Earlier this week, the Patriots placed rookie tight end Dalton Keene on injured reserve with a knee injury.
Last week, the team placed another rookie tight end – Devin Asiasi – on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury. Asiasi, who missed the Bills game for personal reasons, was not on the injury report at all leading up to Buffalo.
The two third-round picks combined to play 105 offensive snaps in 2020 and have one catch between them – an 8-yard catch by Keene in the Patriots’ 33-6 loss to the 49ers.
Injuries are injuries and a player can’t be faulted for getting hurt. Also, 2020 is 2020 and a rookie or the Patriots can’t be judged to have “failed” if a young player isn’t ready to hit the field and contribute yet.
But injuries and slow development have plagued so many of the Patriots draft choices in recent seasons, the time to ask Bill Belichick about it directly has been long overdue.
So gingerly, tenderly – with qualifiers noting that it hasn’t been all bad with the draftees and there have been plenty of undrafted hits – I asked Belichick Friday morning about it.
Why has the team had a harder time getting consistent production and development from the players they’ve drafted over the last four years?
“Any time you bring a player on to your team, you put him into a role or situation that you think fits him,” Belichick said after a very long pause. “Sometimes you have to modify that a little bit as you get to know the player. Then you work with him to try to develop that. He competes with other players at whatever position it is, or whatever role it is.
“Ultimately you choose, or we choose, I choose the best player out of that competition,” Belichick explained. “So that’s really the process. I don’t know how else to answer the question. Obviously, each player is different, each player competes with different players, positions are different. So I don’t know if there’s a general answer to that.”
Too often since 2017 – and even before – players the Patriots have drafted aren’t winning their competitions.
Their development is slowed by injury (first-rounder Sony Michel, third-rounders Yodny Cajuste, Derek Rivers and Antonio Garcia, fourth-rounder Malcolm Mitchell).
They are blocked out by better players (2019 second-rounder Joejuan Williams). Or they just are deemed not good enough to help the team (second-rounders Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, Duke Dawson).
With many others, Belichick’s private deliberations continue as to whether they can earn their way onto the field, which leaves people watching the team mystified as to what the hell is going on.
Meanwhile, a player like 2019 third-rounder Chase Winovich – who was one of the Patriots' best defenders in the first month of the season – spent the second month yo-yo’ing in and out of his role.
The Patriots' first three selections this year – safety Kyle Dugger and linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings – have played 117, 16 and 113 defensive snaps respectively through the first half of the season. The reasoning with those three would likely be that they’re not ready.
That was part of the thinking behind the team putting first-round pick N’Keal Harry on IR in 2019 after sustaining a high-ankle sprain in early August. Yet when Harry finally did hit the field in Week 11, he still appeared overwhelmed. Harry’s production has been completely eclipsed by undrafted Jakobi Meyers.
Meyers is one of a handful of late or undrafted success stories the Patriots have had in recent years. J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Trey Flowers, Jake Bailey and Deatrich Wise are all players who were either undrafted or taken in the fourth round or later who carved big roles and are important players.
But given the amount of time, money and manpower poured into the draft, the Patriots’ returns on drafted players – especially from the first three rounds where you’d logically think better players reside – have been light.
It hasn’t always been that way, of course. From 2008 through 2012, the Patriots cleaned up on game-changers. And the championship teams in ’01, ’03 and ’04 were backboned by draft picks like Tom Brady, Matt Light, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and others along with several picks from the Bill Parcells regime.
Belichick pointed that out, saying, “The most important thing to me this week is winning games. I’m not going to apologize for our record over the last 20 years. I’ve seen a lot worse.
“Ultimately we try to put the best team on the field that we can to be competitive, and I don’t really see that changing,” he added. “So whoever those players are, or aren’t, that’s the responsibility I feel to the team. It’s that competition plays itself out and better players play, whoever they are.”
One would have to be a staggering moron to believe flagging production from drafted players in the past few seasons diminishes the Patriots' six Lombardis or nine Super Bowl appearances.
Nobody is coming for Bill’s legacy. And, while it may be human nature, Belichick defending himself by bringing up his résumé a handful of times since the end of last season (“I wouldn’t say it’s been all that thin around here, personally. Maybe you feel differently, but I haven’t heard too many fans say that.") is … unexpected. Especially given the number of times he’s been asked about past accomplishments and dismisses the idea that what happened in another time is relevant.
Nobody wants an apology. And the number of stories or media hits I’ve personally done that could be boiled down to, “Thanks, Bill!” has to number in the thousands. It’s been a great run.
How’s the next one going to be commenced if the drafting is not real good? That’s the question. How does Belichick plan to stop the graying of the roster? How many of the 2020 opt-outs return? What will the Patriots do with the cap space they’ve squirreled away for 2021? What is the concrete plan for finding a quarterback since the answer hasn’t been drafted?
Those aren’t discussions that you can have on a Friday morning Webex video conference. And Belichick shouldn’t be the only one fielding those questions since VP of Player Personnel Nick Caserio is the man Belichick says is pulling the personnel levers.
You know and I know that open and healthy discussion’s not coming any time soon. There’s a game Sunday.
And the Patriots tight end corps is down to one. Ryan Izzo. A seventh-round pick in 2018. They got work to do.