2016 NFL Draft: Joe Thuney the last man standing from Patriots 2016 class

2016 NFL Draft: Joe Thuney the last man standing from Patriots 2016 class

The Patriots had Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Damien Woody and Tom Brady in 2001. They had Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Matthew Slater in 2010. 

Under Bill Belichick, as the Patriots went from version 0.0 to 1.0 to 2.0, there was a young core in place that served as their pulse. As they went, the team went. Championships followed. 

The outlook for version 3.0 is hazy. The young core is thin and rife with question marks after the Patriots went about maximizing Brady's last few seasons in New England. Who makes up the core now? How many core pieces are there?

We're examining each of the Patriots' past four drafts to see how they got here, on the brink of a new era for the longest-running dynasty in modern NFL history, with an uncertain road ahead.

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We'll start in 2016, a year in which the Patriots did not have a first-round pick as a result of Deflategate. (They were also docked a fourth-rounder in the 2017 draft.) 

Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama (Round 2, Pick 60)

Jones was the definition of a Prototypical Patriot. He was a versatile defensive back who'd played in Nick Saban's defense. He'd be a perfect fit in Belichick's secondary, where roles could change from game to game, series to series and snap to snap. He had a ridiculous three-cone time. He was also touted as the top punt-returner in that year's class.

Fumbles and confidence issues plagued him as a rookie, though. He never became a regular part of the Patriots defense. In the preseason finale the following season, he tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve. He's bounced around the league — including a brief return to New England — since then, last landing on the Broncos injured reserve list in the fall. He is one of several second-round defensive backs (Jordan Richards, Ras-I Dowling, Terrence Wheatley, Duke Dawson) who have provided little in the way of a return for the Patriots defense.

Who they could’ve had: Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Maryland (Round 2, Pick 69)

Joe Thuney, G, North Carolina State (Round 3, Pick 78)

Home-run pick. Thuney was a stellar athlete as a lineman, and he played all along the Wolfpack offensive line during his career there. He was whip-smart. There should've been no doubt in anyone's mind this would be the pick when it came up. He'd end up the long-term replacement for Logan Mankins and, like Mankins, embodied toughness along Dante Scarnecchia's offensive line.

Thuney was a Day 1 starter and hasn't missed a game in his career. He's signed his franchise tag tender for 2020 and remains a candidate to be extended to a) keep him around for years to come and b) knock down his almost $15 million cap hit. In a rare statement after tagging Thuney, the Patriots said they hoped to use the tag as a way to buy themselves time to work out an extension, adding that Thuney "has been a model teammate and an essential element to our success."

Who they could’ve had: Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford (Round 3, Pick 81)

Jacoby Brissett, QB, North Carolina State (Round 3, Pick 91)

Brissett had every box on the list of intangibles checked off when he came off the board in 2016. Leader of men. Someone who drove to road games when he had to sit out the year at N.C. State due to transfer rules. (His college career began at Florida and NCAA rules prohibited him from traveling with the team during his year away from the field.) He showed promise as a rookie, having enough of a clue to help the Patriots win a game during Brady's suspension.

But going into his second training camp, his throws were scattershot. He'd hardly improved, it seemed, and he wasn't getting any reps behind Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo. He was dealt to the Colts in exchange for Phillip Dorsett. Brissett now appears to be a long-term, competent backup — a role he'll serve in Indy this year behind Philip Rivers.

Who they could’ve had: Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State (Round 4, Pick 135)

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Vincent Valentine, DL, Nebraska (Round 3, Pick 96)

We continue now our trudge through names who no longer find themselves on the Patriots roster. Valentine was a classic big-bodied defensive tackle at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds. He just wasn't particularly effective, and he was rarely used behind Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. He played just over 300 snaps as a rookie, spent 2017 on injured reserve, and was gone by the start of 2018.

Who they could’ve had: D.J. Reader, DL, Clemson (Round 5, Pick 166)

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia (Round 4, Pick 112)

Mitchell walked away from the Patriots locker room and toward the direction of his team's Super Bowl party a Boston sports cult hero. He was the kid with the injury history who slipped in the draft, fell to New England, and turned himself into a dependable option for Brady in the wildest comeback in the history of the sport's championship game. It was his final game.

Knee injuries wouldn't allow him to continue the following year. He was waived in 2018. He's now retired. Super Bowl LI alone will make him one of New England's most beloved fourth-round picks of all time, and as the Patriots look to deepen their receiver corps, it's hard not to wonder how drastically Mitchell might've altered the picture there had he been healthy.

