The New England Patriots entered the 2020 NFL draft with 12 picks and after some trades ended up selecting 10 players, five on Day Two and five more on Day Three. They traded down and out of the first round to add an extra Day Two selection (2-71) before trading up three times on Day Three.
After a day to process each selection, these are my takeaways from how the Patriots approached the draft.
Improving play at line of scrimmage was top priority
The Patriots spent nine of their 10 picks on players who will play near or on the line of scrimmage for the majority of their careers. The team took a safety who projects to play in the box, two edge rushers, two tight ends, three interior offensive lineman, and a linebacker as part of their draft class. Earlier this off-season, I identified that as a weakness with the team as it got beat up on the ground in its playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. With a change at quarterback, the Patriots would want to improve their run offense and defense to shorten the game. While that will result in a lot fewer points scored, that will allow the team to stay in games longer.
Patriots still value versatility over raw ability
This doesn’t come as a surprise, but the team was more interested in players who have well-rounded skillsets as opposed to being great at very few skills. Safety Kyle Dugger, linebacker Josh Uche, and tight end Dalton Keene are most noted for their versatility in how they can be deployed in NFL schemes, which could allow the Patriots to disguise their intentions on defense and force opposing defenses to declare theirs.
Complementary skill sets when double-dipping at positions
The Patriots double-dipped at the guard, tight end, and edge rusher positions in the draft. When they did so, they took players with differing skill sets. At the guard position, they selected two different types of guards: Michael Onwenu, the first player they selected, is a monster-sized guard who is a more plug-and-play option as a mauler who can drive defensive tackles off the line and create movement; Justin Herron is a tackle who projects to slide down to guard, but is more noted for his athletic ability. Both are on the bubble in terms of competing for roster spots, but it will be interesting to see how the Patriots evaluate the contrasting styles. Herron is more in line with what the Patriots prefer at guard in the past from a measurables standpoint.
At the tight end position, they took an in-line player first in Devin Asiasi out of UCLA. Asiasi is a capable inline blocker, who reminds me of former Patriot Daniel Graham from a size and skill set standpoint and can challenge defenses down the seam and over routes off play action. Those two routes are staples in the Patriots offense, especially at the tight end and slot receiver positions. Later in the third round, they took Dalton Keene, who is more noted for his ability to line up at multiple spots to block or catch passes. Keene can line up in-line, as a wing back, full back, or even out wide. That versatility could help the Patriots force the defense to show its hand in the pre-snap phase, one part of James Develin’s game that oftentimes went under-appreciated. I’m not sure if those selections will mean the two-tight end offense is back, but they can give the Patriots something to work with.
The first position they double dipped was edge rushers who project to play as linebackers in the Patriots’ scheme. The first player they selected was Josh Uche, a fast and athletic speed rusher that can be a stand-up rusher inside or outside that’s also capable of dropping into coverage. That skillset will allow the Patriots to utilize him in off-ball capacities, although he’s not going to be an impact player there for at least a year. Best case scenario he’s on a similar learning curve as 2013-15 Jamie Collins. 27 picks later, the Patriots took Anfernee Jennings. A plug-and-play edge rusher coming out of a similar scheme in Alabama, Jennings too has versatility to be a stand-up rusher inside and outside. One notable aspect in his game is the ability to deflect passes. With the ball-hawking secondary the Patriots currently employ, those deflections can easily become turnovers.
Patriots get their kicker
At the 159th overall pick, the Patriots had their choice of whoever they wanted to replace Stephen Gostkowski at kicker. The position itself wasn’t a surprise to many, but perhaps the player himself was as the Patriots tabbed Marshall’s Justin Rohrwasser. After some further research, Rohrwasser was his conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year and at his pro day showed up to 58 yards of range on field goals. Kicking in Foxborough requires a strong leg, as the cold weather and wind are two huge factors in the kicking game and on field goals. The Patriots felt that Rohrwasser had the leg necessary to be able to function in those conditions, although it certainly helps to be kicking in West Virginia instead of Georgia in the fall and winter when trying to make that projection.
As for the tattoo thing, I don’t care as long as he’s not causing a distraction in the locker room over it and he’s making his kicks. In an interview, Rohrwasser said he doesn’t believe in that symbol and plans to cover it up with sleeves. Take that answer any way you want to, it doesn’t really matter as long as the Patriots’ locker room is accepting of him. Given Bill Belichick’s way of limiting distractions and the strong leadership that’s still mostly intact with the re-signings of Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty, it shouldn’t be a distraction to the team.
Patriots confident in their tackle and receiver group
Bernd covers the receivers in this article, so I will exclusively talk about the team’s tackle group. The team entered the draft with Isaiah Wynn, Marcus Cannon, Yodny Cajuste, and Korey Cunningham as the primary tackles on the depth chart they may end up carrying all four again in 2020. They did draft a college tackle, but not until 195th overall when they selected Justin Herron. Herron projects to be more of a guard at the NFL level, as noted above, so I don’t see him as realistic depth unless he plays out there. Next year may prove to be a different story with Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon on the final year of their respective contracts, although the Patriots will have to decide about using the fifth-year option on Wynn after this upcoming season.
Despite losing Tom Brady, Belichick stuck to his philosophies. With a new quarterback in town, there was definitely pressure to try to draft more weapons and spend a lot of capital on offense. Even from the beginning of the offseason I never got the sense the team was going to do that, though, given the amount of high draft picks it invested on that side of the ball the last two years. However, it appears Belichick will go to the 2001-06 approach of winning games on the backbone of a strong and disciplined defense. The Patriots’ top three selections were all defense, with the only meaningful draft capital on offense spent at the tight end position. That particular position was in dire need of an upgrade after getting minimal production last season.
You can make an argument the Patriots didn’t do the best job to raise their ceiling, but I believe they’ve raised the floor quite a bit. The team may not be near the top of the list for Super Bowl contenders in a five-team deep AFC that features the Ravens, Chiefs, Steelers, Titans, and Texans as the teams to beat, but I believe they will have a chance to compete for the division in December. That’s all we can realistically ask for at this point, we have no idea of how this team will operate moving forward with a lot of young players on offense.
Where the Patriots utilized their draft picks suggest they could see some turnover in the off-season. That will be covered in a separate article.
Biggest Winners: QB Brian Hoyer, OT Yodny Cajuste, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
Biggest Losers: S Terrence Brooks , EDGE/LB Shilique Calhoun, OG Hjalte Froholdt
Initial Grade: B
It’s too early to give a final grade on the draft, simply because at best we can only project what these players will do in New England. From a position standpoint, the Patriots have seemingly found their long-term replacement for Patrick Chung at the strong safety position, added two potential impact front seven players, drafted two tight ends, and added depth at the interior offensive line and linebacker. They needed to improve their play at or near the line of scrimmage and I believe they’ve added more talent in those areas. In 2024, we can look back at this draft with the context of how these players performed and give it a better grade.