There are many ways to reach a Super Bowl in the salary cap era, but a common thread is finding players that out-perform their contract. The New England Patriots have been a master at finding productive veterans in free agency, but they’ve also found a way to incorporate stellar performances from rookies at cost-effective contracts.
The players on rookie contracts come from early rounds, like Nate Solder, Dont’a Hightower, Malcom Brown, and Sony Michel; they come from the middle rounds like Logan Ryan, James White, Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason, and Joe Thuney; and they can come from the late rounds or even undrafted, like Malcolm Butler, David Andrews, Jonathan Jones, and J.C. Jackson.
So long as the Patriots find young players that complement Tom Brady and the veterans on their larger contracts, New England will always be able to compete.
I had some concerns about how the weak draft classes from 2016 and 2017 would impact the Patriots as players from those classes were expected to enter their prime. Of those two drafts, the Patriots just have Joe Thuney, Elandon Roberts, Ted Karras, Derek Rivers, and Deatrich Wise; Thuney is the only lock to make the 2019 roster. It’s worth noting that Jonathan Jones and Adam Butler were undrafted signings from those classes, too.
We’ve seen in the past how weak draft classes impact the Patriots’ abilities after a few seasons. New England’s draft classes from 2006-08 yielded Jerod Mayo, Stephen Gostkowski, Matthew Slater, Brandon Meriweather, and Laurence Maroney, and we saw how the 2009 Patriots- when these classes were expected to hit their prime- became considered one of the weakest of the Bill Belichick era.
Well, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the same drought impacting the Patriots because the 2018 and 2019 draft classes have yielded some pretty intriguing results.
Yes, it’s early. Yes, things can change. But I’m hopeful for the future of the Patriots.
From the 2018 draft class, left tackle Isaiah Wynn, running back Sony Michel, and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley all look like they should be starters, while cornerback Keion Crossen has provided value on both defense and special teams. Second round cornerback Duke Dawson might not make the roster, but when an undrafted player like J.C. Jackson emerges as a potential starter, it’s hard to be too upset.
Any draft class that yields two starters is considered a solid one; three starters is considered great. If Wynn, Michel, Bentley, and Jackson are all starters either in 2019 or in 2020 (once the logjam at cornerback clears up), then this could be one of the strongest draft classes by Bill Belichick.
And from the 2019 draft class, cornerback Joejuan Williams had a stellar day against a great talent in Titans wide receiver Corey Davis, locking down his side of the field. And for as good as Williams was in coverage, edge defender Chase Winovich was even better. Running back Damien Harris picked up over 100 yards from scrimmage in his debut, offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt has played every single snap over the first two games, and punter Jake Bailey already won his starting job.
Oh, and quarterback Jarrett Stidham and receiver Jakobi Meyers are both having two of the best preseasons at their respective positions in the Belichick-era.
This is ignoring first round receiver N’Keal Harry and currently injured offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste — and if defensive tackle Byron Cowart continues to play well, he might earn a roster spot too.
Bailey and (probably) Meyers are the only two starters of the rookie class, but I would expect Harry, Williams, Winovich, and Harris to all have notable roles as rookies, and for those players- and potentially Froholdt and, dare I say it, Stidham- to become starters or top-rotational players in the future.
The Patriots are built to win right now, with veterans like Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung playing at the top of their game- but all will be older than 32 years old, which means that their sustained level of play should no longer be taken for granted. Fortunately, the Patriots are also built to win in the future, with a pipeline of talent at each position, ready to assume a larger role in the coming years.
We’ve only seen two preseason games of the 2019 class, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the consecutive draft classes of 2018 and 2019 have provided Bill Belichick with some of the best young talent we’ve seen on a Patriots roster- and that should scare the rest of the league.