The New England Patriots drafted nine players in the 2020 NFL Draft, with an emphasis on getting prospects that will play on or near the line of scrimmage. The Patriots’ draft started in typical fashion, with the team opting to trade back from the 23rd overall slot to pick up some more mid-round value. They then moved up to select a pair of tight ends to try and have some young guys learning the position while they attempt to rebuild their passing game from the ground up.
Without a traditional offseason, it was a hard year for rookies to get acclimated to the NFL setting, which likely explains the lack of impact from the class save for a couple early standouts.
2nd/37 - Kyle Dugger, Safety, Lenoir-Rhyne
After trading down from the 23rd pick, the Patriots opted to take hyper-athletic safety Kyle Dugger. From an athletic standpoint, Dugger was a major improvement over previous second round defensive back busts, which gave a glimmer of hope with this selection.
He had a lot on his plate as a rookie, though, starting with a position switch from playing deep to playing in the box in addition to the massive jump from Division-II to the NFL. Dugger did get better as the season rolled along, including a dominant performance in the Patriots’ upset win over the Baltimore Ravens.
Going into Year Two, Dugger is merely scratching the surface of what he could do. His ceiling is another Rodney Harrison-type safety, a guy who could do almost literally everything you needed in your secondary and made his teammates’ jobs easier. Dugger is more explosive an athlete than Harrison, although the latter played with one of the biggest chips an NFL player could have.
He will be asked to do a lot of things moving forward, which includes providing an extra body in the box against the run, covering backs and tight ends from all over the field, as well as play deep and robber roles in the secondary. The Patriots defense is at its best when that Swiss Army Knife player like Harrison or Patrick Chung is available to make the lives of their teammates around them easier.
2nd/60 - Josh Uche, LB, Michigan
The Patriots picked up an undersized, yet talented pass rusher in Uche later in the second round. His rookie year got off to a slow start thanks to a foot injury suffered in training camp, but he flashed an ability to be very effective rushing from multiple spots. Uche in a limited role picked up a sack of Ravens QB Lamar Jackson and delivered six quarterback hits, with three of them on Justin Herbert in the Patriots’ demolition of the Los Angeles Chargers.
His size and speed profiles more for an off-ball role on early downs before unleashing him after the QB in passing situations. He will need to develop into a better coverage player on those early downs, though, otherwise he is likely to get exposed in the passing game when on the field. At the minimum, I see him growing into a semi-regular on defense who will be a key player in passing situations with the potential of him turning into a Jamie Collins-type linebacker.
The biggest thing he will need to do in Year Two is stay healthy.
3rd/87 - Anfernee Jennings, LB, Alabama
When the Patriots drafted Jennings, I expected a smoother NFL transition given that he was slated to play in a similar style defense in the pros as he did in college. Ultimately, though, the Alabama product was unable to provide even a small amount of impact on the defense and was a liability on the field, which was reflected in his low snap counts.
The clear objective in his selection was to draft an early-down edge-setter that would improve the Patriots’ pathetic edge run defense, but that didn’t materialize. Going into Year Two, Jennings will need to either move to an off-ball position or get better at defending the edge. Otherwise, Bill Belichick will just not put him on the field.
3rd/91 - Devin Asiasi, TE, UCLA
The tight end position is one of the toughest for a rookie to learn at the NFL, which is likely why Devin Asiasi saw only limited action as a rookie. After starting the year as mostly a run-blocker in two-tight end personnel groupings, he was essentially redshirted in favor of Ryan Izzo. He would show up in the final game of the year, catching two of three targets for 39 yards and a 26-yard touchdown on a beautifully-run seam route against the New York Jets.
A full offseason should do Asiasi wonders, as he will be expected to compete for the starting TE job along with Matt LaCosse and Izzo, should the team not make a free agency move to upgrade the position at the top. He profiles well for the in-line role as a solid blocker and a player with nice route-running skills — his best two routes (over, seam) are staples in the Patriots offense.
In 2021, we should expect more than two catches out of Asiasi if he can stay healthy.
3rd/101 - Dalton Keene, TE, Virginia Tech
Like with Asiasi, the 2020 season was a redshirt year for Keene. The third-round pick was deployed as a point-of-attack blocker who could line up all over the field in college and a check-down target, similar to how the Patriots have utilized fullback James Develin in the past. He should also be able to make a major impact on multiple special teams units due to a solid size/athleticism profile.
