I know all the In Bill We Trust types locally and the Gotta Wait Two Years people nationally won’t like it, but I’m a reactionary person by nature.
(Yes, some might say over-reactionary, like after that 2011 Patriots preseason beatdown of the Bucs in Tampa Bay when I wondered if Jerod Mayo might miss out on a Defensive Player of the Year Award because he’d have to split votes with teammate Andre Carter!)
If you’re the type of person who wants to wait until November until you begin to think about whether the post-Tom Brady Patriots are more likely to contend for a playoff spot or a high draft pick, then you should probably stop reading now.
Otherwise, carry on, and enjoy some immediate reactions to the three-day, stay-at-home funfest that was the 2020 NFL Draft.
1 -- It’s Jarrett Stidham’s QB job to lose! – The fact that the Patriots made 10 selections in the draft and did not take a single quarterback – be it the “premium” pick that NFL Network erroneously predicted or not – has to be seen as a good sign for Jarrett Stidham. If there was significant doubt about Stidham’s talent and future in Foxborough one would think another higher-tier prospect with upside would have been brought aboard. But New England traded out of the chance to take Jordan Love at No. 23 overall and skipped all the other options like Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm. Sure the team added a couple undrafted rookies, but those are little more than camp arms and future practice squad options.
2 -- In fact…Bill Belichick likes his QB room – While a strong argument can be made that the Patriots have the worst quarterback depth chart in the AFC East and maybe one of the bottom handful in the entire NFL, Bill Belichick made it clear in his post-Draft Webex with the local media – I didn’t even know what that was until less than a week ago! – that the lack of a pick at QB could certainly be taken as symbolic of the confidence he has in the guys he has on his team already. That’s Stidham and recently re-signed journeyman veteran backup Brian Hoyer. While some have posed the idea that Hoyer could be the starter to open the 2020 season, the hope here is that Belichick’s faith is just as strong or stronger in Stidham being ready for September after being with “Stid” for more than a year.
3 – Kyle Dugger’s name didn’t come out of nowhere – Where there is plenty of reason to question the selection of Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger with New England’s top pick, it’s not correct to say he’s a name out of nowhere or think he could have been had much later in the draft. Dugger played at the Senior Bowl. He was at the NFL Combine. Some mock drafts had him as a first-round selection. By almost all accounts, Dugger was going to get picked in either the first or second round.
4 – Dugger has the tools – While wondering if the 24-year-old safety can make the jump from Div. II football to NFL action is more than fair, he certainly has the tools and the measurables for the job. At 6-1, 217 pounds and having run a 4.49 40, Dugger is very much built like an NFL safety.
5 – Leaders in the safety room – When Belichick was on the phone welcoming Dugger to New England one of the first things he mentioned to his new safety were the guys he’ll have a chance to learn from in Foxborough – Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. While Belichick has said in the past that it’s not a player’s job to teach or guide younger player, it does sound like he’s going to expect his veteran safeties to help along their newest teammate, who’ll be preparing to replace one of them in the near future.
6 – Dugger on D in 2020? – While Dugger may contribute right away on special teams and as a punt returner, it’s really hard to imagine him have a significant role on defense right away as he makes the jump in competition from DII. Sure, he played well for a week at the Senior Bowl. But 17 weeks of NFL action against elite opponents is a different challenge. After not making at pick in the first round, it’s fair to argue that New England’s top pick in the draft may not be much help in 2020 thanks to his developmental nature and the veteran talent ahead of him on the depth chart. That might be hard for some to swallow for a team that many believe may already be in a rebuilding mode in the wake of Tom Brady’s departure in free agency. Even Belichick admitted Dugger will take time to develop. “We'll see how much time it takes. I'm sure it will take some time to make those adjustments. I'm confident he'll work hard and be able to handle the things we give him. In time he'll be able to do them. Exactly how long that takes or will take, I don't know.”
