The New England Patriots brought a lot of rookies in during spring, either through the draft or the subsequent free agency period. All in all, the team added 24 players with eight of them finding their way onto the opening day 53-man roster — a number that has since increased to nine due to the activation of wide receiver N’Keal Harry. However, not all of the rookies have had the same impact on the team nine weeks into the season.
Just take a look at Harry, for example, who showed considerable talent as a perimeter receiver and potential red zone threat during spring practices and training camp but had to temporarily be placed on injured reserve after hurting his ankle in preseason. The Patriots’ first-round selection is back on the active team since last Saturday, but has yet to appear in a game and leave his mark in New England’s passing game.
He is not alone in the group of rookies that have had little actual impact during New England’s first nine games. Just take a look at the five rookies who are on injured reserve and ineligible to return off the list again. Then there are cornerback Joejuan Williams, who was picked in the second round, and third-round running back Damien Harris; both are little more than emergency options at this point in time and are essentially being redshirted.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, you have four players that have been major contributors in 2019 — be it as starters at their respective positions or as valuable reserve options. The first group includes two special teamers: fifth-round punter and kickoff specialist Jake Bailey as well as wide receiver/punt returner Gunner Olszewski, who the Patriots signed as an undrafted rookie out of Division-II’s Bemidji State.
Bailey won his job by beating out veteran Ryan Allen during the summer, and he continued to show his talents in the regular season: not only is he an integral part of one of the NFL’s best punt coverage units, he also has filled the role of kickoff specialist when Stephen Gostkowski was placed on IR. Olszewski, meanwhile, has returned 20 punts so far for a solid average of 9.0 yards per runback (he also muffed one kick, however, leading to a touchdown).
While Olszewski’s contributions on offense were virtually non-existent, another undrafted rookie wide receiver did see his fair share of action on this side of the ball: Jakobi Meyers, who has appeared in eight games so far as a rotational third/fourth option at his position. In this role, he has 14 passes for 172 yards on his résumé — not outstanding but still ranking him among the 14 most productive rookie receivers in the league in both categories.
But while Bailey and Olszewski are essentially starters and Meyers has proven himself a valuable depth player, the most impactful member of the Patriots’ rookie class is still Chase Winovich — at least according to SB Nation’s latest FanPulse survey: participants were asked about the most impressive first-year player on New England’s roster and the third-round linebacker ran away with the poll, getting 63.6% of the votes.
For comparison, the second-ranked Jake Bailey achieved a respectable 27.3% but still ranks clearly behind the 77th overall draft selection this year. Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, meanwhile, finished third and fourth in the poll by getting 8.0% and 1.1% of the votes, respectively. There is a strong case to be made for Bailey as the most impressive rookie, but Winovich’s name getting clicked more than the others is still not surprising.
After all, the 24-year-old has proven himself a disruptive player at the defensive edge. While playing only 28.5% of New England’s defensive snaps so far this season, he still ranks fourth on the team in quarterback disruptions: Winovich has registered 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, and six additional hurries — all while also registering three tackles for loss, and seeing regular action as a run defender as well.
On top of it all, the Michigan product also already has a touchdown on his name this early in his career: in Week 6 against the New York Giant, a blocked punt wound up in his arms and he returned it six yards for the score. Special teams is in general a big part of Winovich’s role on the Patriots during his rookie year so far; he has played 52.0% of New England’s kicking game snaps and added a tackle to his touchdown.
All in all, it is not hard to see why FanPulse participants picked him as the most impressive of the Patriots’ rookies nine weeks into the season. It will be interesting to see whether or not he can defend this title, or if other players — be they named Bailey, Harry or Byron Cowart — can give him a run for his proverbial money.
If you too are interested in participating in our FanPulse survey, please click here!