With training camp and preseason underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 80 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series concludes with defensive tackle Byron Cowart.
Name: Byron Cowart
Position: Defensive tackle/Defensive end
Jersey number: 99
Opening day age: 25
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 limited considering that he joined the league as a fifth-round draft selection by the Patriots just two years ago. But while he has so far appeared in only 19 games as a professional, his résumé is more impressive than his limited playing time suggests. Not only did his role grow significantly between his first and season season in New England, 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 2020 season look like? Cowart’s rookie season with the Patriots was an unspectacular one that saw him appear in only five games and play 44 combined snaps between defense and special teams. And while the circumstances were less than ideal due to Covid-19, the second-year man was able to expand his value to the team: Cowart finished the 2020 season having appeared in 14 games, and having established himself a valuable member of New England’s defensive front seven.
All in all, he was on the field for 419 of a possible 1,017 defensive snaps (41.2%) during his second NFL campaign. While he did miss one game on the the league’s newly created Coronavirus reserve list and another because of a back injury, Cowart still ended the year as the number four interior defensive lineman in terms of playing time: only Deatrich Wise Jr. (565 snaps), Lawrence Guy (503) and Adam Butler (481) were featured more prominently than the former fifth-rounder who was moved all over the line.
The Patriots primarily employed him at either the 1- or 3-technique spots in 2020, but he also saw some time at other alignments — from the 0-technique all the way to the edge. However, Cowart was uneven when being asked to play outside of his comfort zone (e.g. as a nose tackle) and appeared to be most comfortable filling an end role in New England’s 3-4-based fronts. The second-year defender was therefore unable to help the Patriots turn their defensive fortunes around, despite some solid performances along the way.
Overall, Cowart finished the season with 24 tackles in the running game and 3 versus the pass. He also registered 8 quarterback disruptions in the form of 1 sack, 2 hits and 5 hurries. Cowart furthermore did not miss a single tackle the entire year. On the whole, however, his sophomore season was marked by inconsistent play. While that had to be expected to a certain degree given the challenges of the 2020 season and his Covid-19 diagnosis, the fact remains that his second-year jump was not as prominent as it could have been.
What is his projected role? As was the case during Cowart’s first two seasons in the league, the Patriots are set at the top of their interior defensive line depth chart. He is therefore projected to once again serve in rotational capacity as either a tackle of 3-4 end, who aligns primarily between the 1- and 4-technique spots. While this usage will allow him to see some looks against the pass as well, it seems more likely that he again will be used as a package-specific interior run defender on earlier downs.
What is his special teams value? Cowart was a non-factor in the game’s third phase as a rookie, but he was featured comparatively prominently in the kicking game in 2020. Spending time on both the punt return and field goal/extra point blocking units, he was on the field for 66 of a possible 399 special teams snaps (16.5%). Heading into Year 3, the Patriots will likely not use him in a bigger role even if his defensive playing time should decrease compared to last season’s.
Does he have positional versatility? While Cowart best projects as an interior defender between the alignments mentioned above, he has some experience playing in other spots as well. One-fourth of his snaps last season, for example, came as a nose tackle; 17 game on the edge. His success was limited in those alignments, but New England’s coaches still gave him opportunities in this roles — a potential sign of things to come.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third season of the rookie contract he signed in 2019, Cowart is a comparatively cheap player. His salary cap number of $925,149 has him ranked just inside the Patriots’ top-51, meaning that he is currently counting versus the cap and will naturally continue do so if he makes the 53-man roster. The deal itself consists of a $850,000 salary as well as his fully-guaranteed $75,149 signing bonus proration.
What is his roster outlook? Despite his prominent role in 2020, Cowart faces an uncertain future in the Patriots’ system. After all, he remains on the physically unable to perform list and appears to be a prime candidate to see his status change from “active” to “reserve” ahead of the roster cutdown deadline. As a result, he would miss at least the first six games of the season. Given New England’s depth along the interior defensive line, however, Cowart would not be guaranteed any regular playing time even if he were to return off PUP at one point this season.