7 – Can we stop comparing Asiasi and Keene to Gronk and Hernandez! – Not really sure how or why, but when the Patriots drafted a pair of tight ends in the third round on Friday – UCLA’s Devin Asiasi at No. 91 and Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene at No. 101 – comparisons to New England selecting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the second and fourth rounds back in 2010 began circulating. Aside from the pure fact that the two pairs of tight ends did indeed go in the same draft, there is no comparison. Gronkowski and Hernandez were first-round talents who went later due to back and off-field issues, respectively. Asiasi and Keene are mediocre mid-round prospects in what was generally considered a pretty poor tight end class. Gronk and Hernandez were elite pass catchers. Asiasi had one productive year in college and Keene is probably closer to a fullback than he is a reliable receiver. A better if far less optimistic comparison for this year’s pair of tight ends? That would be when the tight end-needy, Belichick-led Patriots took Jabari Holloway (Notre Dame) and Arther Love (South Carolina State) in the fourth and sixth rounds in 2001.
8 – No wide receivers! – While it’s mildly surprising, it’s strangely not overly bothersome to me that Belichick didn’t take a single wide receiver in a supposedly historic draft class. Certainly there is need at the position, but there may also be more optimism regarding the depth chart within the walls of Gillette Stadium than there is elsewhere. Julian Edelman is back as the top option, even as he tries to defy Father Time in Tom Brady-fashion at the slot position. N’Keal Harry is, indeed, a first-round talent. Mohamed Sanu is supposed to be a reliable veteran option. And there is a lot to like about second-year former undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers. The team also added Damiere Byrd and Marqise Lee in veteran free agency. Assuming that all those options bring their upside, the wide receiver position isn’t quite as bad as we all tend to make it out to be. Of course, what are the chances all the questions at wide receiver turn out for the positive?
9 – Lining up the experience – New England may have lost the ability to lean on the experienced coaching of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but it certainly added plenty of collegiate playing experience by drafting Michigan guard Michael Onwenu, Wake Forest tackle-turned-guard Justin Herron and Memphis interior lineman Dustin Woodard. The trio combined to start 138 of 151 college games. Herron set a school record with 51 starts in 51 games. Woodard tied a school record with 52 starts in a record 54 games played. Sure they’re late-round picks, but they bring some size, versatility and certainly experience to the competition on the interior of the New England offensive line.
10 – Nike is a star – Belichick’s dog, Nike, was one of the instant stars from draft weekend. His seat at the Nantucket draft table spread like wildfire across social media. He was also the topic of Belichick’s line of the year. It’s early, but for a guy who isn’t exactly prone to spewing non-stop one liners, Belichick’s post-draft quote about Nike’s speed might even be among his best ever. “He's fast. Not as fast as the rabbits he's chasing, but he's close,” Belichick said. That line is up there with Belichick saying of Janet Jackson’s controversial Super Bowl halftime show wardrobe malfunction that he was kept “abreast” of the situation.
11 – A second kick at a first impression? – It was likely a dream come true when Marshall kicker Justin Rohrwasser got the call from the Patriots in the fifth round, the first specialist drafted. He is, of course, expected to replace franchise legend Stephen Gostkowski who himself was a fifth-round pick when he replaced future Pro Football Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri. Rohrwasser is in a pretty enviable if pressure-filled spot. But the immediate spotlight was less than flattering. The kicker’s tattoos – including one controversial one with ties to a right-wing, anti-government group – were an immediate point of discussion (contention?) with some. And Rohrwasser’s first three words as a Patriot in his conference call with the media weren’t exactly the stuff of humble legend – “I’m very talented.” He is, of course, so he probably doesn’t need to tell everyone that. Here’s hoping his next shot at the media – something he’ll have to deal with a lot in his new job, at times in a stressful setting – goes a little bit better.
12 – You know what they say about guys with big legs? – They are attached to big bodies and they can make for good kickers. At least that’s what Belichick is banking on. The coach brought up Rohrwasser’s “big leg” in his post-draft comments and also noted the young kicker’s experience in poor conditions, which should help him in his new home at Gillette Stadium.
13 – Come for the Logan Wilson stay for the Cassh – It happens all the time in the college recruiting process and at times in pre-draft research as well. Scouts/coaches/recruiters go to a school focused on one player and come away with interest in another. Plenty of pre-draft reports and speculation linked the Patriots to Wyoming tackle-machine linebacker Logan Wilson, who ended up as a third-round pick with the Bengals. At some point, the Patriots took a liking to Wilson’s teammate, Cassh Maluia, who New England snagged in the sixth round at No. 204 overall. The route to finding a draft pick is a circuitous one and sometimes one can be found where you aren’t even looking.
