The majority of New England Patriots players have been here before — it’s one season opener among many, even though it certainly looked different given the circumstances. However, nine members of the team’s active 53-man roster were in a different boat entering Week 1: the team’s 2020 rookie class. While not all members of the group were actually active for the contest against the Miami Dolphins, they did get their first experience of real NFL football for the first time in their respective careers.
With that being said, let’s review New England’s rookie performances from Sunday.
G/OT Michael Onwenu
- Offensive snaps: 22 of 64 (34%)
- Special teams snaps: 4 of 18 (22%)
If you had sixth-round offensive lineman Michael Onwenu as the Patriots’ rookie to see the most action on opening day, congratulations. If you had him see the most action and play offensive tackle and jumbo tight end instead of guard, you are probably a member of New England’s coaching staff.
Onwenu had a successful NFL debut. He rotated in and out of the starting offensive line alongside right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, playing 16 snaps at a position he had not played at Michigan. Furthermore, he was on the field for six snaps as an additional blocker up front — playing a big role in helping quarterback Cam Newton convert a crucial 4th-and-1 late in the game. Add the fact that he also was a part of the Patriots’ place kicking protection teams and you see why the 22-year-old has a lot to feel good about coming out of Week 1.
S Kyle Dugger
- Defensive snaps: 11 of 62 (18%)
- Special teams snaps: 8 of 18 (44%)
New England’s highest selection in this year’s draft was not featured as much as fellow safeties Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks, but he still saw some quality snaps in his first ever game since arriving in the NFL from Division II school Lenoir-Rhyne. And what those snaps confirmed is the versatility Dugger brings to the table: he did not just play in the box to fill the old Patrick Chung role, but also aligned as a deep safety and in coverage both on the perimeter and in the slot.
Dugger also played against the run and was used as a blitzer on one occasion, registering one quarterback hurry. Furthermore, he saw regular action in the kicking game: playing on both kickoff units and the Patriots’ punt return team, the 24-year-old was on the field for 44 percent of special teams snaps and proved that he is adapting well to life at the pro level. It will be exciting to see how his role grows throughout the season.
RB J.J. Taylor
- Offensive snaps: 9 of 64 (14%)
- Special teams snaps: 3 of 18 (17%)
The Patriots have one of the deepest running back groups in the NFL, but J.J. Taylor was still able to carve out a role as the number four behind early-down options Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead as well as receiving back James White: while the three played 19 offensive snaps each, the undrafted free agent was on the field for nine — a respectable number especially considering that he touched the football on five of his snaps.
Taylor did not just finish with four rushing attempts for 28 yards and with a position-high average of 7.0 yards per carry, he also was the recipient of a 4-yard pass. All in all, three of his five touches were graded as successful relative to the situation in which they occurred in. A solid debut for the draft day afterthought.
TE Devin Asiasi
- Offensive snaps: 10 of 64 (16%)
- Special teams snaps: N/A
The third-round selection was hailed as the Patriots’ top tight end option throughout training camp, but had to take a backseat to veteran Ryan Izzo on Sunday: while Izzo played all but one of the team’s 64 offensive snaps against Miami, Asiasi was on the field on just 10 of them without registering any statistics. Nevertheless, he did have a positive impact on New England’s offense due to his work as a blocker.
Asiasi, who aligned predominately as an in-line tight end, looked good in pass protection and in the running game. His role may not have been as prominent as that of Izzo or jumbo tight end Michael Onwenu, but it was a valuable one nevertheless — especially considering the Patriots’ run-heavy game plan. He will eventually also get his chance to perform as a pass catcher.
LB Anfernee Jennings
- Defensive snaps: 9 of 62 (15%)
- Special teams snaps: N/A
Even though the Patriots carried only three off-the-ball linebackers on their active roster — Jennings was joined by Ja’Whaun Bentley and Brandon Copeland — the third-round rookie saw comparatively limited playing time: he was on the field for just nine snaps all day long. That said, the low number is nothing to worry about.
Not only was Jennings used more prominently than Copeland, for example, he also was employed in a versatile fashion: he was part of New England’s short-yardage and running game packages, but also dropped into coverage on three occasions. He furthermore aligned both on and off the line of scrimmage. Opening week can therefore be seen as a glimpse into the plans the Patriots have with the 23-year-old.
OT Justin Herron
- Offensive snaps: 2 of 64 (3%)
- Special teams snaps: N/A
With Michael Onwenu taking over the number three tackle role, number four Justin Herron saw only minimal playing time against Miami: he was on the field for a mere two snaps, serving as a jumbo tight end both times.
That said, he was used on one of the biggest plays of the game when he aligned on the outside shoulder of right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor on Newton’s 4th-and-1 conversion already mentioned above. The play was not designed to follow Herron, but him being on the field in such a critical situation still speaks for the confidence the coaching staff has in the sixth-round draft selection as a depth option at his position.
LB Josh Uche
The second-round pick was a surprise member of New England’s inactives list on Sunday: he was not listed on the injury report all week and also appeared to be on his way to carve out a regular role within the defense during training camp. However, the numbers worked against him as the Patriots decided to go with Anfernee Jennings over him as the final linebacker.
TE Dalton Keene
Keene was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report due to a neck injury. Even if he was fully healthy, though, it might have been hard to make the team as a third tight end behind Ryan Izzo and Dalton Keene: the Patriots’ run-heavy game plan meant that Izzo would see more action, while Asiasi is the more well-rounded player to complement him.
LB Cassh Maluia
Like Keene, the Patriots’ sixth-round draft pick also was inactive because of injury: Maluia, who was just promoted from the practice squad a few days earlier, was listed as questionable due to a knee injury. Even if healthy, however, he might have been the odd man out with safety Adrian Phillips severing as an additional in-box defender alongside off-the-ball linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.