First things first: judging a draft class after just one season is impossible — players have not even spent a full offseason with their new teams, and maybe have been trapped near the bottom of the depth chart or been redshirted either for developmental and/or injury reasons. The outlook and how a draft class can be graded will therefore drastically change between years one and two, as players try to take the famous second-year leap.
The New England Patriots are banking on this development from their 2019 draft class. While some of its members were able to contribute quite a bit during their rookie campaigns, others had slower starts to their professional careers. This does not mean the latter group — one that includes first-round pick N’Keal Harry, second-rounder Joejuan Williams, and two of three selections in the third round — won’t improve in 2020.
However, one cannot deny that they were not yet ready to see regular action over the course of the 2019 season. As a result, it is no surprise that a recent experiment by ESPN does not look kind to the players selected by the then-reigning world champions early last April: beat writers for all 32 teams re-drafted last year’s event, and the Patriots’ selections were made by ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss and looking quite differently from the real thing.
32. New England Patriots
Original pick: N’Keal Harry, WR
New pick: Noah Fant, TE
The Patriots knew it would be difficult to replace Rob Gronkowski, but might have even underestimated how challenging it would be. Fant, who caught 40 passes for 562 yards and three touchdowns in Denver, would have immediately shot to the top of their depth chart, opening up possibilities that weren’t there for them otherwise.
N’Keal Harry had a difficult first year in the NFL, with an ankle injury forcing him to miss almost the entire preseason and to make a trip to temporary injured reserve. The Arizona State product eventually returned to the field and served as New England’s third wide receiver by the end of the year but had a limited impact on the team’s struggling offense due to his inexperience and inconsistency in making up for the lost time.
Noah Fant, meanwhile, proved to be a solid addition to the Denver Broncos as the 20th overall pick of the draft — one that likely would have helped the Patriots of the post-Gronkowski era as well. That being said, the long-term outlook for Harry still is a positive one as evidenced by the fact that he goes 33rd overall to the Arizona Cardinals in ESPN’s re-draft. People in and out of New England are still high on him.
56. New England Patriots (from CHI)
Original pick: Mecole Hardman, WR (KC traded up via LAR)
New pick: Christian Wilkins, DT
Watching the Patriots get gashed on the ground in a wild-card loss to the Titans reinforced that they were one big-bodied defensive tackle short. While it is debatable that Wilkins is a three-down player, selecting him at this point in the draft is a stroke of good fortune for the Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick noted his Massachusetts roots leading in to a Week 17 matchup against Miami, calling him one of the state’s great football success stories.
New England used the 56th overall pick to move up in round two and select cornerback Joejuan Williams, a player that is not part of ESPN’s re-draft. The original selection found its way to the Kansas City Chiefs, but Mike Reiss would have picked defensive tackle Christian Wilkins in this scenario instead: Wilkins went 13th overall, but the re-draft has him slip to the end of the second round where Reiss and the Patriots pick him up.
The argument for choosing the Clemson product is a sound one with the benefit of hindsight, but also would have helped the Patriots long-term: with Danny Shelton an unrestricted free agent and Adam Butler headed for restricted free agency, having a developmental player like Wilkins in the wings would have been ideal. Nevertheless, New England trading up for Williams — a player that brings an intriguing mix of size and athleticism to the table and saw rotational action in 2019 — could still pay dividends.
64. New England Patriots
Original pick: D.K. Metcalf, WR (SEA traded up)
New pick: Jahlani Tavai, LB
Three-down linebackers are rare, and it wasn’t a surprise that former Patriots assistant Matt Patricia valued Tavai as an early second-round pick for the Lions in the actual draft, as Patricia’s background is in New England’s system. The Patriots still see big things ahead for their other second-round pick, cornerback Joejuan Williams, and in this scenario he might still be available in the third round.
The Patriots ended up making only one selection in the second round of last year’s draft, as they opted to move down from the 64th overall pick to pick up third- and fourth-round selections. Seattle went on to choose wide receiver D.K. Metcalf at 64 — a player that went 12th overall in ESPN’s re-draft after an impressive rookie season — with New England bolstering its linebacker corps in Reiss’ scenario by picking Jahlani Tavai.
Tavai went to Detroit 43rd overall and had a solid rookie year for the team before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. His impact in New England would likely have been limited, though, considering that the Patriots already had Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins atop the positional depth chart (similar to the Williams situation at cornerback). From a long-term perspective, however, Tavai would have been a nice addition.
All in all and as noted above, the 2020 season will give us a better look at the Patriots’ draft class from last year. With Harry and Williams both projected to see bigger roles, a re-draft one year from now might look more favorable to the team — even though one of its players actually did go in round one: linebacker Chase Winovich was picked 27th overall by the then-Oakland Raiders.