We are now just over a year removed from the 2019 NFL Draft and it comes time for some second-year New England Patriots in all three phases of the game to make a big jump in 2020 and carve out bigger roles. Chase Winovich, Jake Bailey, and undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers were three rookies last year that had promising seasons and should only continue to get better. On the other hand, N’Keal Harry — the Round One draft selection sidelined by an injury during the first half of the regular season — Jarrett Stidham, Joejuan Williams, Damien Harris and Yodny Cajuste are four guys that are looking to show that their de facto redshirt seasons paid off.
LB Chase Winovich
Winovich had a very promising rookie year becoming just the fourth first-year player under Bill Belichick to record more than 5.0 sacks. Despite playing just 29% of defensive snaps, he finished his rookie season with with 26 tackles, 5.5 sacks (tied for fourth most on the team), and 10 quarterback hits (third). He also scored a touchdown off a blocked punt on special teams versus the New York Giants.
In general, Winovich proved to be a core special teamer in his rookie year — only three players saw more action in the kicking game than he did — while also showing he was a competent edge rusher in certain pressure packages. Following the offseason departures of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, Winovich should certainly see an uptick in snaps and be a key player on New England’s elite defense.
WR N’Keal Harry
Harry, meanwhile, just couldn’t get things rolling consistently after missing the first nine games of his rookie year due to an ankle injury suffered during his preseason debut. He did show spurts of the player he can become, though. That being said, I’ve never seen a player receive so much hate and be labeled as a “bust” after missing most of training camp and the preseason and starting his first NFL regular season on temporary injured reserve.
Harry was in a tough spot last year. He was the first ever wide receiver selected in the first round under Bill Belichick and came back halfway through the season playing a position the Patriots got nothing out of aside from Julian Edelman. It was unfair to him last year to be deemed as the “savior” in a sense to the receiver position. Also, with Tom Brady playing football at a calculus level while some of these younger, inexperienced guys are playing at an algebra level, it’s hard for them to get on the same page with him — especially after missing that much practice and playing time — and still excel.
WR Jakobi Meyers
Another second-year player at the wide receiver position, Meyers showed a lot of promise after going undrafted and racked up 26 catches for 359 yards — the second most ever by a Patriots rookie free agent. Jarrett Stidham and Meyers were certainly on the same page in the preseason, connecting 15 times for 182 yards and a score. Meyers could very well mold into a solid WR4 for the Patriots and become a weapon in the middle part of the field for New England’s new starting quarterback.
QB Jarrett Stidham
Stidham, on the other hand, is probably the one guy who people are itching to have a breakout year. There were rumors all offseason that the Patriots were linked to some of the veteran quarterbacks on the market and were almost “certain” to select a quarterback at some point in April’s draft. The Patriots, instead, signed two undrafted free agents in J’Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke. Bill Belichick hasn’t tipped his hand on who his starter will be, and only said that the team is excited to see what it has in “Stiddy”, but all signs certainly point to him being the guy in 2020.
Stidham seems to have turned heads during his rookie season and received praise from some of the Patriots’ locker room leaders in Matthew Slater, James White and Devin McCourty. Stephon Gilmore, meanwhile, said that he made the defense’s job hard all week during practice. With Stidham’s mobility and ability to extend plays with his legs, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should have the ability to have a more modernized approach to the offense which in turn should help young guys like Meyers and Harry learn and develop alongside him.
CB Joejuan Williams, RB Damien Harris, OT Yodny Cajuste
Lastly, let’s take a look at three players in Day Two draft selections Williams, Harris, and Cajuste, who all had some sort of redshirt year in 2019. Williams and Harris were active just a combined 11 times and didn’t see much action given the veteran depth at their respective positions. Cajuste, on the other hand, missed the whole year on the physically unable to perform list.
CB Joejuan Williams: Williams may be in a similar situation as last year unfortunately with the Patriots returning the same cornerback crew, which some feel may be the best in the game. However, with Jason McCourty towards the end of his career, don’t be surprised if Williams takes some snaps away from him or receives a few snaps at safety as well. He has the size and strength to play both roles and take on bigger, physical receivers like the Patriots did with Brandon Browner back in 2014.
RB Damien Harris: Harris, on the other hand, should help contribute in the run game and help out with the rushing attack in a rotation with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead. However, with a crowded and veteran-heavy running back room returning this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a veteran cut to create some cap space and allow Harris to fully blossom into the back the Patriots likely expect him to be.
OT Yodny Cajuste: A third-round pick out of West Virginia last year, Cajuste missed his whole rookie season after undergoing offseason quad surgery. The offensive tackle has the potential to push veteran Marcus Cannon given the starter’s age and large cap hit. Cajuste is a tough, mobile right tackle who will compete for a spot on a group also consisting of Cannon, left-side starter Isaiah Wynn, Korey Cunningham and rookie Justin Herron.
The Patriots’ 2019 draft class hasn’t seen much playing time due to the veteran-heavy team New England fielded last year. However, I am a firm believer that this class could be really strong and showcase some of the teams’ core players for the future.