The question will be if Keene can provide an impact in the passing game after being used mostly as a blocker for the majority of his playing career to date. While Asiasi projects to be more of a traditional tight end, Keene can be an asset in the pre-snap phase of a play due to his ability to line up in multiple spots: knowing the type of coverage a defense is in before the snap is a huge advantage for quarterbacks in the NFL.
Even as a fourth/fifth option for the offense, teams won’t deploy a defensive back to cover him in man coverage until he lights up the league and demands that attention — and in turn would allow the team to expose zone defenses.
5th/158 - Justin Rohrwasser, K, Marshall
Rohrwasser had all the physical tools and profiled well for cold and late-game situations to be selected by the Patriots, but his confidence appeared to be gone by training camp and he ultimately was unseated by re-signed veteran Nick Folk. Folk in the past had been sort of the emergency kicker when teams had an injury/performance issue with their top guy, which is how he came into New England the past two seasons.
While he didn’t outright win the job in training camp, Folk but put together his best year as a pro that included a 90 percent success rate on field goals and a pair of game-winners from 50+ to steal victories against the Jets and Arizona Cardinals.
Folk and Rohrwasser will likely be competing for the kicker job again next year. For the latter, confidence will be key as Folk is fairly accurate but only up to 51 yards. Coaches will take consistency over range when choosing their place kicker, so Rohrwasser will need to find his in order to justify his draft spot.
6th/182 - Michael Onwenu, OL, Michigan
If you want to talk about a candidate for the title “Steal of the 2020 Draft,” Big Mike Onwenu has put his name in the hat. When he was drafted, Onwenu was projected to be a depth option at guard, where he played his entire career on the offensive line at Michigan. Instead the Patriots received a starting tackle who put up a borderline Pro Bowl-level season as a rookie.
Onwenu was a dominant run blocker, which is to be expected with his size/strength profile, but also was solid in pass protection. His rookie campaign earned him a place on the all-rookie squads published by the Pro Football Writers of America and by Pro Football Focus, and set the foundation for what could be a strong career.
His long-term fit on the line is questionable, though. Not because he can’t play — he proved otherwise in 2020 — but rather because of the Patriots’ quest to keep putting together the best starting five along the line. They could stick him back at right tackle in 2021 or slide him to left guard should Joe Thuney depart in free agency.
When Onwenu first entered the NFL, my biggest concern was mobility and if he could pull effectively. That was answered by the first month of the season. His ability to seamlessly play both guard spots and right tackle are important when the NFL becomes a game of attrition late in the year.
6th/195 - Justin Herron, OT, Wake Forest
Herron was another late-round depth option that ended up seeing some time at both tackle positions due to injury. Entering the NFL, he had the opposite concerns that Onwenu had: he was very athletic but undersized at the tackle position. Herron played very much like a rookie, with the typical ups and downs, but there wasn’t much horrific play that made you wonder if he could stay at this level.
A year of adding more muscle will do wonders and hopefully elevate his level of play. I’m not entirely convinced he will develop into a starter at either tackle spot, but I’m hoping at worst he becomes an effective swing tackle who could fill in at either spot when injuries strike. The Patriots have some low-key depth issues at the position, so some stability is needed.
6th/204 - Cassh Maluia, LB, Wisconsin
Maluia spent most of 2020 on the team’s practice squad, with the occasional elevation to the active roster to serve as a depth/special teams option at linebacker. The sixth-rounder only saw 10 snaps on defense and 76 on special teams, as the Patriots looked to play more big nickel packages than using traditional linebackers. Going into Year Two, Maluia will need to show he belongs in the NFL.
7th/230 - Dustin Woodard, C, Memphis
Woodard decided to retire from football before stepping on the field in training camp.
In conclusion, the Patriots had a mixed review with some of their picks flashing the potential to be key contributors in future seasons — from Dugger, to Uche, to Onwenu. In the past, I always thought that when Bill Belichick tries to pigeonhole pick someone for a role instead of trying to take the best talent is where he gets into trouble. In the second round, though, he took players with the right blend of size, speed, and athleticism.
Going forward, he will need the tight ends and Anfernee Jennings to show their worth, as all three were virtual non-contributors during their 2020 rookie seasons.