<
>

Patriots' NFL draft class of 2019 has chance to provide needed boost

play
Bills GM says Pats are still the team to beat. Does PTI agree? (2:34)

Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane says even with Tom Brady gone, the Patriots are still the team to beat, and Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon agree. (2:34)

Let's rewind to April 10, 2019. It's Bill Belichick's news conference before the NFL draft, and the New England Patriots' coach is wrapping up some lengthy opening remarks.

"I'll entertain anything relative to the 2019 draft. I'd just say, as a prelude to that, many of our 2018 draft choices had partial seasons or minimal in some cases. We're excited to see how those guys will do this year. Hopefully we'll be able to get a much longer look at [them]."

Belichick and the Patriots got their look, and it didn't necessarily unfold the way they hoped. One example: They later traded 2018 second-round draft choice Duke Dawson -- a cornerback they had traded up to select -- for a late-round pick.

Now it's April 10, 2020. One could take Belichick's same comment -- add one year -- and it still fits. And hopefully for Belichick and his staff, the results are a bit more fruitful than what unfolded last year.

The Patriots finished the 2019 season as the NFL's oldest roster, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, and also had more players 30 years or older (17) than any other club. They are in the midst of a shift toward more youth, and getting more production from the Class of '19 will be critical. Let's take a look at each player's 2019 performance and outlook for this season:

N'Keal Harry, wide receiver (first round, No. 32 overall): One of the worst things to happen to the Arizona State alum was injuring a hamstring during a joint practice with the Detroit Lions in early August and then returning to the field for a preseason game a few days later. Harry left the game with an injury after making two receptions, landed on injured reserve, and then had to integrate into the offense 10 games into the season upon his return. If he has good health in 2020, Harry's production should be better, especially if the rapport he built with quarterback Jarrett Stidham as training-camp roommates grows on the field.

Joejuan Williams, cornerback (second round, No. 45): The Vanderbilt product played 80 snaps on defense, mainly due to a stacked depth chart in front of him. That same group returns in 2020, so one way for Williams to work toward more playing time would be expanding his special-teams duties (84 snaps as a rookie). He also might have some flexibility to help out at safety.

Chase Winovich, outside linebacker (third round, No. 77): The Patriots' most productive 2019 draft choice on defense with 5.5 sacks, he was a package-specific player (29% of the snaps) with special-teams value (56% of the snaps) who is now primed to become a full-time starter. Winovich's ability to anchor and control the edge -- which is naturally different in the NFL compared to Michigan -- will be critical to show he is more than just a pass-rusher.

Damien Harris, running back (third round, No. 87): He played in two games after rushing for 876 yards and nine touchdowns, and catching 22 passes for 204 yards, in his final season at Alabama. Running backs coach Ivan Fears insisted Harris (5-foot-11, 213 pounds) did everything right behind the scenes, but was simply buried on a deep depth chart in a season when his position group was relatively healthy. Harris' lack of special-teams contributions factored into his minimal playing time. His power-running style, coupled with 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel, gives the Patriots a potentially nice one-two combination.

Yodny Cajuste, offensive tackle (third round, No. 101): It was a medical redshirt year for the West Virginia alum after he had quad surgery prior to the draft. Cajuste has been a regular presence at Gillette Stadium throughout, and in an ideal Patriots world he is a top-three tackle in 2020.

Hjalte Froholdt, guard (fourth round, No. 118): The Arkansas product landed on injured reserve (right shoulder) after going down in the 2019 preseason finale. This year, the Patriots lost top center/guard backup Ted Karras to the Dolphins in free agency, and Froholdt will be part of the competition to fill the void.

Jarrett Stidham, quarterback (fourth round, No. 133): He had the best preseason of any rookie quarterback in Belichick's 20 years as coach. Does that mean Stidham is ready to be QB1? We're about to find out.

Byron Cowart, defensive tackle (fifth round, No. 159): The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Maryland alum played in five games as a reserve and now has a chance to carve out a role as the No. 3 big-bodied defensive tackle alongside Lawrence Guy and free-agent signee Beau Allen.

Jake Bailey, punter (fifth round No. 163): He beat out veteran Ryan Allen for the job, following the path of specialists such as kicker Stephen Gostkowski (2006 fourth round), longtime captain Matthew Slater (2008 fifth round), Nate Ebner (2012 sixth round) and long-snapper Joe Cardona (2015 fifth round) whom the Patriots invested mid-to-late-round draft picks in to fill a specific need. Along those lines, the team is on the hunt for a kicker.

Jakobi Meyers, wide receiver (undrafted): The NC State alum was last year's preseason stud, having developed a nice connection with Stidham. He played in 15 regular-season games and totaled 26 receptions for 359 yards. Meyers is still growing into the position after switching from quarterback during his college career.

Gunner Olszewski, wide receiver/punt returner (undrafted): A true underdog story from Bemidji State, he played in eight games as a rookie, primarily as a punt returner, before landing on injured reserve. Olszewski's fearless playing style and quickness are assets in the punt-returner/slot-receiver competition.

Other undrafted considerations: Marshall safety Malik Gant (injured reserve), Missouri linebacker Terez Hall (practice squad), New Mexico cornerback D'Angelo Ross (injured reserve) and Houston defensive tackle Nick Thurman (practice squad).