Who they could’ve had: Robby Anderson, WR, Temple (Undrafted)

Kamu Grugier-Hill, LB, Eastern Illinois (Round 6, Pick 208)

Grugier-Hill was a far cry from the massive humans the Patriots typically like to draft at linebacker. "Built like a safety, plays like a linebacker." He was drafted as a potential special teams standout, but he couldn't crack the roster with Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King, Jordan Richards, Barkevious Mingo, Jonathan Freeny and 2016 undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones holding down spots. Grugier-Hill was claimed by the Eagles and became the special teams stalwart he was expected to be. Coming off an injury that landed him on IR late last season, he signed a one-year deal to work with some familiar faces down in Miami.

Who they could’ve had: Cory Littleton, LB, Washington (Undrafted)

Elandon Roberts, LB, Houston (Round 6, Pick 214)

As an undersized run-first linebacker and special teams contributor, it's remarkable Roberts has had as much staying power as he has. Four years with the Patriots, and now he's on to Miami to reunite with Brian Flores on a new contract. He'll never be mistaken as one of Belichick's most important defenders, but he started 25 games combined in 2017 and 2018, and the coaching staff relied on him to bring a measure of toughness to the second level of the Patriots defense.

Roberts was named a captain last season, and though he was not a defensive staple, he took on the role of fullback when the team's top two options at that position hit IR. He didn't want the role, but he accepted it, and he'll now forever be able to tell his family he caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady

Who they could’ve had: Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple (Round 7, Pick 246)

Ted Karras, OL, Illinois (Round 6, Pick 221)

After Thuney, there's not a player on this list who had a more sizable season-long impact than the one Karras had in 2019. To get that kind of dependability out of a backup offensive lineman in the sixth round is legitimate value. Could Karras execute everything the Patriots might normally execute with David Andrews in the lineup? No. But he helped hold things together well enough for Tom Brady to survive the season and win 12 games in the process. Starting every game at center, Karras allowed just 14 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Like Roberts and Grugier-Hill, he signed a contract to become a member of the Dolphins this offseason. 

Who they could’ve had: Matt Skura, OL, Duke (Undrafted)

Devin Lucien, WR, Arizona State (Round 7, Pick 225)

A last-round dice-roll on a player from a program Belichick respects (he has a good relationship with former ASU coach Todd Graham), with good athleticism (4.49-second 40-yard dash), Lucien wasn't expected to make the roster when he was drafted. He spent his first season as a pro on the practice squad, then bounced around to five different teams before returning to New England briefly. In the last two seasons, he's spent time with the AAF's Arizona Hotshots and Memphis Express. He's currently rostered by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL. 

Who they could’ve had: Geronimo Allison, WR, Illinois (Undrafted)


Belichick dealt Chandler Jones to Arizona for the No. 61 pick and guard Jonathan Cooper before the draft, then sent that pick to New Orleans for No. 78 and No. 112. Those became Thuney and Mitchell. ... Patriots sent a fourth-rounder to Chicago for Martellus Bennett and a sixth-rounder prior to the draft...They sent a fifth to Houston for receiver Keshawn Martin and a sixth...A sixth was traded to Chicago for Jon Bostic.

The Patriots have one player remaining from the draft class on their roster for 2020: Thuney. Their undrafted class that season included corner Jonathan Jones and running back D.J. Foster. Jones and Thuney are among the top players on the team — along with center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason, both rookies in 2015 — under 28 years old.

Were Patriots ever really close to a Larry Fitzgerald trade with Cardinals?

Were Patriots ever really close to a Larry Fitzgerald trade with Cardinals?

Editor’s note: In the coming weeks our Patriots insiders will be speaking with beat writers from around the NFL to get an outside view on what the future holds for the Patriots. Today’s team: The Arizona Cardinals with Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic.

Larry Fitzgerald and the New England Patriots have always seemed like a match made in heaven.

Unfortunately for Pats fans, that pairing has never come to fruition despite annual speculation about a potential trade with the Arizona Cardinals. The rumors eventually got so out of control that social media used an image of a Fitzgerald lookalike at a Hertz Car Rental and convinced half the Internet it was Fitzgerald showing up at Boston Logan International Airport.

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As prevalent (and hilarious) as that meme is, was the 11-time Pro Bowler ever really close to coming to New England? Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic answered that question in the latest edition of Patriots Opposing Views with Phil Perry.

