The Patriots got a good return on investment from their 2016 draft class, many of whom were big contributors in the Patriots successful championship run.
CB Cyrus Jones
The Patriots opted to pick Jones over similarly graded players because of his potential impact on Special Teams. In his rookie year, the Patriots asked Jones to handle kickoffs and punts, but he struggled to keep a hold of the ball. Those struggles seemed to snowball worse and reached a zenith in the Patriots Week 14 win over the Ravens where bad Special Teams turnovers revived an otherwise dead Ravens team that trailed 20-3 before the bad plays. The reason for putting him back on punts and kickoffs was to utilize his return abilities, but his unreliability with securing kicks turned him into a weekly inactive down the stretch.
With Logan Ryan an unrestricted FA and Malcolm Butler a restricted FA, but a year away from unrestricted FA, the Patriots will need Jones to step up as a corner should one or both of them walk. Jones had an up and down season in the limited snaps he played at CB, but he has the ability to handle the position. Jones is a notorious hard worker, which is how he elevated himself to be a key cog in some of Nick Saban’s championship defenses. He’ll need that same work ethic this offseason to prepare himself for a potential increased role as both a corner and returner.
OL Joe Thuney
Thuney played LT his final year, but with Nate Solder at LT and Sebastian Vollmer at RT, the Patriots moved him inside as a rookie. Thuney wasted little time towards working his way into the OL mix as he had an impressive preseason and easily won the starting LG job. Thuney looked like a veteran despite playing his first snaps in the NFL in the first half of the season. Thuney plus the incredible improvements from Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason transformed a Patriots OL that was near the bottom in 2015 to near the top in 2016. The Patriots relied on a Nate Solder-Joe Thuney-David Andrews-Shaq Mason-Marcus Cannon OL for the entire season, with this unit only missing two games all season. With Thuney, the Patriots have a successful foundation for the OL and will be returning all five starters in 2017 after locking up RT Marcus Cannon to a 5-year deal in November.
Thuney has some individual things he needs to work on. Thuney is small by guard standards in terms of bulk and it showed in the second half of the season. Thuney is an incredible athlete for offensive lineman standards and it shows on his ability to pull on power runs to the right. Now he needs to work on sustaining blocks in pass protection, especially against bigger and more athletic defensive tackles. In terms of development, he is much farther ahead of Shaq Mason was a year ago and a similar Year 2 jump could turn Thuney into an All-Pro. It’s not a question of if with OL coach Dante Scarnecchia returning in 2017, but when. In terms of technique and football IQ, Thuney clearly has the chops to be an elite guard, he just needs to add more functional strength and work on pass protection to get there.
QB Jacoby Brissett
Brissett was forced into action in Week 2 when backup Jimmy Garoppolo was injured in a Patriots win. On a short week, Brissett lead the Patriots to an improbable 27-0 win over the Houston Texans, a win that shouldn’t be overlooked. Brissett is more of a project at QB than Garoppolo was, but he has leadership qualities from his college days. Brissett doesn’t have the pinpoint accuracy that Brady and Garoppolo have, but he makes up for that in his ability to scramble and his ability to make plays with his feet. In limited game action, Brissett did an OK job when asked to manage the game. He had 1 TD (rushing) and 1 turnover in 8 1⁄2 quarters of action.
His development as a QB will be interesting, especially if the Patriots go ahead and trade Jimmy G for draft picks with my personal preference being the Bears or the 49ers. Brissett will likely be the backup next year once the trade happens and he does have some game experience to fall back on. While his game is much different than Brady’s, Josh McDaniels is very good at drawing up plays that fit the strengths of the Patriot offense. I don’t think Brissett will be the next Patriots QB, but you never know.
STOCK: SLIGHTLY UP
DT Vince Valentine
A lot of scouts overlooked Valentine because he didn’t put up sexy numbers and struggled in a role that didn’t best fit his skill set at Nebraska. The Patriots picked him up in the 3rd round, surprising many, but he was a perfect fit in the Patriots 2-gap scheme. Valentine is a big, strong man who can overpower blockers in the run game and collapse the pocket in the pass game. Valentine isn’t going to put up huge numbers because of the nature of the Patriots scheme, but that’s fine because his role is to eat up blockers and allow LBs to flow freely. For a big man, he also moves laterally very well, which is why BB drafted him earlier than many expected.
Valentine was the 3rd DT in the rotation behind veteran Alan Branch and 2nd year player Malcom Brown. Branch is coming off a phenomenal season and Brown is a promising player as well. With Branch set to become a free agent, 2017 could see an uptick in snaps. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Branch either retired as a 2x Super Bowl champion or re-sign with the Patriots to be a veteran presence of the 2nd half of the dynasty. Valentine just needs to work on conditioning and refining technique for the 2017 season. He has a great positional coach in Brendan Daly, who can get the upside out of his linemen.
