By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
For years, the Patriots have been one of the oldest teams in the NFL. Young players, rookies, tend to get buried under experienced talent, with the team focusing on winning in the here and now.
On Monday night, the Patriots’ youth had their chance to shine. Players from the team’s last three draft classes played major roles in the 26-10 loss to the Chiefs. While it wasn’t a pretty game by any means, it did give us a look into what the Patriots have going for them down the road, and where they may need to reassess.
Let’s start with the big one, Jarrett Stidham. The 2019 fourth-round pick saw the first extensive regular season field time of his career on Monday night, with mixed results.
There were some good throws, like the end zone fade to N’Keal Harry for the Patriots’ only touchdown of the day. However, there were also some struggles, like an under-thrown deep ball to Damiere Byrd late in the fourth quarter, which led to an interception to seal the game.
Although the window we got to see Stidham was limited (he came in late in the third quarter and threw just 13 passes), that in itself tells us something. Why did the Patriots wait so long to turn to Stidham when he was obviously struggling? They may not have felt comfortable putting him into a live game. There were instances where he didn’t seem to be on the same page as the rest of the team, although that’s not surprising. Given he missed time in camp due to an injury, and has been third on the depth chart, his reps – especially with the first team – have likely been limited.
Again, that is a lesson for the future. If Bill Belichick felt confident Stidham was the next guy, he likely would be more involved in the day-to-day process. While Monday night’s game didn’t rule him out from taking the reins whenever the job becomes available again, it told us he’s far from cemented in that spot either.
The true young star of the night was Damien Harris. Making his 2020 debut after a broken thumb late in camp sent him to IR, the Alabama product rushed for 100 yards on 17 carries. That included a 41-yard jaunt to end the third quarter. We saw smart, hard running all night from the 2019 third-round pick.
With Sony Michel on IR and Cam Newton out indefinitely, expect Harris to play a major role in the offense in the coming weeks. Monday night was an encouraging sign that he’s ready for it.
Harris was able to reach the century mark running behind an offensive line made up of two rookies, and four players with 11 or fewer NFL starts. Michael Onwenu replaced Shaq Mason, who was ruled out right before the game with a calf injury. It was just the second career start for the rookie, and first at right guard after playing left guard last week.
To his right was Justin Herron, who was inserted into the lineup late after Jermaine Eluemunor started experiencing migraines and couldn’t go. Both Herron and Onwenu were sixth-round picks in 2020.
Isaiah Wynn, who due to injuries and roster movement has become somewhat of an elder statesman on the offensive line, was starting just his 12th career game. The 23-year-old was limping at times, but seemed to make it through the game.
Behind that group, the Patriots ran for 5.3 yards per carry. It was only the 12th time the team had that high of an average with 35-plus carries in the Bill Belichick era. In pass protection, while they did allow two sacks, those were more so caused by Brian Hoyer holding the ball than a failure up front. Perhaps the most encouraging sign though was that despite their inexperience and lineup shuffling, they only committed one penalty during the game.
Last year, offensive line depth was a key issue for the Patriots. They addressed it in the draft in 2020, and now seem to be set for the foreseeable future. At least, that’s what it looked like against Kansas City.
With Julian Edelman taking a back seat role the game, the Patriots’ younger receivers were on display. N’Keal Harry made a couple of nice catches, notably the touchdown. He’s strung together a few good games now, and seems to be finding what works for him at the NFL level. While there are some contested catch situations where he could have looked more competitive, he continued to show Monday night that he can be a contributing factor at this level.
Another interesting player to watch was Isaiah Zuber. The UDFA speedster was activated from the practice squad for the second straight week. While we only got to see him carry the ball once (an eight yard jet sweep), he’s speed immediately jumps out, and the team clearly seems to have a role in mind for him. He has a lot of developing to do, but he looks to have the makings of a gadget weapon if he’s coached up.
On defense, Chase Winovich turned in another dominant performance. He recorded a sack for a third straight game (although it really shouldn’t have been) and seemed to be in the backfield all night against both the run and pass.
While some of the other players mentioned here are ‘encouraging’ and ‘showing potential,’ Wino is there. The 2019 third-round pick has been a problem for offenses to deal with so far this season, and is impacting games in the process.
His improvement against the run and overall understanding of the defense has turned The Milkman into a legitimate three-down weapon. In turn, that growth has allowed the Patriots to be more creative with what they do on defense, making the other players on the field better as well.
In the secondary, second-year hybrid defensive pack Joejuan Williams showed flashes of being the ‘tight end stopper’ the Patriots drafted in the second round in 2019. Travis Kelce entered Monday night averaging seven catches a game, but Williams held him to just three grabs on six targets.
Granted, when Williams did get beat it was for big plays – Kelce averaged 23 yards a catch. But Williams showed off his rare combination of size (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) and quickness that interested the Patriots in the first place.
Let’s not forget about special teams, and 2019 fifth-round pick Jake Bailey. All three of his kicks on the night pinned the Chiefs inside the 20, with an average of 52.3 yards per punt. In a closer game, that would be pivotal and get a lot more attention.
On the season, the Stanford product has placed seven of his 10 kicks inside the 20 yard line, the best ratio in the league. He’s also yet to record a touchback. His 46.7 net yards per punt ranks second in the NFL, behind Detroit’s Jack Fox. In a league that is seeing an influx of talent at the punter position, Bailey continues to stand out.
It’s not something casual fans will think about much, but having a strong punter on the roster can be a game changer, especially when paired with a dominant defense like the Patriots have. No Patriots punter has been brought back on a second contract since 1987. That should likely change when Bailey’s rookie deal expires in 2022.
The Patriots will still likely be carried by the likes of Cam Newton (when he returns), Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, etc. for the remainder of 2020. But once Newton and the ‘Dynasty 2.0’ core move on, all hope will not be lost. There’s a lot of talent in the pipeline for the Patriots going forward. For the first time in a long time, there’s a real ‘youth movement’ in New England.