Patriots

Rookie report cards: Grading the Patriots’ 2021 NFL Draft class

The Patriots got two All-Rookie selections out of their rookie class, but all three that played in 2021, led by Mac Jones, stood out.

Rhamondre Stevenson Patriots
Rhamondre Stevenson scores a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Recent Links

When people ask about how Bill Belichick won the Pro Football Writers Association’s Executive of the Year award for 2021, a lot of the focus has gone toward breaking down the Patriots’ hits and misses from last year’s free-agent spending binge.

Those offseason signings obviously had a significant role in turning things around for a team that missed the playoffs in 2020. But the biggest notch in Belichick’s work as New England’s de fact general manager last season wasn’t his free-agent signings. It was his draft class.

Pro Football Focus just recognized the Patriots’ 2021 rookie class, led by quarterback Mac Jones, as the NFL’s best on Thursday. On top of that, Jones and second-round defensive tackle Christian Barmore both made the PFWA’s All-Rookie Team; Jones’s selection was the first ever for any Patriots rookie quarterback.

Advertisement:

The Patriots couldn’t get all their rookies on the field due to injury or being low on the depth chart, but the three that did play (Jones, Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson) were big parts of the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak and playoff berth.

Whether they can take it to the next level in 2022 is now the question.

First, let’s talk about the rookies you didn’t see last season.

Incomplete grades: Ronnie Perkins (Rd. 3, Pick 96), Cameron McGrone (Rd. 5, 177), Joshuah Bledsoe (Rd. 6, 188), William Sherman (Rd. 6, 197), Tre Nixon (Rd. 7, 242)

Perkins made the occasional play in training camp and preseason but never appeared in a 2021 regular-season game. He got the ol’ redshirt season with the Patriots looking stacked at outside linebacker.

The Patriots likely never expected McGrone, who tore his ACL in his last college season with Michigan, to play at all in 2021. He spent all season on the NFI list and finished the year on injured reserve, but he could factor heavily into a linebacker room that could look much different in 2022.

Bledsoe was actually activated to the 53-man roster in late November after also beginning the year on NFI and got some practice time in with the Patriots. But the team sent him to injured reserve rather than keep him permanently on the roster going into the playoffs. He should be good to go this spring.

Advertisement:

Neither Sherman nor Nixon were expected to make final cuts at crowded position groups and went to New England’s practice squad after clearing waivers. Both signed reserve/future contracts with the team this month.

Now, on to the main event…

Mac Jones (Rd. 1, Pick 15) : A-

The end-of-year struggles put a damper on Jones’s rookie campaign. As teams got more film on him, they were able to exploit his relative lack of arm strength and raw playmaking ability more consistently.

But when you look at the 10,000-foot view, Jones had one of the better seasons you’ll see for a rookie quarterback.

His 3,801 passing yards and 22 touchdown passes set a rookie record for the Patriots’ franchise, and he completed a higher percentage of his passes (67.6) than any rookie quarterback in NFL history behind only 2016 Dak Prescott (67.8). The former Crimson Tide signal-caller also posted the 11th-highest composite score of estimated points added and completion percentage above expected (EPA+CPOE) and the 12th-best PFF grade of all NFL quarterbacks, leaving all of his 2021 classmates in the dust.

Though you won’t confuse Jones for Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes, he did elevate his receiving corps in subtle ways, like simply throwing a “catchable” football and giving them chances to make plays.

Advertisement:

Naturally, if the Patriots want to improve as an offense, they’ll need to provide Jones with a few more weapons and also see him expand his repertoire in Year 2. But as far as rookie seasons go, Jones’s campaign was a clear success.

Christian Barmore (Rd. 2, Pick 38): A-

Jones’s Alabama teammate in 2020 was in a class of his own compared to rookies at his position.

His 51 total pressures were 13 more than the second-highest total on the list among NFL rookie interior defensive linemen (Dallas’ Osa Odighizuwa), and his pass-rush grades as a whole topped first-year players up front as well.

More than that, the rookie second-round pick ended the season as arguably New England’s best defensive lineman, period. (He definitely was from a pass-rushing standpoint, anyway). His snap counts finished behind only Davon Godchaux among the Patriots’ interior defenders, and his importance seemed to grow as the season progressed.

Trading up for a defensive tackle in the second round was a pretty bold move for Belichick. But Barmore made it well worth the risk. If he makes big strides as a run defender to go with his explosion as a pass-rusher, he might have multiple Pro Bowls, maybe even an All-Pro nod or two, in his future.

Rhamondre Stevenson (Rd. 4, Pick 120): B+

After doing the one thing you can’t do as a rookie running back in his first game — put the ball on the ground — Stevenson seized his next opportunity to shine with jaws of steel.

PFF named Stevenson the best value pick of the Patriots’ draft class, with the fourth-round pick finishing the year with the best grade among rookie running backs and showing off a penchant for breaking tackles.

Advertisement:

Though the former Sooner didn’t have the raw numbers of a Damien Harris or another starting back, Stevenson ranked seventh in the entire league in “elusive rating,” which roughly measures how well a runner can force missed tackles and pick up extra yards after contact. 433 of his 606 rushing yards came after contact, showing just how difficult Baby Beast Mode was to bring down.

He also proved he could own possessions with Harris on the sideline and put together 100-yard performances in the two games Harris sat out in 2021, suggesting he has the potential to be a lead back if given the chance down the line.

Just as good, Stevenson made sure that first fumble was his last of the year.

After many speculated he would get the rookie running back redshirt season many before him (including Harris) have gotten, he proved too good to keep off the field. The next step for him will be getting better as a pass-blocker (which he struggled noticeably with on occasion) and receiver.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com