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Chief Thoughts: Musings on the Patriots’ 53-man roster and the start of the regular season

Congratulations to the cutdown day survivors.

Patriots vs Panthers Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Although the New England Patriots may be making some minor subtractions and additions throughout the week, the general shape of their 53-man roster has been cemented. Last week, we outlined the broad strokes of the roster. This week we are going to look a little deeper at the Patriots’ roster-building strategies, remark on a few issues, and discuss their season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let’s talk about Duke Dawson and those second-round picks

“The second round is where you gamble,” — Bill Bellichick

This was an interesting nugget from Tom E. Curran’s podcast. It came from a book called The War Room by Michael Holley. That was the first time I’d heard the quote and I thought it would provide a compelling launching point to discuss the issue of second-round picks.

The impetus for the discussion is obvious. Belichick cut a second-rounder after a single season, proving that he will never be a slave to his own precedence. Duke Dawson did not play a single regular season or playoff snap for New England during his short tenure. The Patriots even traded extra capital to draft him. Dawson is still probably only the second biggest bust in Belichick’s second-round defensive back history. That’s a testament to how frequent and severe the Patriots’ record is.

The only positive is that Belichick did not keep Dawson on the roster based on draft pedigree. Dawson will never take up a roster spot for three years and actively sabotage the team. But the failure still begs the question; why do the Patriots have such a checkered record drafting defensive backs in the second round? Does the quote provide a window into why the Patriots failed so consistently? Maybe. If nothing else, it provides an interesting framework to attempt an explanation.

The first step in analyzing the quote is to define what “gamble” means in the context of the draft. In draft terms that generally means a player with high upside and a low floor. What that player looks like could vary. It could be a player like Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who had superior skills but concerns about his maturity. It could be a player with freakish athleticism that you are hoping you can mold like Deion Jones. Or it could be someone with injury concerns like Myles Jack, who you are hoping can recover and stay healthy. In other words, gambles in the draft are usually players who have enough high-end potential that you are willing to ignore significant red flags.

At first glance, the Patriots’ use of second-round picks fits nicely into this definition. Rob Gronkowski was a fantastic player who dropped down the board due to injury concerns. Those concerns turned out to be legitimate but were dwarfed by his quality of play. Jamie Collins Sr. falls nicely into this category too, as he was a raw talent who flashed freakish athleticism for his size. And even though wideout Aaron Dobson busted, his combination of size and speed was quite rare. Ras-I Dowling was widely seen as an above average talent but the injuries concerns turned out to be far too significant.

But this theory becomes more difficult to prescribe when considering players like Duke Dawson, Cyrus Jones, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Tavon Wilson, and the ill fated #37, man Jordan Richards. The issue being that none of these players seemed to possess the proverbial “upside” that most NFL gambles include. They lacked special tape or athleticism. They did not “drop” to the second because of injury concerns or personality defects.

The framework of a gamble got me thinking you could thread a degree of connection between the inconsistent hits and consistent failures. The Patriots’ inconsistent success has come in the form of the traditional gamble. Gronkowski, Collins, and Sebastian Vollmer had widely recognized upside but they also had widely recognized risk. Those sort of picks may result in Dowling and Dobson, but as a GM you accept the good with the bad. You get the busts but you also get the upside.

With the defensive backs you have seen plenty of widely recognized risk but rarely do you see the widely recognized upside. The closest possible analogy is probably Colts GM Chris Ballard’s gamble with Darius Leonard. His tape was not considered especially impressive by most draft analyst and his measurables were mediocre, but Ballard took the risk that his team saw something the rest of the draft community did not and it paid off.

Is it possible that the Patriots keep convincing themselves they see something others cannot and “gamble” on upside few others see? If so, it would suggest they aren’t anywhere near as good at projecting college defensive backs as they think they are.

Another theory is that the Patriots are gambling on role reaches instead of talented fallers. Cyrus Jones and Duke Dawson were both attempts to fill the role of a slot cornerback. In Jones’ case it was also the need for a reliable punt returner. Neither of those players presented much upside but the Patriots felt it was worth picking the player high in order to “ensure” the role was filled. Is gambling for need, as opposed to gambling for talent, part of the reason for the consistent failure?

Look, the draft is a complete crap shoot. One study I read suggested picking at 64 only provides slightly better odds than a coin flip. Is it really that far fetched to attribute the string of poor second-round defensive back picks to a statistical anomaly? Perhaps. At a certain point you just have to throw your hands up and accept the ubiquitous nature of the draft.

But I don’t think great organizations become great by just throwing their hands up in the air. The point of this process is not to whine about Belichick the GM but to spur thoughts on roster building. The Patriots are the smartest organization in football, so when they perform below the statistical average in an area, it’s worth examining.

Roster day surprises

The biggest surprise for me was probably safety Obi Melifonwu. As you know, I’ve been enamored with him for some time; he’s one of the most athletically gifted players on the Patriots’ roster. For context, Melifonwu ranked in the 97+ percentile in weight and height while subsequently ranking in the 97+ percentile in the 40-yard dash, broad and vertical jumps. Those measurables are elite but thus far the player has been clearly inferior to the athlete. Taking great athletes and coaching them up is a fairly common strategy in the NFL but it’s not one that the Patriots generally hew to. I thought Melifonwu showed enough that he was worth gambling on the upside but it did not seem like a very Patriots-style move. I was pleasantly surprised to see him make the roster. That being said, I bet he was one of the last guys to make it. I can’t help but wonder if he makes the roster in a world where Patrick Chung is not facing felony charges.