"I think we're going to hear the story once Larry retires or once Bill Belichick retires. I don't know that we'll hear it now," Somers told Perry. "I think maybe at one time there was something there. I don't know about close, but there was something there.

"Fitzgerald has loved Bill Belichick for a long time. They have a relationship. They have met privately before to talk about football, and the Patriots are one of the teams Fitzgerald studies weekly what they do offensively and their passing game. I don't think it happened as much of the rumors. I really miss those annual calls though from Patriots writers trying to see if there was anything to this. My phone doesn't ring like it used to."

It certainly sounds like there was at least some conversation about bringing Fitzgerald to the Patriots, but we may never know for sure. Hopefully we can get an official answer from the Cardinals legend and/or Belichick when they decide to call it a career.

Fitzgerald is ready to return for his age-37 season, and we can expect yet another productive year out of the future Hall of Famer. In 2019, he tallied 75 catches for 804 yards and four touchdowns.

The Patriots definitely could use a guy like that.

The Stidham Plan: Patriots can aid young QB by getting creative with athletic fullback options

The Stidham Plan: Patriots can aid young QB by getting creative with athletic fullback options

Bill Belichick readily admitted that his offense would have to change with Tom Brady out of the picture.

"Over the last two decades," Belichick said back in April, "everything we did, every single decision we made in terms of major planning, was made with the idea of how to make things best for Tom Brady . . . Whoever the quarterback is, we'll try to make things work smoothly and efficiently for that player and take advantage of his strengths and skills." 

For now, let's assume the quarterback in 2020 will be Jarrett Stidham. How can Belichick and Josh McDaniels make him comfortable? How can they accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses?

We won't know for sure until the Patriots take the field. But emphasizing looks that have taken the league by storm of late, looks that have simplified things for good-but-not-great quarterbacks, looks that Belichick's pal Mike Shanahan is credited with popularizing... That might make things interesting.

The first installment of our "Stidham Plan" series takes a look at how a couple of newly-added athletic fullback options might help make the second-year quarterback's life a little easier.

* * *

Kyle Juszczyk is a unicorn at the fullback position in today's NFL. 

The Swiss Army knife in Kyle Shanahan's offense played over 100 snaps more than any other fullback in 2019. He caught more passes (20) for more yards (239) and picked up more yards after contact (155) for the Niners than anyone else at that spot. The $5.25 million average annual value of his contract, signed in 2017, isn't gaudy but it's more than $2 million more per year than the next fullback contract. His $7 million guaranteed at signing was almost double that of the next best fullback deal.

Juszczyk is an outlier, a high-IQ hybrid whose multi-faceted impact on San Francisco's offense would be difficult for anyone to replicate.

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But that won't keep new Patriots fullback Danny Vitale from trying.

"He’s kind of the prime example of what a lot of teams are moving towards," Vitale said last week. "Obviously, every offense is different, but he’s been able to do a lot of great things since his career in Baltimore and now obviously all the way into San Fran. 

"He’s kind of the player that I like to model my game after in terms of the versatility aspect. Different teams have different schemes and need their fullbacks to fill different roles, so obviously that’s what your scouting departments are looking for is guys who can fill that role that they need. But, yeah, I think he’s a good guy to look up to."

Versatile as he hopes to be, can Vitale provide the same kind of return to the Patriots that Juszczyk has provided the Niners? Can he help prop up a passing game led by Jarrett Stidham in the same way Juszczyk has helped to boost Jimmy Garoppolo's effectiveness?

Vitale's one-year contract with New England includes $100,000 in guarantees, indicating he's not a lock to make the 2020 roster. But the Patriots also added a hybrid player with one of its two tight end additions in this year's draft when they selected Dalton Keene out of Virginia Tech at the end of the third round. At least one them — and maybe both — figures to add an athletic wrinkle to a position the Patriots have long valued. 


When James Develin aligned in the I-formation, neck roll jutting up from the back of his collar, he was power personified for the Patriots. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound bruiser helped the team rack up over 2,000 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in the 2018 regular season. Then in the playoffs that year he was on the field for each of New England's nine rushing touchdowns en route to a Lombardi Trophy.

After eight years with the Patriots, limited to two games in 2019 because of a neck injury, Develin retired this offseason.

"It’s definitely some pretty dang big shoes to fill," Vitale said of Develin. "James is a hell of a player. I’ve enjoyed watching him, really since I got into the league now. He was really a role model at the position, which as a fullback, a lot of people don’t typically notice how important that role can be. 

