PATS REPORTER

Perry: What we'll be saying about Pats rookie class after 2020

PATS REPORTER

It's been a while since the Patriots have been able to kick back at the end of a season, analyze their roster, look at the previous year's draft class and say to themselves, "They're going to carry us wherever we go next."

Will that change with their 2020 draftees? 

In 2019, punter Jake Bailey and situational pass-rusher Chase Winovich were the best of a rookie bunch that included first-round receiver N'Keal Harry and second-round reserve defensive back Joejuan Williams. 

In 2018, the Patriots took a pair of Georgia Bulldogs in the first round, Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel. Wynn missed the year injured and Michel, though he was featured a great deal in the run to Super Bowl LIII, plays a position that pushes the pendulum of success only so far. 

The 2017 draft featured just four players, two of whom remain on the roster: Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. 

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When the Patriots rebooted their dynasty a decade into this millennium, they did so thanks in part to draft classes that were highlighted by multiple stars or several key contributors. In 2012, they grabbed both Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones in the first round. Home runs. The next year, trading out of the first round, they still snagged Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon. In 2011, they found a starting left tackle (Nate Solder), a starting right tackle (Marcus Cannon) and a pass-catching running back who turned in an MVP-caliber performance to help beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl (Shane Vereen). The year before that, they picked locks for the Hall of Fame (Rob Gronkowski) and Patriots Hall of Fame (Devin McCourty). 

 

Will the players selected in 2020 sniff any of those classes in terms of productivity and/or ring count? Impossible to say, but there are reasons for optimism. 

That may be due in part to the fact that in a shortened preseason there's still a certain amount of information on this year's 10 picks that is unknown; hope springs eternal until anyone sees that it shouldn't. There is also some very real -- apparent even in training camp practices -- physical talent that characterizes this collection of rookies. And when you pair physical talent with a plethora of on-the-field opportunities available after a free-agent exodus and a series of COVID-related opt-outs in Foxboro, the result could be a sprouting youth movement. 

Could.

"We won't really know for a bit on this group," one Patriots source texted after the draft. 

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There are "projections" involved here. A safety from Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne. An off-the-ball linebacker who played more on the end of the line of scrimmage for Nick Saban. A tight end who really didn't play a traditional tight end role at Virginia Tech. Another with what one AFC evaluator deemed "makeup" red flags that dropped him to the third round.

But what are we here to do if not project? On the eve of the 2020 season, here's an early look at what we'll be saying about the 2020 rookie class in New England come January.

'WHAT'S IN THE WATER AT LENOIR-RHYNE?'

Kyle Dugger can play. From what reporters were able to glean at Patriots training camp before the rookie second-rounder dealt with an undisclosed injury that limited him in practice, the freaky athlete out of Lenoir-Rhyne is a ball-hawking strong safety who has the physical skill set to thrive in man-to-man coverage.

Dugger may not have a huge role early in the season. His camp reps were reduced for a time. Veterans like Terrence Brooks and Adrian Phillips play the same position and will likely give the Patriots a better chance to function effectively early on the defensive side of the ball. 

But by the end of the year, Dugger will have helped to create multiple turnovers, and he will have made an impact as a return man. Whether or not Patrick Chung returns in 2021 -- he opted out this season due to COVID -- it'll be clear who the long-term solution will be in that critical jack-of-all-trades role in Bill Belichick's defense.

'REMEMBER WHEN THE PATRIOTS DRAFTED A KICKER?'

Two of the 10 picks the Patriots made back in the spring are no longer on the active roster. Seventh-round pick Dustin Woodard retired. Fifth-round kicker Justin Rohrwasser was waived but returned to join the practice squad.

That's not all that unusual for a fifth-round pick, of course. But when that fifth-round pick was a kicker? When that kicker was slated to replace the franchise's all-time leading scorer? When that kicker was the first at his position drafted, and when three other rookie kickers around the league won the gig for their respective clubs? That's less than ideal.

 

Rohrwasser reportedly dealt with an injury early in camp, but he continued to kick after about a week off, and he was consistently erratic. Nick Folk, a veteran add to the practice squad, looks like the best option for the Patriots at that spot for Week 1 and moving forward. Unless Rohrwasser turns it around in practices moving forward, he may end up being quickly forgotten.

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'THE PATRIOTS DID IT AGAIN AT LINEBACKER'

Belichick has a habit of turning cast-off pieces and turning them into productive linebackers. 

He did it with Kyle Van Noy and twice with Jamie Collins (once when drafting him and once after Collins flamed out in Cleveland). Rob Ninkovich clawed for a grip on a regular role in New Orleans and Miami until landing with the Patriots in 2009 and becoming one of their most consistent defenders. Ja'Whaun Bentley was a starter as a fifth-round rookie in 2018. Elandon Roberts was taken in the sixth round in 2016, became a captain in New England and was just named captain in Miami. Akeem Ayers, Gary Guyton and Tully Banta-Cain were usable players there. Mike Vrabel's arrival in 2001 transformed his career and the Patriots defense. 

Now that Belichick has sunk real investments into that position -- selecting Josh Uche in the second round and Anfernee Jennings in the third -- the expectation is positive results. Given their respective backgrounds as off-the-ball and end-of-the-line players, Belichick, outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo should be able to tap into their versatile traits to help make up for the losses of Dont'a Hightower (opt-out), Van Noy, Collins and Roberts. Even Maluia looks like he has the contact-loving playing style that'll translate to this system. 

It might not all pop immediately. Linebacker in this defense is a difficult job to take on mid-pandemic. But Jennings and Uche will combine with Bentley, Winovich and perhaps Rivers to keep the pipeline of promising linebackers in New England alive. Helped by one of the best secondaries in football, this unit will look competent far earlier than anticipated given all the turnover.

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'GIVE THE TIGHT ENDS MORE TIME'

Devin Asiasi moves well for a man of his size. At 6-foot-3, 257 pounds, he glides on crossing routes and makes it look easy when he reaches behind himself for a misplaced pass. But history is working against both Asiasi and fellow rookie tight end Dalton Keene when it comes to projecting first years that would qualify as statistical breakouts.

Over the past 17 seasons, per ESPN, only two rookie tight ends have had more than 600 yards receiving: Evan Engram of the Giants (2017) and John Carlson of the Seahawks (2008). Rob Gronkowski compiled 546 yards as a rookie in 2010 and didn't truly erupt until the following year.

 

Even sniffing that 500-to-600-yard total would certainly qualify as a strong season for Asiasi or Keene. But the reality is that the position is a difficult one to step into and produce immediately. There are myriad factors as to why. The breadth of the offense that has to be learned -- from running game blocking concepts to passing game adjustments -- can be overwhelming when combined with all the other elements a young player tries to absorb going from college to the NFL. Protections. Coverages. Blitzes. It's a tsunami of information for all rookies. And outside of those inhabiting quarterback rooms around the NFL, tight ends have to understand it all better than anyone.

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There is a path to production for both Asiasi and Keene. They are the best athletes that Belichick has at the position. And it looks like the Patriots are set up to take advantage of heavier personnel packages -- loading up on tight ends and backs -- that will then lead to play-action opportunities through the air. Both players should see playing time and targets. Cam Newton, meanwhile, has shown in the past that he's willing to target his tight ends, teaming up with Greg Olsen to form one of the most productive quarterback-to-tight-end duos in the league behind Tom Brady and Gronkowski over the last decade. 

The rookie pair in New England will show promise under Josh McDaniels. But there will be growing pains, too. It won't be until Year 2 that the team will truly know what they have in the two third-rounders they traded up to draft a few months ago.