With only a few days to go until their entire roster will report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have 75 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series concludes (for now) with one of New England’s second-year players.
Name: Byron Cowart
Position: Defensive tackle/Defensive end
Jersey number: 99
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-3, 300 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Cowart’s experience in the NFL is naturally limited considering that he joined the league as a fifth-round draft selection by the Patriots just last year. But while he has so far appeared in only five regular season contests, his résumé is more impressive than his limited playing time as a rookie suggests: not only did he spend the entire season in the system and had a chance to learn behind the scenes, he also has played 38 games over the course of his college career at Auburn and Maryland.
A five-star recruit out of high school, Cowart saw limited opportunities at Auburn and asked for his release from the program three games into the 2017 season. He then transferred to Hillsborough Community College to focus on academics and care for his mother. Cowart earn his degree and went on to join Maryland as part of its 2018 recruiting class. In his lone season with the Terrapins, he appeared in 12 games, had the most productive season of his college career and was named an honorable All-Big Ten mention.
What did his 2019 season look like? Cowart’s NFL career started when the Patriots sent the 162nd and 239th overall selections in the draft to the Minnesota Vikings to move up three spots in the fifth round and pick him 159th overall. While his draft position did not guarantee him a spot on the team, the youngster had some strong moments during training camp and the preseason — he registered two sacks while playing 121 of a possible 247 defensive snaps (49%) — and eventually made the 53-man roster.
As opposed to the exhibition slate, however, Cowart had only a limited impact during his first campaign in the NFL: he appeared in five games and played just 43 defensive snaps (of 1,070; 4%) as well as one on special teams (of 474; 0.2%) — all of which during the regular season. Along the way, the rookie registered one quarterback hit and two additional hurries, while also notching a pair of tackles in the running game. Cowart was serviceable when on the field, but he simply was the last layer of depth on a deep defensive line.
Injuries may have also contributed to this. Not inly did Cowart miss three training camp practices because of a quad injury, he also had to sit out three regular season contests with a concussion. Neither issue should impact his availability moving forward, but they did just that last year and may have prohibited him from carving out a bigger role.
What is his projected role? Just like last year, the Patriots are set at the top of their depth chart with Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and free agency addition Beau Allen. Cowart is therefore projected to once again serve in rotational capacity as either a tackle of 3-4 end, who aligns anywhere from the 4-technique spot inward. While this could give him some looks against the run as well, it seems more likely that he is used as a package-specific interior penetrator on late downs and in obvious passing situations.
What is his special teams value? Cowart has been a non-factor on special teams so far in his career. He played just one snap in the game’s third phase during his rookie regular season, as noted above, and added one more in preseason. Both of those snaps came on the Patriots’ kick blocking unit, and could therefore be seen as an indication that the team might be willing to use him in this area. At this point, however, he should not necessarily be counted on to make an impact on special teams.
Does he have positional versatility? While the Patriots used him primarily inside the formation in 2019, Cowart also has experience playing on the perimeter: he lined up primarily over or outside the offensive tackle while at Maryland. As his experience within New England’s notoriously difficult scheme grows, so could therefore also his usage: don’t be surprised if the coaching staff opts to play him at numerous techniques this year.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second season of the two-year rookie deal he signed with the Patriots last year, the former fifth-round draft pick carries a salary cap number of $750,149 — including a fully guaranteed signing bonus proration worth $75,149. In case the team opts to part ways with Cowart during roster cutdown day, his dead cap hit would not just include this guarantee but also the remainder of his signing bonus for a combined $225,447.
What is his roster outlook? New England’s top-three at the defensive tackle position are set in stone in the form of Guy, Butler and Allen. Cowart, meanwhile, will be fighting for the fourth spot in the rotation this year. He already held it in 2019 as well, but will need to hold his own against fellow interior linemen Nick Thurman and Bill Murray. If Cowart can take advantage of his experience and positional versatility, and earn some kicking game snaps as well, he will be hard to upend due to his upside and intriguing athletic skillset.