Christian Sam

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

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 by trading away picks for established veterans. Who makes up the core now? How many core pieces are there?

We're examining each of the Patriots' last 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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In this edition we tackle the 2018 draft, when the Patriots had two first-round choices and got back to drafting in bulk after a meager (only four picks, none until the third round) 2017 class.

Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 23)

Good athlete. Smart. Came from an offense that wasn't a glorified seven-on-seven scheme. Wynn was an ideal Patriots offensive lineman, and he was physically gifted enough to earn a shot at the left tackle job despite being shorter and possessing shorter arms than the Patriots prototype.

He did get that shot, then tore his Achilles as a rookie. He came back to start his sophomore season on Tom Brady's blind side but got hurt again. A foot injury sapped half his season. All in all, he looks like he could be a staple up front for the Patriots. But he's played eight games in two years. 

Who they could’ve had: D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland (Round 1, Pick 24)

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 31)

The Patriots double-dipped on Bulldogs in the first round, taking a running back who was projected to be a do-it-all pro. He was a dynamic, slashing runner who broke arm tackles regularly for Kirby Smart's program. But as a pro, his value in the passing game has been almost nonexistent.

He now looks like a specialist who would qualify as a Patriots "big back," taking on the role once held by LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There's value in that. He helped carry the team to a long playoff run and Super Bowl win in 2018. He could grow into more of a receiver or pass-protector moving forward. He's still young. But knee injuries have taken him off the field at times and perhaps stunted his growth.

Who they could’ve had: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (Round 1, Pick 32)

Duke Dawson, CB, Florida (Round 2, Pick No. 56)

This pick was one of many that spawned from the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Made sense at the time. He was a slot-specific defensive back. Slot corners have value because slot receivers are among the most efficient in football. Didn't pan out. Clearly.

He injured his hamstring during a drill in his rookie training camp, and was placed on injured reserve to start that season. The Patriots designated him as one of their players to return off of IR, but he never played a snap that season. He was traded the following summer to the Broncos (along with a seventh-round pick) to get a sixth-rounder in return. 

Who they could’ve had: Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma (Round 3, Pick 86)

Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue (Round 5, Pick No. 143)

Bentley was viewed — as a 260-pound linebacker — by some linebacker-needy teams as not being worthy of a spot on their draft board. He was a dinosaur. Too big. Too slow. Not someone who'd thrive when speed and quickness is becoming more important for second-level defenders in coverage. The Patriots didn't care. They like their 'backers beefy.

Bentley actually ended up winning a key defensive role right off the bat. He started the season-opener and two of his first three games. An injury in Week 3 sapped the remainder of his season. Stuck behind a deep linebacker group in his second season, Bentley didn't have much of a chance to make an impact. But that might be coming for him in Year 3. After losing Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, they need capable bodies at the linebacker level. Given what he showed as a rookie, Bentley is certainly capable. 

Who they could’ve had: Michael Dickson, P, Texas (Round 5, Pick 149)

Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State (Round 6, Pick No. 178)  

Into Day 3 of the draft, the Patriots took their hacks at some potential special-teamers and reserve types. Sam falls into that category. A linebacker with good athleticism and toughness, he landed on injured reserve before the start of his rookie season. Sticking with the team for his Year 2 training camp, he was released and not re-signed to the practice squad. The Dolphins, run by former Patriots assistant Brian Flores, scooped him up for their practice squad first. He's since bounced around a bit to the Niners p-squad and the Lions p-squad. He's set to enter camp with Matt Patricia's Lions. 

Who they could’ve had: Gus Edwards, RB, Rutgers (Undrafted)

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Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (Round 6, Pick No. 210)

Berrios was a water bug-quick route runner with punt-return experience who was considered a leader for the Hurricanes during his tenure there. He was yet another rookie who ended up on IR for a team that was loaded with capable veteran contributors. It looked like 2019 might be his chance to work his way into a role, but he had an odd training camp. At times it looked like he was lost. At others he looked like he had an opportunity to fill the slot the Patriots wanted to address with Cole Beasley or Adam Humphries in free agency.

