One of the fun parts of watching the first preseason game is seeing how the New England Patriots’ rookies, both drafted and undrafted, perform in their first NFL game setting. While preseason games don’t count towards their career numbers, the opportunities and plays made count towards how the coaching staff evaluates them moving forward.
In this game we saw what N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Chase Winovich, Jarrett Stidham, Hjalte Froholdt, Jake Bailey, Byron Cowart, and Jakobi Meyers looked when facing another team’s players. While neither team really committed towards playing their starters, something normal for the first preseason game, it’s still exciting to watch these guys go up against even fringe NFL competition. That itself is a step up from the competition faced in college and also gives us an indication if the level is too big for them or not.
Here’s how the standout rookies performed:
WR N’Keal Harry
Harry only saw action on two drives and got two targets, catching both. The first one was a stick route on a 3rd and 10. While Harry himself was unable to create much separation, he was able to give quarterback Brian Hoyer a small window to throw the ball to the outside shoulder. Harry showed his explosive athleticism and huge catch radius to get that ball and gain 11 yards on the play.
On his second target, the Patriots took a downfield shot with Harry matched against 5’10” cornerback Jamal Agnew — an obvious mismatch in size in favor of the 6’3” receiver. Hoyer took advantage, throwing a high ball for Harry and watching him highpoint the pass and secure it with strong hands.
An ankle injury likely prevented the first-round pick from getting a more thorough evaluation, but the traits that had Bill Belichick believe he was getting a steal in the draft were on full display. Even if Harry isn’t an every down player, he is a guy teams will have to game plan for as his high-pointing skills and large catch radius are going to be a problem for them.
CB Joejuan Williams
I wasn’t that impressed with Williams overall. Part of it was game planning, the Patriots had him playing off the receivers a lot, and the other was getting beat in coverage or getting too grabby. Williams also picked up a really dumb personal foul penalty in the second quarter in which he slammed a Lions receiver to the ground long after ushering out of yards. I do have some concerns that he lacks the functional speed to be a boundary cornerbacks against fast receivers, although the Patriots have better guys to play against that matchup with Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson.
At the same time, I noticed a very good run stuff in the second quarter which the edge was wide open for a couple seconds before Williams replaced it aggressively and turned a potential big play run into a short 2-yard gain. I’ll be curious to see if there will be a position change in his future to either strong safety or linebacker, although he’d have to add a lot of weight to be effective as the latter.
DE Chase Winovich
Winovich is probably the last man on the edge rusher depth chart although his trajectory may not keep him there for long. After a strong showing in joint practices, the third-round rookie looked solid in mop-up duty (second half) as he was involved in a pair of sacks — the first in which he beat the Lions backup right tackle, who displayed the sloppiest pass pro technique I’ve seen in a long time on that play, in the blink of an eye:
And now for a sideline view of it:
For the second sack, he drove that same guy — Tyrell Crosby — into the lap of Lions third-string quarterback David Fales (who absorbed a total of seven sacks in the game) and split it with Byron Cowart. Winovich is a guy who will win a lot of plays on effort alone, it will be scary to believe how well he’ll do when he gains enough experience to be able to diagnose plays quicker.
QB Jarrett Stidham
Stidham became the talk of the town, showing that the NFL is not too big for him. He torched the Lions’ second and third string defenses, completing 14 of 24 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers are solid, but could have been even better if not for a pair of inexplicable drops by Maurice Harris on two perfectly thrown deep balls in which Harris did everything right except catch the ball.
Stidham also scrambled for a pair of drive-extending first downs on 3rd down and kept hitting his receivers downfield. He also enjoyed great pass protection, although he made a couple really good throws while getting hit by a defender. There was one play in which he panicked in the pocket and took a sack, but one bad play versus fifteen really good ones is a pretty solid ratio given the circumstances.
When comparing him to other Brady backups, Stidham looked very much more like Jimmy Garoppolo than the rest of the field. With the momentum he’s built up in training camp plus the strong preseason showing I think there is something there to work with long-term to develop into a top-end backup or maybe even a future starter.
The Lions could not get to him all night and it’s easy to look poised and comfortable when there’s no pressure from the other team, so it will be interesting to see how he looks when the protection is breaking down more frequently, and he doesn’t have all night to make his reads. Given what I’ve read about him, though, I think he’ll do alright. I’m not going to call him a potential heir, but at the same time I see him as backup QB at worst.
DT Byron Cowart
Cowart has flashed enough to make a push for a potential roster spot and contributed with a sack (shared with Winovich) in which he is able to beat the left guard and take away the lane to step up. As a result of Winovich generating pressure off the edge, David Fales walked right into Cowart’s waiting embrace. If he continues to show the ability to make things happen as a rusher, he could push Danny Shelton and perhaps even Adam Butler for a roster spot. He’ll have to be a guy to watch moving forward.
1st career game, 1st career sack for my guy Byron Cowart pic.twitter.com/sQMV8dsN16— Joshua Grady (@AgentGrady_) August 9, 2019
P Jake Bailey
I’ll admit after the first kickoff I was all in on replacing Ryan Allen, although they also gave Bailey a first chance at the punting duties as well. That may or may not indicate how the battle itself is going, but it could be a potential sign that given if the competition is close the kickoff versatility is an added bonus for the rookie. Jake Bailey’s first punt had a hang time of 5 seconds and traveled 45 yards, featuring both distance and allowing for the coverage unit to force a fair catch. The rookie is slightly edging out the six-year veteran, who also had a solid performance with a couple strong punts to stay in the battle.
WR Jakobi Meyers
I hope you guys enjoyed the Jakobi Meyers show. The undrafted free agent picked up right where he left off as he hauled in 6 passes on 8 targets for 69 yards and two scores.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out on the broadcast that he set the N.C. State record for receptions, so obviously him getting open a lot in camp and practices has not been a fluke at all. Meyers was pretty much the favorite to make the roster from the entire UDFA class and could be a match-up weapon in the slot where he’ll see nickels, linebackers, and safeties and could present a potential mismatch down the road. I see him being potentially the top backup for the slot at the start of the season and the fourth receiver on the depth chart behind Julian Edelman, Harry, and Phillip Dorsett.
WR Gunner Olszewski
Olszewski was the other UDFA that had a noteworthy performance, although it mostly came on special teams. While Braxton Berrios showed more elusiveness on a couple punt returns, Olszewski showed a pretty explosive burst returning punts and looked much faster than Berrios. It will be interesting to see if he can sneak past waivers and onto the practice squad for a year or if the Patriots see him as a development slot receiver with special teams utility and don’t want to risk losing him.
With the rookies getting their feet wet in the NFL, seeing how they perform from the first preseason game to the second will be equally as intriguing. We’ll get to see how they respond to film sessions and Belichick’s lowlights as he critiques every mistake each player made. How these rookies build on their first preseason success could have a factor in the 53-man roster looks in week one when the Pittsburgh Steelers come into town and if they’ll be a part of the game plan for beating them.