If you know the pattern here, the Patriots draft players who they anticipate can plug future roster holes. Some of those holes also coincide with today’s roster holes, but that’s not their intent here. Bill Belichick is very reluctant to rely on rookies until after they prove it on the field in training camp, practice, and during games. The Patriots addressed their two biggest weaknesses with their top two picks in the draft: getting a guy who can make contested grabs in tight coverage, and a physical cover player for larger receivers and tight ends that have killed the Patriots the past 3-4 seasons.
N’Keal Harry: Entire WR corps
Harry is the only receiver with any sort of job security in Foxboro following this season as the entire receiver corps outside of him is headed for unrestricted free agency. Of that group, Julian Edelman is probably the only player who has better than 50/50 odds of returning. Harry brings a different skill set to the receivers already on the roster, although the Patriots have loaded up on larger receivers (Maurice Harris and Demaryius Thomas are both over 6’2”) to fill out the roster depth chart.
Joejuan Williams and Ken Webster: Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Keion Crossen
Gilmore and J-Mac are locks for the 2019 roster, but their cap situations don’t look too good moving forward. Thanks to converting $8.5M salary to a signing bonus, Gilmore’s cap hit dropped by $5.67M but also opened the door to exploding cap hits of $18.6M and $19.6M over the following two seasons. That makes Gilmore a potential cut or trade candidate next offseason, although doing so with a pre-June 1st designation would generate a $15M+ dead cap hit for 2020. McCourty’s situation is a lot less complicated as the team can decline a $500k option on March 12th of next season. Declining J-the option only creates $1.75M of dead cap space, which would save $4M on the 2020 cap should younger players prove themselves this year.
Joejuan Williams should be looked at as a match-up cover corner who plays either on the boundary, and versus big slot receivers and tight-ends. His lack of top-end speed leaves him vulnerable to faster receivers who can separate vertically, but chances are the Patriots would double that type of receiver anyway with aggressive safety help to that side.
Ken Webster is more of a last DB on the roster type player who tested well as an athlete who has a bit more size than Keion Crossen, whose career arc looks closer to Nate Ebner than Jonathan Jones at this point. If Webster can show versatility in the secondary plus contribute in kickoff/punt coverage, he’s a more valuable roster piece than Crossen.
Chase Winovich: Kyle Van Noy
Originally I thought of Winovich as a hand-in-the-dirt type rusher when the Patriots drafted him, which was a mistake. He profiles more like a Kyle Van Noy type rusher, who you can move around the front 7 to create pass rushing match-ups as well as set the edge in the run game. Van Noy is another classic story of Belichick rescuing a player out of a poor scheme fit and turning him into a borderline superstar as he had an excellent postseason run following the 2018 season. He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, although I would not be surprised if Van Noy signs an extension to stay with the one team that figured out how to use him on the field properly. If Van Noy doesn’t come back, Winovich has similar characteristics and athletic traits.
Damien Harris: Rex Burkhead
Rex Burkhead is a more versatile player than Harris, which is why I think he’ll make the roster in 2019. However, his injury history in regards to the head and neck areas are a valid concern about Burkhead’s ability to hold up long term as I believe the next major injury to that area could sideline him for an indefinite amount of time. Harris doesn’t have Burkhead’s versatility in the passing game, but is more of a downhill runner and adequate enough as a pass catcher that he’s not a complete tell to the defense. Harris will see more time as a runner as a rookie, although I could see his role expanding in the passing game further down the road although the team will rely on James White to be the main receiving threat out of the backfield for the next two seasons.
Yodny Cajuste: Marcus Cannon
The Patriots’ tackle situation is a bit of a mess with unproven players littering the roster. Marcus Cannon is the only player of the group with any sort of regular season and postseason experience although Isaiah Wynn was highly regarded coming out of Georgia last year. Regardless of which side of the line Cajuste ends up, the roster domino effect is the same. Cannon’s contract isn’t too horrible, with just three years and just over $21.5M left while his cap hits cover no more than 4% of the cap in any of those years, the only concern with him is age. Cannon will play 2019 at Age 31, so you have to worry about potential physical decline especially for a player who is 6’6” 335. If Wynn and Cajuste lock down the two tackle positions, Cannon is likely out of a job.
Hjalte Froholdt: Joe Thuney, Ted Karras
Froholdt will challenge Karras for a roster spot this year and if things go well, replace Thuney when he walks next season. Thuney has been a solid and reliable player, but with the salary cap in mind if the skill level is close enough you want the rookie contract vs. $9M/year. Last year, the Patriots did not draft a guard before signing Shaq Mason to a long-term extension so I don’t think Thuney will see similar treatment.
Jarrett Stidham: Brian Hoyer
Tom Brady is the only quarterback with job security in terms of starting, but the backup position is up for grabs this season. The Patriots have gone with a rookie as the backup QB in the past — ironically that player being Hoyer ten seasons ago — so this is not unprecedented. It’s likely the Patriots will carry three quarterbacks with Stidham being behind Brady and Hoyer on the depth chart. If Stidham shows remarkable progress in the preseason, I could see Hoyer being traded or just outright cut like in 2012 after the Patriots felt comfortable with Ryan Mallett as the backup.
Byron Cowart: Adam Butler (RFA)
Cowart and Butler are similarly built, solid athletic players with good length and experience in both odd and even fronts. You know the story with Cowart, a former top college recruit who didn’t live up to expectations before transferring and learning a different position, but he’ll be trying to make the team as a reserve defensive linemen. Butler will be a restricted free agent, and as a former undrafted rookie the Patriots would have to offer a second round tender if they really want to keep him around or get draft compensation. If Cowart makes the roster, I see him as the fourth defensive tackle in the rotation and getting reserve and special teams snaps as he continues to develop at the position.
Jake Bailey: Ryan Allen
Bailey will be punting for an NFL team in 2019, the only question is if it will be for New England. Given that they invested a fifth round pick on him despite already (re-)signing a punter in the offseason, it looks more likely that Bailey is there to take Allen’s job than simply compete. This will be the second season the Patriots brought in serious competition for the punter job as last season they added Corey Bojorquez and tried to stash him on the practice squad only to see him claimed on waivers.
Allen’s Super Bowl LIII performance might be the only reason there’s a competition because otherwise they might have just handed Bailey the job. I do think the team will give Bailey more chances to lock down the punter job because Allen is on a minimally guaranteed contract (only $100k guaranteed) whereas Bailey comes with a fifth round price tag and I don’t remember the last time a fifth round special teams only player was cut as a rookie.