In a league built on the principles of parity, the New England Patriots have been the one major exception: for the last nineteen years, the team has continuously been in the hunt for the Super Bowl and despite salary cap and free agency won six titles since the turn of the century. The Patriots did this not only by having the greatest quarterback of all time in the fold, but also by finding a way of keeping the roster quality high despite constant turnover.
How did New England accomplish that? By keeping the core of in-house talent intact, adding veterans on high-value contracts, and regularly finding contributors through the draft and rookie free agency. The latter, however, is where the self-proclaimed “world wide leader in sports” sees an issue moving forward: in a recent insider story by guest columnist Scott Spratt, the Patriots are ranked among the worst teams in the NFL in young talent.
Spratt ranked the league’s 32 rosters by under-25 talent, and New England’s comes in at position 31. It is not hard to see why considering that the Patriots’ list of players who have yet to turn 25 is hardly filled with any proven high-end talent: running back Sony Michel, one of New England’s first-round selections a year ago, and cornerback J.C. Jackson are easily the most accomplished players to make the cut.
While the two youngsters played a key role in helping the Patriots win the Super Bowl last season despite being rookies, the rest of their fellow under-25s bring little experience or past production to the table: from 2018’s second first-rounder, Isaiah Wynn, to this year’s undrafted rookie signings, they all have yet to prove themselves when the games start to matter. That being said, there have been some encouraging signs as of late.
Take Wynn, for example, who missed all of last year with a torn Achilles tendon. He was slowly brought along this summer, but looked good yesterday in his first competitive practice reps. Outside of the Patriots’ starting left tackle of the present and future, linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley has looked promising last year before suffering a season-ending biceps injury. Rookies Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Chase Winovich furthermore appear to be on their way to becoming important contributors for the team in 2019.
Of course, when it comes to ranking young talent, making the cut-off line at 25 seems rather arbitrary. A better method of looking at a club’s youth is therefore looking at its rookie contracts: cheap talent is the backbone of every club (something that holds especially true when it comes to quarterbacks). The Patriots certainly have some intriguing talent on this list, most of which under the age of 25 and possible inclusions into ESPN’s equation.
All in all, we can identify up to ten potential starting-caliber or key rotational players on their first contract handed to them by New England (opening day age in parentheses):
RB Sony Michel (24)
WR N’Keal Harry (21)
WR Jakobi Meyers (22)
OT Isaiah Wynn (23)
OG Joe Thuney (26)
DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (25)
DE Chase Winovich (24)
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (23)
CB J.C. Jackson (23)
P Jake Bailey (22)
Add developmental long-term options like quarterback Jarrett Stidham, running back Damien Harris, or offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt and you get a solid core of youngsters looking to contribute to the team further down the line. That being said, one main point remains: the Patriots need to find a way to a) turn some of their young guys into starting material, and b) keep finding contributors through draft and rookie free agency.
Ultimately, that is exactly what New England has done over the last two decades and what it will continue to do in the future. Unless the philosophy drastically shifts over the next few years, the team will look to add plenty of young talent in April and May, but will also not miss its opportunities to bolster the overall depth of the team throughout the rest of the year and via free agency, the waiver wire, and the trade market.
This recipe has proven to be a successful one, and one that mitigates a perceived lack of young talent.