After selecting just four players during the NFL’s 2017 draft, the New England Patriots returned to their throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks approach in 2018 and 2019 by picking nine and ten players, respectively. But while half of last year’s selections came within the first 101 picks, the Patriots’ overall rookie class had a comparatively limited impact on the team’s fortunes during the 2019 regular season and playoffs.
In fact, only two players were able to regularly make positive plays for the team: third-round edge defender Chase Winovich and fifth-round punter Jake Bailey were both able of carve out prominent roles on the roster and saw considerable action throughout the year. Other players such as first-round wideout N’Keal Harry and second-round cornerback Joejuan Williams, meanwhile, received only limited playing time despite their draft statuses.
The Patriots also found a pair of undrafted rookies who contributed in rotational roles — wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski — but a sizable portion of their draft class essentially spent 2019 redshirted: third-round running back Damien Harris, fourth-round quarterback Jarrett Stidham, and fifth-round defensive tackle Byron Cowart were little more than emergency depth, while offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt were sidelined all year long due to injury. Seventh-round cornerback Ken Webster didn’t even make the team and was claimed by the Miami Dolphins after getting cut.
The long-term outlook for New England’s rookie class is still a positive one, though, with Harry and Williams having some positive moments in 2019 and Harris, Cajuste and Froholdt possibly taking on more prominent roles next season — all while Winovich and Bailey will build on their already impressive rookie campaigns. That being said, however, when looking at the 2019 season in a vacuum one can classify the Patriots’ haul as disappointing.
NFL.com draft writers Gennaro Filice and Nick Shook certainly did just that when they graded New England’s draft class as a D+ — the second lowest grade handed out ahead of only the New York Jets’ D. When reading through the rationale behind the assessment, it seems mostly based on Harry’s limited contributions after becoming the first wide receiver ever selected in round one under head coach Bill Belichick:
Harry was supposed to provide a boost to a receiving corps that desperately needed some youthful exuberance. That did not occur. After spending the first half of the season on injured reserve with an ankle injury sustained in training camp, Harry returned to log just 14 grabs in eight games (including New England’s wild-card loss). With a famously demanding quarterback at the controls, the rookie caught more of Tom Brady’s ire than his passes. Patriots fans weren’t too pleased seeing a number of receivers selected after Harry — including A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Diontae Johnson, Mecole Hardman and Darius Slayton — immediately impacting their respective teams.
As noted in the excerpt, Harry’s injury is a key moment when assessing his rookie season: he missed considerable time during training camp and the regular season due to his ankle injury, and was unable to make up for the lost practice and in-game experiences. While his role grew substantially after his return and he essentially finished the season as the number three wide receiver behind Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu, Harry did have a comparatively limited impact.
The same was also said about Stidham, Cajuste and Froholdt:
Stidham showed promise in the preseason, but anyone talking about him as the clear heir to the Tom Brady’s throne is highly overcaffeinated. And probably drunk. Cajuste and Froholdt were essentially medical redshirts, but they will have ample opportunity to patch up the Pats’ line in 2020.
Not all was seen in a negative light, however, as Winovich and Bailey were rightfully praised for their solid performances during their first season in the NFL:
On the plus side, Winovich played like the third-round steal everyone knew he’d be the moment New England nabbed him at No. 77 overall, efficiently racking up 5.5 sacks and 10 QB hits in just 293 defensive snaps. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 14 rookie in the entire class. [...] Bailey was pretty solid punting the football, though a poor effort on Wild Card Weekend left a bad taste in New Englanders’ mouths.
Based on 2019 alone, it is hard to disagree with the assessment of the two writers, though: the Patriots’ rookie class outside of Winovich and Bailey failed to consistently contribute to the team with four of the five selections made on days one and two having little or no impact at all.
Luckily, however, assessing the full impact of a draft class after one year is impossible as too many variables are involved from injury to learning curve. The Patriots’ 2019 rookie haul, therefore, still has a chance to boost the grade over the next few years — with Harry in particular being seen as a candidate to make the famed second-year jump. And if New England gets some more production out of its other selections as well, it would not be a surprise to see the grade improved quite a bit by this time next year.