Hundreds of professional prospects hustled through the hallways of the Indianapolis Convention Center a year ago, making multiple stops to be poked, prodded, and peppered with questions before performing on-field at the annual NFL Scouting Combine.
It’s a most unusual string of jam-packed days, and it gives these young men their first taste of what life in the league is like. It was supposed to be the first of many first steps for the rookies, followed by orientation, rookie camp, minicamp, organized team activities, and training camp.
Instead, it was the only “normal” step the Class of 2020 took, as the majority of the first-season preparations were virtual until training camp, which was truncated, all because of the pandemic
Judging any player after one year is unfair, and that’s particularly true for this group, which didn’t get its first taste of true game action until the regular season because the exhibition slate was canceled.
With that in mind, here is a snapshot review of New England’s 2020 rookie class.
▪ Kyle Dugger (second round): The safety arrived with a reputation as a big hitter who could support the run and cover tight ends. His responsibilities and understanding of the defense expanded consistently, and he’ll be a key cog for the foreseeable future.
Season highlight: His open-field tackle of tight end Travis Kelce in Kansas City showed his instincts, closing speed, and wrap-up ability.
▪ Josh Uche (second round): The Patriots love second-level defenders who can morph into different roles from play to play, and this rookie linebacker flashed at times while overcoming some injuries. He’ll likely see a huge sophomore bump.
Season highlight: Loved his takedown of a scrambling Josh Allen in Buffalo. Initially appeared to drop into coverage before making a beeline to the quarterback once he abandoned the pocket.
▪ Anfernee Jennings (third round): See Uche, above. The former Alabama linebacker is going to be another piece the club can move around seamlessly. He can play on and off the ball and has tremendous instincts. The thought of Uche and Jennings playing with and learning from Dont’a Hightower should excite Patriots fans.
Season highlight: His six-tackle performance against the 49ers showed his versatility; he has some Jamie Collins-like qualities.
▪ Devin Asiasi (third round): Very disappointing pass-catching season for the UCLA tight end, who never built a rapport with Cam Newton and couldn’t carve out a consistent role. Was a willing in-line blocker, however.
Season highlight: It took until Week 17, but Asiasi found the end zone against the Jets on a 26-yard pass from Newton. It’s something to build on.
▪ Dalton Keene (third round): See Asiasi, above. Bill Belichick said it would take time for Keene to adjust to the pro game, so there’s reason for optimism. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the tight end is used in more multiple roles in 2021, including H-back and fullback.
Season highlight: Most of his work came in the trenches as a blocker, though he did have two catches over the final three games. Again, something to build on.
▪ Justin Rohrwasser (fifth round): The kicker never found his footing after a miserable training camp and spent the season on the practice squad. He’ll get another chance to compete this summer.
▪ Mike Onwenu (sixth round): One of the best value picks of the entire draft, regardless of position, he played multiple spots, including tackle, guard, and jumbo tight end. Belichick said the club will examine whether Onwenu’s future is at guard or tackle, but his versatility — he played nearly 92 percent of the snaps — is invaluable.
Season highlight: In Week 8, Onwenu pulled around from the right tackle spot and obliterated a pair of hard-charging Bills linebackers on a Damien Harris sweep.
▪ Justin Herron (sixth round): Another great value pick, Herron played right tackle, left tackle, and jumbo tight end as a rookie. He provides great insurance and could be the starter at right tackle should Marcus Cannon decide not to return.
Season highlight: Best example of his skill set (quickness, power, and light feet) came in Week 16 when he bolted to the second level and bully-drove Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to Wrentham to open a huge hole for J.J. Taylor.
▪ Cassh Maluia (sixth round): Linebacker split his season between the 53-man roster and the practice squad, and his contributions came in the kicking game. Could be a core special teamer for years to come.
▪ Dustin Woodard (seventh round): Offensive lineman retired before the season after losing his passion for the game.
▪ J.J. Taylor (undrafted): Climbed a deep running back depth chart to earn a spot and contributed on offense and special teams. Will continue to grow in this offense (especially as a receiver) and provides insurance if free agents James White and Rex Burkhead don’t return.
Season highlight: His toss sweep against the Raiders displayed his quickness, patience, vision, and ability to finish a play with a pop. Runs tougher than a 5-foot-6-inch, 185-pound man should.
▪ Myles Bryant (undrafted): Came in as a corner but quickly showed in camp that he could handle safety responsibilities as well. He’s smart and instinctive.
Season highlight: His Houdini-like interception against the Rams in Week 14. While swooping in to tackle Robert Woods (who had appeared to make the catch), Bryant ripped the ball out of the receiver’s hands for the takeaway.
▪ Isaiah Zuber (undrafted): Receiver displayed excellent speed and toughness during his four games on the active roster. The practice squad regular is poised for a second-year leap.
Season highlight: He flashed nice quickness on a 13-yard jet sweep against the Raiders. Zuber had four touches (two rushes and two catches) on the year, and three resulted in first downs.
▪ Rashod Berry (undrafted): Was listed as a TE/DE but worked exclusively with the defense and showed steady progress as a practice squad player. Was elevated to the active roster for three games, finishing with one tackle.
▪ Kristian Wilkerson (undrafted): Receiver spent the summer with the Titans before being signed to the practice squad. Had a two-snap cameo against the Jets in Week 9, and he’ll compete for a roster spot in camp.