14 – Two LBs leave, two come in – The simplest rule in the book for zone coverage is “something goes out, something comes in.” It seems the same is true on the outside linebacker depth chart this spring for the Patriots. The team lost key versatile veteran playmakers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in free agency. So what did it do on Draft weekend but draft a couple guys to take their spots in Michigan pass rusher Josh Uche (second round) and Alabama edge-setter Anfernee Jennings (third round). Based on their college work it would seem the pair could be a platooning combo with Uche more likely to contribute as a pass rusher and Jennings more ready for the run game, although both could certainly develop their weaker skills to warrant more significant playing time down the road.
15 – Despite injury, Jennings never doubted – As a three-year starter for Alabama’s Nick Saban-led defense, Jennings would seem an automatic NFL prospect. But, his pro future was very much in doubt after a severe left knee injury in January 2018 in the college football playoff – one that reportedly required surgery to repair his PCL, nerve damage and a blot clot. He returned to the starting lineup the following fall and started 27 of 28 games over his final two post-injury seasons with the Tide. “I just knew that it would take a lot of hard work,” Jennings said of the road back from the injury, “a lot of battling back and working hard, just believing in myself and doing what I had to do with everything that the coaches asked me to do, the trainers and everybody around me. I knew I could be back and even better. I'm here and I'm glad to be a part of the Patriots organization and thankful.”
16 – Uche’s time to play – Uche is an intriguing athlete on the edge with proven ability as a pass rusher. But he was, at best, a part-time player at Michigan. He didn’t start until his final season for the Wolverines and even then was barely more than a 50-percent playtime guy. The Patriots use lots of looks and personnel on defense. A guy doesn’t have to be an every-down player to have a major impact. But after taking a DII safety who’ll probably need time to develop with its top pick, New England took a pass rusher who’s been a part-time player most of his career with its second selection. It wouldn’t be stunning if neither made a huge impact on the defense in 2020 but it would be somewhat disappointing.
17 – Sleeping with the teammates – It’s always good when a rookie class has a strong bond and players get along well. While it takes time for such things to come together, some of New England’s draft picks are well on their way. Asiasi actually shared a room with Keene in Indy at February’s NFL Combine. Asiasi also roomed with Uche early in their time together at Michigan. So Keene and Asiasi have good early relationship. Asiasi has a past friendship with Uche. Uche and Onwenu were college teammates, who also have a bond with current Patriot Chase Winovich. Sounds like the rookie class’s bonding and acclimation into the locker room is already well under way even if they aren’t allowed to see each other or actually enter the Gillette Stadium locker room in these days of the coronavirus shutting down NFL facilities and so much of the world.
18 – Virtual happiness – Is it me or did everyone – players, media, coaches, GMs and fans – seem to really embrace the virtual nature of the 2020 NFL Draft? While it removed the live-audience and festival-like party the NFL has put forth in the past and had to cancel in Las Vegas due to the coronavirus, it more than made up for that in other ways. Belichick raved about the work his IT department – most notably Dan Famosi – did to pull it all together. The NFL is already planning a return to a normal draft setup next spring, but it an argument can be made this this year’s draft, born out of necessity was more enjoyable for almost everyone involved. And by the way, someone should do a ranking of all the homes of the 64 head coaches and NFL GMs we saw via the draft. I know Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury got a lot of attention, as did Jerry Jones’ $250 million yacht, but there is something to be said for Mike Zimmer’s wall of, um, trophies. Not sure what it said, but it said something.
19 – Playoff loss a Senior Bowl win! – Certainly no one in New England was happy that the Patriots had to play on Wild Card Weekend and the ensuing loss to the Titans was a massive disappointment. But, it was also an opportunity that we all saw pay dividends this past weekend. Because the Patriots had an early playoff exit they started the pre-draft process early. So Belichick and a chunk of his staff were in Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl, an opportunity they don’t often get while preparing for AFC title games and going on annual Super Bowl runs. This year, though, they got to see guys like Dugger, Uche, Jennings and Herron prove themselves against other top prospects. That was very significant for Dugger, but overall probably played a big role in the process for Belichick & Co. As they say, one playoff door closes, one Senior Bowl door opens. Not that Belichick wants to exit the playoffs early every year, but it might just have been a positive to jumpstart a rebuild with the 2020 Draft.