"I think it was pretty clear how important James was to this Patriot team over the last however many years. Definitely have some really big shoes to fill, but I’m really looking forward to that opportunity, as well as working with a lot of the other guys. It'll be fun."

Vitale, though, is a different type of fullback than what the Patriots have been accustomed to. He's about 15 pounds lighter than Develin, and tested similarly to Juszczyk as an athlete coming out of college.

Compared to other fullbacks invited to the combine over the years, Vitale was an elite performer in Indy in 2016. At 6-foot-1, 239 pounds he recorded a 4.60 40-yard dash (91st percentile), a 38.5-inch vertical (96th), a 123-inch broad (95th) and a 4.12-second short shuttle (91st). Juszczyk was listed at 6-foot-1, 235 coming out of college and recorded a 4.71 40, a 37-inch vertical, a 121-inch broad jump and a 4.19-second short shuttle at his pro day.

Keene, meanwhile, has the size to better replicate Develin's skill set. He measured in at 6-foot-4, 253 pounds before the draft and was often used as a lead blocker out of the backfield in Virginia Tech's offense. 

While Keene could be the team's next Develin, he looks like a more dynamic passing-game option. A determined and elusive runner with the ball in his hands for the Hokies, he averaged 9.7 yards after the catch per reception in his career. Keene also possesses impressive movement skills, having recorded a 125-inch broad jump (94th percentile for tight ends) and a 4.19 short shuttle (85th) at this year's combine, indicating he has some real receiving chops.

Neither Keene nor Vitale has yet had the opportunity to show what they can do to replace the toughness quotient Develin provided the Patriots. But if either earns a role, he'll add something Josh McDaniels hasn't really had at the fullback spot of late: explosive athleticism to handle more in the passing game.

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Juszczyk's raw receiving numbers aren't all that impressive. But part of the reason he allowed the Niners to be as efficient as they were in 2019 was because of his ability to help keep opponents guessing.

He could play the traditional lead fullback role. He could leak out of the backfield on play-action throws. He could align as an in-line tight end, in the slot, or as an H-back on the wing. He gave Garoppolo a matchup weapon when covered by linebackers. His mere presence in the huddle helped provide the Niners with more favorable looks against which to throw by encouraging opposing defensive coordinators, fearing smash-mouth run plays, to send bigger (and typically slower) defenders onto the field. 

Opponents had to make a choice when they saw Juszczyk on the field as part of Shanahan's attack: Match the fullback's 30 or so snaps per game by keeping a linebacker on the field and risk getting exposed in coverage, or respond with an extra defensive back to protect against the pass and get run over.

Not ideal. 

That lose-lose proposition and the defensive uncertainty that came with it allowed the Niners to be extremely effective in using play-action last season. They were second in the NFL with 10.8 yards per play-action attempt, which in turn helped make Garoppolo a top-10 passer according to certain statistical categories like yards per attempt (third), completion percentage (fourth) and quarterback rating (eighth). 

As a member of the Packers last season, Vitale had some of the same responsibilities Juszczyk did. In Green Bay, where Shanahan disciple Matt LaFleur runs the show offensively, Vitale aligned as a lead blocker in traditional I-formation packages. He led the way for running backs on wide-zone runs. He motioned into the slot to run routes, as he did at Northwestern. He motioned from the backfield into a wing position to get a better angle as a blocker.

He lined up as a wide receiver — as Develin often did — to serve as a man-zone indicator for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (If a linebacker went with Vitale to the boundary, the defense was likely playing man-to-man. If a corner stood across from Vitale, it was likely zone.) He served as the lone back next to Rodgers in shotgun situations, able to take a hand-off, run a route or pass-protect. Vitale also leaked out of the backfield on play-action passes, and his speed occasionally provided chunk-play opportunities.

Though Vitale (11 snaps per game) typically played much less than Juszczyk (33 snaps per game) last season, he had games where he might carry out half a dozen different roles in his limited playing time. Does that make an athletic fullback like Vitale (or Keene) the kind of piece who can help the Patriots shift toward an offensive attack like the one featured in San Francisco? 

Couldn't hurt. And given the results produced by Shanahan-influenced schemes in other places, it might be worth a shot.


The Niners style of offense and others born from it love their fullbacks.

