By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Entering a season as unpredictable as any other, predicting what we’ll see from the Patriots rookie class feels like shooting darts blindfolded in a hurricane. Still, the team will have nine first-year players on the roster to start the season, a number of who seem to be penciled in to key roles.
After three years of less than ideal performance out of their rookies, the Patriots bring a strong group into 2020, and will need multiple members of this class to show up and make a difference right from the season-opening kickoff. Who will be the biggest difference makers? Let’s take a look:
-Drafted 2nd round, 37th overall
Dugger’s versatility is undeniably one of his best traits, but also makes him one of the hardest rookies to project this year. The Patriots need to replace two key safeties in Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, while also compensating for a young and limited linebacking corps.
Dugger has the skill set fit in either role, the one vacated by Chung (a box safety) or Harmon (a deep/center field safety). There will likely be more snaps available in Harmon’s old role, given the other backup safeties in Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks are more box players. However, Dugger projects to play at a higher level as a box safety himself.
What will help Dugger get on the field in his preferred position may actually be the Patriots lack of linebacker depth. We’ve seen Bill Belichick use three or even four safety sets with some regularity in the past, and this year’s roster indicates that will be the case again in 2020. With Devin McCourty in his role as deep safety and (likely) Adrian Phillips in the Chung role, Belichick will be free to move Dugger around the defense.
Of course, this is all contingent on Dugger continuing what has been a seemingly quick adjustment to the speed of the NFL game. If he does, and the Patriots properly reward him with playing time, he could be one of the more productive defensive rookies in the AFC.
-Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall
Another rookie with outstanding versatility, Uche will likely start the season competing with fellow Michigan man Chase Winovich for the edge rusher spot opposite John Simon. However, the second-round pick has also shown an ability to play in the middle of the formation, where the Patriots are severely lacking after losing Elandon Roberts to free agency and Dont’a Hightower to an opt out.
Essentially, the Patriots can bounce Uche back and forth between the WILL and MIKE spots until they figure out where he can be more productive, something that likely would have happened in the preseason in a regular year.
If Uche does spend most of his time coming off the edge, he’ll be in a spot to succeed as teams will likely focus more on John Simon and Lawrence Guy. It’s more likely the team moves him to the middle in second/third and medium situations where the run is possible but he can also cover anybody out of the backfield.
-Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall
Jennings, like Uche, will start the season competing for pass rush snaps. He’s a good candidate to play hand-down on the line when a guy like Uche is moved off the ball.
Given what he brings to the table in terms of his football IQ and processing power, as well as an 80-inch wingspan, look for Jennings to be a matchup-based player to start his Patriots career. He’s an ideal defender against teams like the Baltimore Ravens, where quick decisions need to be made on the edge.
Last year’s team leader at Alabama in deflected passes, he can also wreak havoc against shorter quarterbacks, batting down balls at the line of scrimmage. Keeping that in mind, look for him to be on the field more in games against the Seahawks, Cardinals, and if Tua gets the start the second time around, the Miami Dolphins.
-Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall
Given the uncertainty around the Patriots’ wide receivers, Asiasi should be seen as the ‘breakout’ candidate of this group if he holds onto the starting tight end job. All of the Patriots pass catchers are starting from square one with Cam Newton, so if Asiasi can build rapport with him quickly, which looked to be the case in camp, there’s so reason to think the targets won’t add up.
If all goes well and he stays healthy, 50 catches and multiple touchdowns doesn’t feel like a stretch for the UCLA product. Last year, the Patriots tried hard to find a tight end who could capitalize on Julian Edelman clearing the middle of the field for a secondary route. Nobody emerged then, but Asiasi’s skill set makes him an ideal candidate.
The question with Asiasi is if he can give the Patriots enough as a blocker to be a three-down tight end. He wasn’t bad by any means in college, but working under the expectation that the Patriots will be more run-heavy this year, blocking will be as important for the tight ends as catching passes.
-Drafted 3rd round, 101st overall
It’s hard to predict exactly what Dalton Keene’s rookie year will look like, because nobody knows where he is going to play. An H-Back role has been heavily speculated, but the Patriots haven’t really had a role like that in their offense as long as Josh McDaniels has been the offensive coordinator.
The closest the team has had is of course Aaron Hernandez, who did overlap with McDaniels for one year in 2012. On a ‘per-game’ basis, it was the least productive of Hernandez’ three seasons in New England, although he was dealing with injuries at the time.
Still, what we do know is Keene will give the Patriots more opportunities to get creative in between the tackles both in the running and passing game. That’s been a trend among some of the most successful teams in the NFL (Ravens, Texans, 49ers) and now the Patriots are in position to join them.
-Drafted 6th round, 182nd overall
The Patriots have two of the best guards in the league in Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, so it will be a steep climb for Onwenu to get playing time in 2020. But with Thuney on a one-year deal, it’s not unrealistic to think the Patriots are starting to consider their options for 2021. Practice reps and any game time is essentially one long audition for the Michigan product this year.
-Drafted 6th round, 195th overall
Herron will have a good shot to compete for the swing tackle spot as the season begins, which is crucial given Isaiah Wynn’s struggles to stay on the field through two seasons. He may also be able to kick inside to guard, and as a four-spot offensive lineman become a key long-term piece of the Patriots offensive line plans.
-Drafted 6th round, 204th overall
Maluia was one of the more standout rookies during camp this year, and will have a chance to carry that over to the regular season. The Wyoming product has a two key things going for him entering 2020. He’s a four-down player, and is expected to carve out a regular special teams role almost immediately. On top of that, the Patriots depth at linebacker, especially off-the-ball linebacker, could lead to him getting meaningful defensive snaps at some point.
Don’t expect Taylor to play a ton his rookie year. The Patriots almost never put first-year running backs on the field, namely due to ball security issues, which just happens to be Taylor’s biggest red flag. In all likelihood, he’ll be sent back down to the practice squad once Damien Harris is healthy.
If he does get on the field, it will probably be in pass-catching situations as an option to spell James White. When Taylor gets in the open field he can be dangerously shifty. But don’t let his 5-foot-6 frame fool you, he’ll bowl a guy over if he gets momentum behind him.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.