Coming off their third Super Bowl win in the last five years, the New England Patriots have plenty to feel good about. But we all know that their celebration period did not last long until after the confetti had hit the streets of Boston in early February: ‘on to 2019’ was and is the motto, and therefore to building the team that will be tasked to defend the title — something that has not happened since the Patriots did it in 2004.
And looking ahead, New England certainly has some areas that need to be addressed. The most important of which, as colleague PatrioticChief pointed out ahead of the draft, might very well be the team’s age; or, more precisely, it’s comparative lack of productive players on rookie deals. After all, rookie contracts are a key ingredient in helping a franchise operate in a cost-effective way not dependent on higher-priced outside additions.
The Patriots have, of course, always fared well mixing the two — but one has to wonder about the organization’s pipeline of youth. Just take a look at this story from NFL.com’s Marc Sessler, naming the NFL’s under-25 team: no player on the reigning world champions is listed. This has in part to do with the arbitrary nature of the cut-off line, but is still emblematic for New England’s roster being heavily tilted towards veterans.
A better method of looking at a club’s youth is therefore looking at its rookie deals — and the Patriots certainly have some intriguing talent on this list, some of which under the age of 25 and possible candidates to make Sessler’s list, if as nothing else than honorable mentions. All in all, we can identify five starters or starting caliber players still playing on the first contract handed to them by New England (opening day age in parentheses):
RB Sony Michel (24)
OT Isaiah Wynn (23)
OG Joe Thuney (26)
DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (25)
CB J.C. Jackson (23)
While Wynn is in a unique situation — he missed his rookie season with a torn Achilles tendon but is the favorite to win the vacant starting left tackle spot — the other four players have all shown their value to the club since joining it: Michel was a key cog in the Patriots’ offensive machinery in 2018, Thuney is one of the most reliable young guards in all of football, Wise Jr. holds a key role in New England’s defensive edge rotation, and J.C. Jackson is coming off an encouraging rookie year that saw him start opposite Stephon Gilmore.
The five men are all on their rookie deals, but already in a position to become potential foundational-type players for the Patriots. Add the club’s highly evaluated 2019 draft class, and one can get the sense that New England is headed into a good direction when it comes to its young talent — even if the most important position, quarterback, is still being manned by a soon-to-be 42-year-old Tom Brady (who is still on the top of his game, though).
Of course, 2019’s impact has yet to be seen beyond some encouraging signs during one practice session open to the media. And the Patriots certainly have to hope that most of this year’s class does not go the way of those responsible for the club’s current absence on the list of the NFL’s best under-25 talent: 2016 and 2017 produced only a combined four players still on the team in the aforementioned Thuney and Wise Jr, as well as rotational/backup players Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras.
Add last year’s rookie crop, the majority of which spent large portions of the 2018 season on injured reserve (including Wynn and second-round pick Duke Dawson Jr.), and you get the feeling that the Patriots’ incoming flow of young talent has started to dry up a bit. But between last year’s draft choices and this year’s, and the five men named above, New England does have some intriguing talent on cheap contracts.
So, should the Patriots be worried about their young talent? Not yet, in this estimation. The 2016 and 2017 drafts have certainly decreased their room for error, however, and the club needs at least some of the players picked in 2018 and 2019 to become regular contributors in order to be able to keep moving forward in cost-efficient fashion. At least Michel and Jackson already appear to be on the right path.