STOCK: SLIGHTLY UP
WR Malcolm Mitchell
Mitchell was my favorite WR prospect from the 2016 draft as I not once, but twice predicted the Patriots would draft him. Mitchell flashed early in the season when he wasn’t asked to be more than a 4th WR in the offense. However, a Week 10 injury to TE Rob Gronkowski shifted the offense from primarily a 12 personnel group to 11, Mitchell came on as the 3rd WR. Mitchell finished the year on a strong note as a reliable chain mover on the boundary. Mitchell had 32 catches for 401 yards and 4 TD on 48 targets. Mitchell has huge hands that vacuums up anything he can get his hands on. Mitchell is also a very adept run blocker, due to playing in an offense that featured Todd Gurley.
Year 2 should be very critical for Mitchell’s development. I think he’s the most talented WR on the team, it’s only a matter of him figuring out how to beat press coverage. While the Patriots do a good job of scheming players open, teams that can line up and play man coverage and rush 4 to get pressure will give the Patriots fits. That’s where Mitchell can make his mark on the offense. His ability to move the chains on the boundary while Edelman does his damage inside the numbers and Hogan on vertical routes. Mitchell was very productive in the Super Bowl with 6 catches for 70 yards, including a couple critical 3rd down conversions in the 4th quarter. I think he’ll be a good WR2 in next year’s offense although I’m somewhat skeptical he can be a WR1 in NE.
LB Elandon Roberts
A small, yet physical linebacker, Roberts is excellent against the run. He does an excellent job of converting speed into power, as future HOF LT Joe Thomas found out in Week 5, and creating havoc at the line of scrimmage. Roberts runs very well from a north-south perspective, but struggles in coverage. The Patriots don’t typically employ a lot of man coverage from their linebackers anyway, especially away from the middle of the formation. However, that’s a skill he needs to work on as well as staying disciplined on play-action passes.
Roberts is more of a 1st and 2nd down player, as the Patriots rotated in Kyle Van Noy for passing situations since the latter is better in coverage and rushing the passer. Roberts’ speed and sure-handed tackling abilities is also an asset on Special Teams, although I didn’t notice him making any tackles or anything of that there although between Matthew Slater, Jonathan Jones, and Nate Ebner, there aren’t any tackles left. I’d like to see him develop into a more complete player and improve in coverage enough to not be a liability there. Roberts has a no-quit attitude, so I’m confident he’ll get better in Year 2.
OL Ted Karras
Karras has NFL bloodlines, which is part of the reason he got drafted out of Illinois. The Patriots didn’t need him much although he did start Week 1 against the Cardinals before getting replaced by Shaq Mason at RG. The Patriots only had 4 IOL on the roster all season, which is how much they valued him as a backup at any spot. The Patriots OL stayed healthy all year, so Karras wasn’t pressed into service this season. Karras is a bit stiff as a blocker, a departure from the normal Patriots draft prospect on the OL who are more athletic. He’ll be competing with Tre Jackson for the backup spot, but his versatility gives him the edge over Jackson, who’s never played or practiced at center. However, the Patriots can prepare a contingency in case David Andrews ever went down in the game.
WR Devin Lucien
Lucien didn’t see a lot of action in preseason, but spent the entire 2016 season on the Patriots practice squad. Lucien isn’t very tall, but his best asset is vertical speed and ability to win on vertical routes in college. Lucien is very raw in the nuances of playing WR coming out of spread offenses in college as opposed to the more polished Malcolm Mitchell. I do think the Patriots need to get younger at the receiving position and prepare for post 2017, but Lucien can certainly force the coaching staff’s hand with a strong second year.
RB DJ Foster
Foster spent the year on both the practice squad and the active roster. Buried on the depth chart behnd Dion Lewis and Super Bowl LI hero James White, Foster was a weekly inactive. Lewis and White will be returning in 2017, and the Patriots could be adding another RB to the mix, so Foster needs to build on a strong first year to stay in NE in order to get an opportunity post-2017. The Patriots certainly believe in his potential, as evidenced by him still sticking around despite not getting any reps.
CB Jonathan Jones
Jones turned out to be a hidden gem in the UDFA class. An injury-plagued senior season caused Jones to plummet down draft boards. Jones was a first team All-SEC the season before on an Auburn team that narrowly missed out on a BCS title. Jones was one of the fastest players at the NFL combine, recording a 4.33 40. Despite decent measurables, team couldn’t look past his 5’9” frame and passed on him. Where other teams couldn’t figure out how to use him, the Patriots found a good role for him.
Jones primarily played on Special Teams, playing very well as a gunner on punt coverage while also covering kicks. Jones made a lot of big special teams plays, and when asked to play defense he looked competent as a nickel corner. I don’t know how much value Jones will ultimately give on defense, but I see him as a great special teams player at worst. His speed to cover kicks is an asset for a top special teams unit. If he can continue to develop as a nickel CB, that’s even more value. Jones could be a great UDFA pickup when all is said and done.
OVERALL STOCK OF PATRIOTS 2016 ROOKIE CLASS: UP