons’ defensive snaps.
As for the picks the Patriots gave up to get Barmore, they haven’t provided much for the Bengals. Jackson Carman (selected with the No. 46 pick) has started just five games at right guard this season. Defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin (selected with the No. 122 pick) has played in just one game and tackle D’Ante Smith (selected with the No. 139 pick) hasn’t played yet this season after getting placed on IR in October.
The Patriots’ third-round pick has yet to make his NFL debut as the defensive end’s been a gameday scratch for the entire season.
Fortunately for the Patriots, it doesn’t appear that any of the players selected near Perkins look like obvious studs right now. Guard Ben Cleveland (selected 94th overall) has only played in a backup role for the Ravens this season while tackle Robert Hainsey (selected 95th overall) has played in just four games for the Buccaneers.
With the pick after Perkins, the Chargers took tight end Tre’ McKitty, who’s played in just six games and only has one catch. The Broncos took center Quinn Meinerz after that, and while he’s seen the field more than any of the other aforementioned players, he’s only started four games this season.
The Patriots have gotten good value with their fourth-round pick so far. Stevenson is fifth among rookie running backs in rushing yards (429), third in yards per carry (4.3), and fourth in rushing touchdowns (three). The only running back who has better stats than Stevenson that was selected after him is 49ers back Elijah Mitchell, who was selected in the sixth round.
But Stevenson’s stood out the best among the group of players immediately selected prior to or after him. Chargers defensive end Chris Rumph (selected with the 118th pick) has played in all 12 games, but mostly as a role player. He’s recorded a sack and 13 tackles this season.
The Vikings took running back Kene Nwangu with the pick prior to Stevenson. He has just four carries for 16 yards this season.
The Jaguars took defensive end Jordan Smith with the pick after Stevenson and he hasn’t played yet this season. Shelvin was taken by the Bengals a pick later.
So, while it was the big free-agency spending that got much of the headlines in New England this offseason, the Patriots’ 2021 draft class has also played an integral role in the team’s success this season with Bill Belichick finding good value with three of his top four picks.
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