The success of a team’s rookie class cannot be determined after just one season. Not every player’s development works the same way, while opportunities are often only presented over time.
Evaluating after Year 2, on the other hand, gives a slightly better indication as to who has successfully been integrated into a franchise. Not only can a bigger sample size of performance be analyzed, but the players themselves also have more experience in the system and a whole offseason to prepare for an upcoming season (even though that offseason was rather unconventional in 2020).
With that in mind, the New England Patriots’ 2019 rookies have had some positive and some negative moments last season.
While some of the group’s members have been able to become core contributors on the team, others have found only limited success with the Patriots last year or are already off the roster altogether. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how New England’s 2019 rookie class fared in 2020 to find out who has successfully made the famous second-year jump.
Overall, New England had 16 rookies on its final 2019 payroll, be it the active roster, the practice squad, or an inactive list. The following three of them are no longer with the team:
S Malik Gant, OL Hjalte Froholdt, S Adarius Pickett
The most notable of these players is offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt. A third-round pick by the Patriots in 2019, Froholdt spent his rookie campaign on injured reserve due to a shoulder issue before being given a backup role in his second season as a Patriot. While he appeared in eight games for the team he was waived in late November and subsequently claimed by the Houston Texans.
With him gone and Malik Gant and Adarius Pickett also released, 13 members of New England’s 2018 rookie class remain with the team. Let’s analyze how they fared during their sophomore campaigns (while being listed in alphabetical order):
P Jake Bailey: Bailey already played some impressive football as a rookie but after showing some ups and downs late during the 2019 season took a massive leap forward in Year 2. Playing alongside one of the best kick coverage units in football, he established himself as the best punter in the game — one that was voted first-team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl. Bailey was outstanding for the Patriots in 2020.
OT Yodny Cajuste: After spending all of his rookie year on the non-football injury list following offseason quad surgery, Cajuste was unable to appear in any games in 2020 as well: the Patriots sent him to injured reserve after he missed back-to-back practices with a knee injury.
DT Byron Cowart: Playing only a marginal role as a rookie, Cowart saw his playing time share increase from 4 to 41 percent in Year 2. Even though he was unable to help a struggling defensive tackle group turn its fortunes around, he did show some promise as a run defender from time to time and when allowed to play in more of an end alignment.
RB Damien Harris: No player on New England’s roster made as big a jump in 2020 as Harris. In fact, he was not just one of the Patriots’ breakout stars last season but actually one of the most effective running backs in football: of players with more than 100 rushing attempts, only Offensive Player of the Year Derrick Henry averaged more yards per run. Harris will be the number one member of New England’s running back rotation again in 2021.
WR N’Keal Harry: The Patriots’ first-round selection in 2019, Harry missed considerable playing time as a rookie due to injury and did not fare much better in this regard as a sophomore. He showed promise and saw considerable action as a top-two receiver, but after a concussion suffered midway through the season was unable to keep up his early-season momentum.
LB Terez Hall: Hall spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad, but was promoted to the active roster midway through the 2020 season. The youngster had his moments as an early-down run defender and appeared in a total of eight games, but all in all was no difference maker for the Patriots. Still, his season can be seen as an individual success.
FB Jakob Johnson: Few players in recent memory have made as massive a leap since entering the league as Johnson. A former International Pathway Player, he already saw some action as a rookie in 2019 before taking over as New England’s fullback in Year 2. Johnson was not perfect, but he was still a valuable member of the team’s running game and special teams operations.
WR Jakobi Meyers: Meyers surprised in 2019, and also made the team’s roster again as a sophomore. The former rookie free agent played a marginal role early on during the season, but after injuries suffered by N’Keal Harry and Julian Edelman established himself as New England’s number one wide receiver. He finished as the Patriots’ leader in receptions (59) and receiving yards (729) and was one of their few consistent offensive weapons.
WR Gunner Olszewski: While Olszewski’s contributions as a wide receiver are nothing to write home about so far in his career, he has established himself as the best punt returner in football. He earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2020 after averaging 17.3 yards per runback — up from 9.0 yards the previous season. Olszewski’s development needs to continue especially on offense, but he appears to be headed in a promising direction.
CB D’Angelo Ross: After spending his entire rookie campaign on injured reserve, Ross was a member of New England’s practice squad for the first 16 weeks of the 2020 regular season. He was elevated to the game-day squad for the season finale but was declared inactive as a healthy scratch. Still Year 2 went better for him than Year 1.
QB Jarrett Stidham: Stidham served as Tom Brady’s backup in 2019 and appeared to be the frontrunner to take over as New England’s starting quarterback after his departure. However, the arrival of Cam Newton and a training camp hip injury halted his development and eventually led to him spending 2020 as a backup as well. He did see more in-game action but his numbers were anything but encouraging.
CB Joejuan Williams: The Patriots’ second-round selection in 2019, Williams did carve out a regular role in the kicking game in 2020 but essentially remained a non-factor at his listed position of cornerback. He did go from 80 to 171 defensive snaps in his second season, but has yet to live up to his draft status.
LB Chase Winovich: Serving as the top outside linebacker opposite veteran John Simon, Winovich finished the 2020 season as New England’s most disruptive pass rusher — successfully building on a promising rookie season. That said, he saw some inconsistent playing time and it appears that the team views him more as a rotation player rather than an every-down option.
All in all, the Patriots’ 2019 rookie class had its fair share of ups and downs in 2020. Damien Harris and Jakobi Meyers made some big jumps; N’Keal Harry continued to struggle with injuries; Yodny Cajuste and D’Angelo Ross still had no real impact on the team. In total, however, the group has sown some much-needed promise.
Just look at it from this perspective: Whereas the 2018 rookie class was able to get only 5 of 16 players through their second year, the 2019 version stands at 13-of-16. Sure, overall roster composition and a challenging salary cap position in 2020 — and thus an increased reliance on cheaper talent — contributed to this development, but the players themselves have also done their part.
Some, such as Harris, Meyers or Bailey, project as long-term contributors. The jury is still out when it comes to others, with the two highest draft picks (Harry, Williams) as a particular problem child of sorts. All in all, however, the Patriots can feel good about where their 2019 rookie class stands coming out of the 2020 season and heading into Year 3.