Another exciting twist was Gunner Olszewski, even though it came at the cost of another one of my pet favorites, Keion Crossen. Olszewski’s primary value is as a punt returner. Someone that will keep Julian Edelman from getting banged up and hopefully producing a little extra on the return. He’s obviously the first one in line to get cut. He didn’t even make the roster until the Patriots traded Crossen. Frankly I’m not sure rostering the rookie over Crossen and getting a sixth-round draft pick for him was smart. But regardless, I really admired Olszewski’s gumption and am happy to have him on the roster. In spite of the exceedingly long odds he is officially an NFL player. No one can take that from him.

Offensive line depth

The Patriots traded for three offensive linemen right before roster cuts. This flurry of trades confirmed what many suspected; the Patriots’ backup situation was abysmal. Outside of Ted Karras, the presumptive replacement for David Andrews, there was not a single player competing for a backup role that made the active roster. Between retirements, season-ending injuries, and the scarce supply of talent, the Patriots had no choice but to look outside the organization.

Remember that when teams claim they have depth it usually means they can only withstand one major injury at a position. Very rarely does depth exceed one extra body. Karras was that body for the the interior offensive line and I am skeptical the Patriots ever had a body for tackle. If they get lucky, one of the players they traded for will be molded into a legitimate talent this season. But the odds are better than even that the Patriots are just SOL if someone else gets injured.

The good news is that this doesn’t make the Patriots any worse off than most NFL teams. In fact, even with no depth they are better off than most teams in the league. At least they can field five competent starters. The Houston Texans just traded two first-round picks for a slightly above average tackle because they are so desperate to field an offensive line that is not total garbage. I still believe the offensive line will be a strength for the Patriots this year. They may just need to cross our fingers a little harder than normal that no one else gets hurt.

Will the preseason translate for the rookies?

This list includes only those rookies who consistently popped during the preseason and during training camp. Byron Cowart and N’Keal Harry both flashed but neither have put together really consistent performances. Jake Bailey won the starter position flat out so I won’t be including him either.

Jakobi Meyers

When considering Meyers I can’t help but think of Cordarrelle Patterson and Laquon Treadwell. Both players were first-round picks by the Vikings that flamed out miserably. Patterson has at least carved out a role as a premier returnman, but Treadwell has yet to find a roster spot on an NFL team. Both players were notorious for having excellent camps before failing to live up to expectations during the regular season. Meyers had a great summer and earned his place on the roster. I’m not taking that from him. But he’s at the top of my list of players with something to prove.

Chase Winovich

Winovich was an absolute monster during the preseason and graded out as the best edge of the summer by Pro Football Focus. He’s my favorite pick of the draft in terms of value. But we really don’t know what he is going to consistently look like against starting-caliber competition. I believe Winovich will get opportunities on obvious passing downs. Whether he performs well there will be the first benchmark on his journey to being a full-time starter.

Joejuan Williams

Williams struggled at the beginning of camp, both with and without pads, but looked increasingly comfortable as the summer went on. Though the bar is exceptionally low, he has probably had the best summer we’ve seen from a Patriots second-round defensive back in quite some time. His specialized role might help him get starter snaps earlier than people expect. The Giants, Eagles, Ravens, Browns and Chiefs all make considerable use of tight ends, which means that Williams is going to be given opportunities to flex. Let’s hope he can make something out of them.

Steeling for the Steelers

The Steelers have quietly put together a solid defense. Their potential flashed last year when they held the Patriots to ten points. Drafting Devin Bush could fill a critical role in their defense and he’s looked superb over the summer. I like what they have done with their front seven. But I’m not ready to buy into the hype for their secondary just yet, though. Joe Haden has been good when he’s healthy, and Terrell Edmunds has been better than people expected, but there is still not a lot to love on the back end. If the Patriots’ paper strength translates, I think they will match up favorably with Pittsburgh’s secondary. I don’t think you are going to see a repeat of last season. Expect the Patriots to score well into the twenties.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers will remain a credible threat. I am curious if their offensive line regresses after the loss of their coach but it’s not something you can count on. James Connor replaces anything Le’Veon Bell would have given you on the ground but obviously doesn’t give you the versatility you want in the passing game. The Patriots are as light up front as they have ever been, maybe the Steelers can punish them on the ground? I’m not convinced that is enough of a mismatch to make a difference.

It may be good for the future of the team but there is little doubt losing Antonio Browns will be felt this season. The big question mark in the offense is James Washington. The preseason buzz has been positive but we’ve all seen that story with wide receivers in the preseason before. If Washington doesn’t emerge as a significant threat I think you can stick two people on Juju Smith-Schuster and beg Ben Roethlisberger to beat you elsewhere on the roster. I doubt he can.

I am predicting a Patriots victory but I won’t profess to a deep knowledge of the Steelers roster. Feel free to sound off on anything I missed!