The New England Patriots lost their number one pass rusher in free agency: Kyle Van Noy, who registered a team-high 51.5 quarterback disruptions during the 2019 season, signed with the Miami Dolphins to leave his former team a bit thin on the defensive edge. While second-year man Chase Winovich and veteran John Simon form a solid core at the position, additional (cheap) depth would certainly be welcome via this year’s draft.
Potential mid-round selection Kenny Willekes out of Michigan State would be just that, so let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Kenny Willekes
Position: Defensive edge
School: Michigan State (redshirt senior)
Opening day age: 23
2019 stats: 13 games; 757 snaps; 78 tackles (16.0 tackles for loss); 10.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits; 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown
Size: 6034, 264 lbs, 9.5 hand size, 31.25 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.87 40-yard dash, 7.39 three-cone, 32.5 vertical jump, 911 broad jump, 32 bench press
Expected round: 3rd-4th
Patriots pre-draft meeting: Video call
Strengths: Willekes enters the draft with plenty of experience, and a good off-the-field résumé as well. The team captain has seen regular action in each of the Spartans’ last three seasons, and also was used both on the strong and the weak side of the formation. Along the way, he has proven himself a solid edge setter/contain end in the running game and productive pass rusher. His size and sound functional athleticism helps him in both areas — even though he is not the most impressive player in terms of athletic makeup.
That said, he knows how to compensate with a solid technique: Willekes consistently keeps his feet moving when attacking down the field and rarely takes missteps, has good bend around the edge, and is active with his hands when chopping down opposing blocking attempts. The 22-year-old has furthermore shown some quick diagnosis skills, and plays with a relentless motor. Similar to the aforementioned Chase Winovich, he takes no plays off and attacks aggressively even when on the field for most of the team’s defensive snaps.
Weaknesses: As noted above, Willekes is not the most impressive athlete. His upper-body strength could be improved, which in turn would allow him to stack blockers more impressively. He also does not overwhelm with his burst and explosiveness out of his stance, even though he has shown an ability to time the snap count. At times, he also rushes up the field too aggressively and runs the arc without impacting the play.
Willekes also could improve his pass rushing moves. Too often tries to win simply by engaging and pushing back defenders with is long arms while he applies his chop only with irregular success. He would therefore benefit from adding some countermoves to his arsenal. His versatility is also limited: Michigan State used him primarily as an edge attacking out of a three-point stance, and he lacks experience playing a stand-up role, dropping into coverage or lining up inside the formation.
What would be his role? Chase Winovich and John Simon are currently projected to serve as the one-two punch along the defensive edge, which means that Willekes would likely be working in a rotational role alongside them. As such, he would line up in various end-of-the-line spots between the five- and nine-technique positions and see action as both a pass rusher and an edge setter in the running game.
How many downs can he play? Four, even though the Patriots would likely not use him as an every-down player. Adding him to the defensive edge rotation, after all, would give the team the ability to mix and match its personnel to keep everybody as fresh as possible — something the team did back in 2016 when it integrated de facto first-year player Trey Flowers into a rotation consisting of veterans Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long.
What is his special teams value? Willekes was regularly used in the kicking game at Michigan State, and also named Scout Team Special Teams Player of the Week four times during his 2015 redshirt season. Given his experience, it would not be a surprise to see him play a role similar to the one held by Chase Winovich during his rookie campaign: Winovich was used on five different special teams units, including all four kick coverage teams.
Does he have positional versatility? The aforementioned Kyle Van Noy was one of the most versatile players not just on the Patriots’ defense but in all of football — a player capable of playing numerous roles at a high level. Willekes is not that: he projects best as a traditional edge player on the line of scrimmage that is better at playing downhill and setting the edge than dropping back into coverage or being asked to maneuver in space.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? While Willekes may not have the highest ceiling, he still has room for growth as he enters the NFL. Naturally, Year Two would be big for him: even though he should not be expected to suddenly turn into the next Van Noy in terms of multi-positional usage, improved upper-body strength and more experience could lead to him becoming a consistent present on the Patriots’ defense.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Chase Winovich and John Simon can be considered roster locks, with him as well if he gets drafted in either the third or fourth round. This means that every other edge defender currently on the team would be competing against Willekes for practice reps and playing time instead of roster spots. At the moment, his competition would consist of Derek Rivers, Shilique Calhoun, Keionta Davis and Tashawn Bower.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, the Patriots are comparatively light at the defensive edge with Van Noy leaving town. While players such as Rivers or Calhoun could turn into regular contributors, adding more bodies to the equation sounds like a good plan from the team’s perspective. Willekes may not be the flashiest player, or possess the highest upside, but he comes with a solid foundational skillset and would likely be able to help the team in a rotational role as early as his rookie season. Not every mid-round pick can provide that.
Why not the Patriots? While Winovich and Simon are solid players that have proven themselves in New England’s system, the team might opt to add more than “only” a mid-round selection to the equation: there is a chance that Bill Belichick and company prefer to go with someone like Wisconsin’s Zack Baun or Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, who are both possible first- or early second-round selections. In that case, spending another pick on an edge defender — especially one with a comparatively low ceiling — might not be in the team’s plans.
Verdict: Kenny Willekes will likely never be the next Kyle Van Noy, considering that he is just a different type of player and lacks the same versatility or athletic skillset. That said, like the ex-Patriot he could offer solid play from the defensive edge positions and become a valuable contributor from Day One on. His upside may be limited and his potential usage more restricted, but he would fit in well with New England’s current personnel.