Gary Kubiak worked under Kyle's dad Mike Shanahan in Denver in the 1990s and helped sow the seeds for the wide-zone run, bootleg play-action attacks now strewn across the league. His fingerprints are all over the offense in Minnesota, which used fullback C.J. Ham (354 snaps) almost as often as the Niners used Juszczyk (388) in the 2019 regular season.

After letting Vitale walk in free agency, the Packers used a third-round pick to draft an athletic hybrid fullback-tight end option in Cincinnati's Josiah Deguara.

The Rams almost never abandon their 11-personnel package (one back, one tight end, three wideouts) but under former Mike Shanahan pupil Sean McVay they had one of only 14 fullbacks to play at least 100 snaps last season: Derek Watt. 

Why the affinity for fullbacks? 

They help the running game, of course. They change the math for defenders wondering which gaps to play against the run. Their power, momentum and (usually) low center of gravity helps them clear space. And the fact that fullbacks are relatively scarce — the spread-happy college game isn't producing them — means there aren't many offenses that use them, which means there aren't many defenses that devote much in the way of time to defending them. 

But perhaps more importantly, for offenses that so heavily rely on successful running games and passing games that thrive off the deception that play-action creates, having someone who can make pass plays look like runs — someone who then can become a legitimate receiving threat himself — can open up a world of possibilities.

"Across the league, in general, teams average more yards per pass attempt and have a higher success rate when you're using heavier personnel out on the field," Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Stats told us earlier this offseason. "You're controlling the personnel that the defense has to play. Then you can take advantage of these guys when you have tight ends that are as good at catching the ball as they are now. When you have fullbacks that can catch the ball as well as they can now. It's a massive X-factor . . . 

"Far too often teams will use a fullback because it's a run play and he's a run-blocker. As long as you're using that fullback to sometimes catch the ball, to block in pass protection, to do a variety of things, it's very effective to have that guy out on the field. I think that more teams do need to incorporate them, as long as it's a dynamic enough player."

It might come as little surprise that some of the Shanahan-style teams have already figured that out. The two clubs that ran the highest percentage of two-back sets in the NFL last season? San Francisco and Minnesota. 

A whopping 39 percent of the Niners offense came with two backs on the field last year. Out of 21 personnel, they were deemed successful on 55 percent of their plays. Out of 22 personnel, they were successful on 52 percent of their plays. Compared to their 43 percent success rate out of 11 and 12 personnel packages, they experienced a significant up-tick in efficiency with two backs on the field. 

The Vikings, meanwhile, had two backs on the field for 32 percent of their plays. From those sets, their yards per pass attempt figure (8.7) was about a full yard higher than it was when they were in 11 personnel (7.6) or 12 personnel (7.8). In essence, when they replaced a pass-catcher at receiver or tight end in their huddle with a fullback . . . they became a better passing offense. Counter-intuitive maybe. But because of how it gets defenses to react, it works. 

It's no coincidence, either, that the play-action figures for fullback-friendly offenses in San Francisco and Minnesota were among the best in football. 

Garoppolo (second) and Kirk Cousins (fourth) were among the league leaders in yards per attempt out of play-action last season. No one threw more touchdown passes off play-action than Cousins (14), while Garoppolo was fifth in that category (9). Only Jared Goff (1,703), playing in a similar offense under McVay, threw for more play-action yards than Garoppolo (1,667), while Cousins was fourth in that category (1,373). Cousins (fifth) and Garoppolo (ninth) were both among the best in football when it came to completion percentage off play-action.

When you amass all of Cousins' and Garoppolo's attempts — play-action or no play-action — they racked up elite statistics. They were No. 4 (Cousins) and No. 8 (Garoppolo), respectively, in quarterback rating. They were No. 3 (Garoppolo) and No. 7 (Cousins) in yards per attempt. They were tied at No. 4 in completion percentage. But is either an elite quarterback? 

The numbers tell the story: That style of offense — the under-center, play-action-heavy, wide-zone-running, fullback-infused, bootleg attack — is widely considered to be extremely quarterback friendly. It simplifies reads. It buys quarterbacks time to find open windows. It buys receivers time to create open windows. For a young quarterback with some mobility, a quarterback like Stidham, it can do wonders.

Does that mean the Patriots should be all-in? Not necessarily. Later in this series, we'll dive into the challenges involved in a full-on commitment of that nature.

But if Belichick and McDaniels wanted to emphasize those types of looks as they find an offensive identity following Brady's departure, having athletic options at fullback to deploy all over formations and sell play-action could help them achieve that end.

Coming next week: Patriots rookie tight ends could make for endless opportunities

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