Then he was held out of preseason game No. 3. He was released at the end of camp. He seemed like an ideal candidate to try to sneak onto the practice squad. The Jets didn't let that happen. Despite limited preseason game reps, he was claimed off of waivers and added to their active roster. He ended up seeing offensive snaps in 11 games but caught just six passes on 10 targets for 115 yards. 

Who they could’ve had: Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State (Undrafted)

Danny Etling, QB, LSU (Round 7, Pick No. 219)

The Patriots explained after the draft that they liked Etling's performance at his pro day. He had a good arm. He was smart. He might not have been coached up all that well at LSU. His offense there might've been a little wonky. Maybe he was a diamond in the rough?

Not so.

While he was the consummate professional throughout his rookie camp, his highlight of the summer was an 86-yard touchdown run in the preseason finale. He spent that year on the practice squad and came back to Patriots camp the following summer as a receiver. He was waived before the end of camp and picked up by the Falcons. He spent most of the 2019 season on the Atlanta practice squad as a quarterback.

Who they could’ve had: Kyle Allen, QB, Houston (Undrafted)

Keion Crossen, CB, Western Carolina (Round 7, Pick No. 243)

The Patriots took a flier on an athlete from little-known Western Carolina, and by the end of the year, it looked like they'd hit. Crossen was a special-teams contributor throughout his rookie season — really all one could ask from a seventh-rounder — and he popped up in the AFC Championship Game that year with a key defensive role. For a period that day, he shadowed Chiefs burner Tyreek Hill with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

It looked like he could be molded into a defensive contributor with time. He didn't get that in New England, where the corner room was crowded. He was dealt to the Texans at the end of training camp in 2019 for a 2021 sixth-round pick.

Who they could’ve had: Levi Wallace, CB, Alabama (Undrafted)

Ryan Izzo, TE, Florida State (Round 7, Pick No. 250)

A Jersey kid who went to Florida State and became a key contributor in their pro style offense, Izzo made sense as a hard-nosed camp body. He'd compete with whoever was behind Rob Gronkowski. Make 'em work. He'd chip in on special teams, potentially. Still looked that way headed into 2019 after he missed his entire rookie season on IR (sensing a theme here?). We never assumed he'd be the defacto No. 1 tight end after Gronkowski retired. But he was at times. Matt LaCosse was injured. Other veteran acquisitions didn't work out.

Critical game snaps fell to Izzo for four weeks (Weeks 1, 3, 5, 6), who was serviceable as a receiver in spurts but looked overwhelmed in the running game. For 2020, he looks like a backup option to LaCosse and/or whatever tight end is drafted later this month. Izzo, A.J. Derby (2015) and Lee Smith (2011) are the three tight ends the Patriots drafted after taking Gronkowski in the second round in 2010.

Who they could’ve had: Poona Ford, DT, Texas (Undrafted)

CAMP BATTLE: Christian Sam vs. The Bubble

CAMP BATTLE: Christian Sam vs. The Bubble

Phil did his first roster projection of training camp over the weekend. ('Preciate ya, Phil!). When I got to the linebackers, I noticed Christian Sam wasn't on the final 53. Now, I trust my guy but I gotta be his extra set of eyes, too, his safety net.

So I texted, "No Christian Sam, right?"

The phrasing showed I didn't doubt him, just confirming. Important.

Phil said I got it right. No Christian Sam.

There were a few other eye-openers on the outside looking in with this projection (and it's a "projection" from now on, not a "prediction for the end of camp" . . .  stuff changes) among them, Brandon Bolden, Vincent Valentine, Geneo Grissom, Cole Crosston, Ryan Lewis, Eric Decker and Eddie Pleasant.

Personally, I think Phil should do a slide of the "Last Seven Out" but he probably thinks I should do my own slide show if I have such great ideas.

Anyway, back to Sam. The kid is a fifth-round linebacker from Arizona State who's landed with a team that needs linebackers. He's 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and, while he's not a freak in terms of timed speed (4.75 40-yard dash) he did come billed as a possible three-down linebacker with coverage skills. The Patriots need that. Badly. They don't do well covering at the linebacker level unless it's Patrick Chung on a tight end.

