The success of a team’s rookie class cannot be determined after just one season. Evaluating after year two, on the other hand, gives a slightly better indication as to who has successfully been integrated into a franchise. Not only can a bigger sample size of performance be evaluated but the players themselves also have more experience in the system and a whole offseason to prepare for an upcoming season.
With that in mind, the New England Patriots’ 2018 rookie collective has had an inconsistent second year with the club. While some of them have been able to become contributors on the 12-4 team that saw its season end on wild card weekend, some have found only limited success with the Patriots last year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Patriots’ 2018 rookie class fared in 2019 to find out who has made the famed second-year jump.
Overall, New England had 16 rookies on its final 2018 payroll, be it the active roster, the practice squad, or an inactive list. The following eleven of them are no longer with the team:
OT Tony Adams, WR Darren Andrews, WR Braxton Berrios, CB Keion Crossen, CB Duke Dawson Jr, QB Danny Etling, DT Trent Harris, DT Frank Herron, FS A.J. Howard, WR Damoun Patterson, LB Christian Sam
The most notable of those players are wide receiver Braxton Berrios, cornerbacks Keion Crossen and Duke Dawson, and quarterback Danny Etling. After spending his rookie season on injured reserve, Berrios was waived during roster cutdowns last year and eventually claimed by the New York Jets. Crossen and Dawson, meanwhile, were traded to the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos, respectively, in late August. Etling, who transitioned to wide receiver during training camp, was released and picked up by the Atlanta Falcons.
This leaves only five members of New England’s 2018 rookie class who are still with the team, so let’s analyze how they played during their sophomore campaigns.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
After seeing his rookie season come to a premature end because of a biceps injury — the Patriots were forced to place him on injured reserve in late September — Bentley bounced back nicely in 2019. The former fifth-round draft pick appeared in all 16 of New England’s regular season games and also its lone playoff contest, and essentially served as the third off-the-line linebacker behind more versatile options Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Bentley proved himself a serviceable rotational piece that finished the year with a playing time share of 27.5% (294 of 1,070) and some encouraging performances against the run and the pass. While his usage was comparatively limited due to the players ahead of him on the depth chart, Bentley will enter 2020 as a player to watch: Collins and fellow linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are all free agents, potentially leading to a bigger role next season.
TE Ryan Izzo
The departure of future Hall of Famer man Rob Gronkowski hurt the Patriots’ tight end group, but it paved the way for Ryan Izzo to get a chance to prove himself: after ending 2018 on injured reserve, Izzo made the team’s 53-man roster in 2019 and remained there throughout the season. However, his usage changed drastically over the course of the year and by the time the playoffs came around he was little more than an emergency option behind Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson.
All in all, Izzo appeared in six games during his sophomore year — all over the first six weeks of the season — and finished with six receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, the former seventh-round draft pick never established himself as a true playmaker at tight end capable of softening the blow of Gronkowski’s retirement. Unless he makes a big jump forward in 2020, it would therefore not be a surprise if the writing was on the wall for the 24-year-old.
CB J.C. Jackson
The lone member of New England’s undrafted class last season to still be with the team at this point in time, J.C. Jackson delivered a strong 2019 season — building on an already encouraging rookie campaign and therefore making the second-year jump in impressive fashion — even though he opened the season as the number three perimeter option behind Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty. He eventually jumped into a starting spot after McCourty hurt his groin in late November, however, and never looked back.
On the year, he appeared in all 16 of the Patriots’ regular season games as well as their wild card loss agains the Tennessee Titans while proving himself one of the better young cornerbacks in football: Jackson was targeted 57 times during the year but allowed only 22 completions for a combined 208 yards. On top of it all, he also registered five interceptions and an additional six pass breakups culminating in a defensive passer rating of just 12.9.
Jackson, who also saw regular playing time on special teams and blocked a punt in Week 4 that resulted in a touchdown, is a lock to stay with the team in 2020 and could potentially even keep his number two role opposite Gilmore: with the team holding the option to bring McCourty back and him coming off an injury-riddled season, the door is open for the 24-year-old to earn an even bigger role this year.
RB Sony Michel
Sony Michel played a key role in the Patriots winning the Super Bowl during his rookie season, but his 2019 campaign was off to a slow start — in part because of the blocking: with the tight end situation in flux, center David Andrews on season-ending injured reserve, and both fullbacks James Develin and Jakob Johnson being placed on IR as well, the former first-round draft pick found himself in a difficult spot over the first half of the season.
That being said, Michel was at times also unable to make the right decisions and be decisive when running the ball. At the end of the day, therefore, he finished the season with only 57.2 rushing yards per game down from 79.2 the previous year: he appeared in all 16 regular season contests and New England’s lone playoff contest, but registered “only” 973 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on a combined 261 attempts (3.7 yards per run).
The numbers speak a clear language: Michel did not take a noticeable leap forward during his second year in the NFL. The circumstances, however, did not do him any favors either and it will be interesting to watch how his development continues in 2020 — especially considering that he was a lot more productive over the second half of the season, and with the Patriots’ starting left tackle back from injured reserve. Speaking of which...
OT Isaiah Wynn
With Trent Brown leaving New England in free agency, Isaiah Wynn took over the team’s left tackle position in his second year — one that actually was his first true season as a pro considering that he missed all of 2018 due to an Achilles injury suffered in preseason. Wynn was good to go in 2019, however, at least until another injury sidelined him for eight games: after hurting his toe in Week 2, the Patriots placed Wynn on temporary injured reserve.
He eventually returned off IR to start the final seven games of the season, but had some inconsistencies as a run blocker and a pass protector. Eventually, Wynn finished the season with nine in-game appearances and 24 quarterback pressures given up — third on the team behind right tackle Marcus Cannon (41) and his replacement for eight weeks, Marshall Newhouse (30). Overall, however, the season was a step in the right direction.
That being said, how Wynn’s 2020 season will look like is still hard to project. After all, the Patriots could lose Joe Thuney in free agency and might have to insert somebody new into the lineup at left guard in place of their best lineman last year. One possibility would be Wynn, who played considerable portions of his college career on the interior and also saw some practice snaps there during 2018’s spring practices. But even if he remains at left tackle, playing alongside a new guard could also be a challenge.
All in all, the Patriots’ 2018 rookie class had its fair share of ups and downs in 2019. While J.C. Jackson improved quite a bit, Sony Michel plateaued a little. Meanwhile, Isaiah Wynn and Ja’Whaun Bentley fought their way back from injuries to carve out starting and rotational roles, respectively, in year two. Ryan Izzo, on the other hand, showed little more than being an additional body at a struggling tight end position.
Safe to say, therefore, that the upcoming offseason will be big for all five of the men: either they can (further) build on their first two years in the league, or their standing on what projects to be a deep team yet again could be in jeopardy.