But despite that purported skill, Sam being close to the bubble shows just how competitive the linebacker position is going to be.

Which brings us now to the reason for this post -- highlighting the camp battle between Sam and The Bubble. As Phil sees it, Nicholas Grigsby, Marquis Flowers and Brandon King are core special teamers who have an inside track because of that. Rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley, who had an impressive night in the middle of the defense in the preseason opener, is also in a good spot. Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are locks. Elandon Roberts less so, but still on. If he's going to remain a Patriot, Sam is going to have to boot one of those core special teamers or Roberts. Or, if he gets cut, maybe he'll go unclaimed and be signed back to the practice squad. We'll be watching Sam closely this week to see if he's able to make some progress against the Eagles in game two of the preseason.

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Long Shot: There's a 'Will,' but is there a way for Sam?

Long Shot: There's a 'Will,' but is there a way for Sam?

Each day, following Patriots training camp practice, we'll highlight one intriguing "long shot" to make the roster. What might that player bring to the table for Bill Belichick's club? Who's he competing with for a spot? And what does he have to do to make the club? 

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady didn't make many throws on Tuesday, but one that stood out was a weird-looking incompletion to Rex Burkhead. It wasn't that Burkhead botched a catchable pass. It wasn't that Brady's throw sailed on him. The whole play was just slow...to...develop.

The reason? Burkhead was blanketed on the outside by rookie linebacker Christian Sam. 

Burkhead tried to run by him, then realized he couldn't, but by then it was too late. Brady wasn't sure if he should be launching it deep or throwing a dart to the sideline. All because Sam's coverage ruined the play. 

A former defensive back who bulked up at Arizona State and dropped down to the second level, Sam is an intriguing athlete for the Patriots -- both defensively and in the kicking game. 

He's listed at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, and in many defenses he'd be considered a "Mike" linebacker. Big enough to handle run-game responsibilities in the middle of the field. Good instincts. Physical. Not a next-generation, 225-pound hybrid at the position, of which there are more and more these days. 

For the Patriots, though, Sam is a little more of a "Will." That's how Nick Caserio described Sam after New England took him in the sixth round. 

Why? The Patriots haven't exactly gotten on board with the new-age way of looking at linebackers. They still like 'em big. That means that for them, someone like Ja'Whaun Bentley (255 pounds) is more of a "Mike," while Sam -- who is the better athlete of the two -- is more of a "Will."

Regardless of your designation inside the Patriots linebacker room, it may be a difficult position to crack. With defenses in sub for the majority of snaps, there may be only one or two linebackers on the field for large portions of games. And with Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy still entrenched, those two will rarely be out of the rotation unless there's an injury. 

Still, depth is important -- particularly because of the likelihood of injury at this position -- and getting contributions in the kicking game from this spot is important. That's what gives someone like Sam a chance. He'll compete with Bentley as well as Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Nicholas Grisgsby for work. 

Though historically the rate at which late-round linebackers become big-time contributors isn't great across the NFL -- check out the numbers from a 2015 SN Nation study here -- there's good news for Sam on a few different fronts. 

First and foremost, the Patriots aren't shy about loading up at linebacker even if that position is being replaced on some level by defensive-back heavy packages. If you contribute on "teams" as a linebacker, you'll have an opportunity. Last year, when the roster was cut to 53, eight 'backers made the club: Hightower, Van Noy, Roberts, Flowers, David Harris, Harvey Langi, Shea McClellin and Brandon King. 

Second, as a Patriots sixth-round pick, Sam has a non-zero chance to hit as a roster player. Their history in the sixth round is relatively impressive. From 2010-2017, the Patriots drafted 12 players in the sixth round. Nine are still in the league. Three are still with the Patriots: Roberts, Ted Karras and Nate Ebner. In the last decade, Bill Belichick has drafted 15 players in the sixth round and 11 made NFL rosters at some point.

So even though Sam is a Day 3 pick at a position that seems to be morphing to favor smaller and faster players, there's reason to believe he has a shot at landing on an NFL roster somewhere -- even if it's not in New England.