The Patriots supposedly selected 10 players in last April’s NFL Draft.
I say supposedly because the rookie class has been missing in action all season.
First-round pick N’Keal Harry, the second receiver taken off the board, has played just 113 snaps all season — and only two in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs (Harry missed the first eight games with a foot injury).
Joejuan Williams, the rangy, 6-foot-3-inch cornerback drafted in the second round, has played just 33 snaps all season.
Running back Damien Harris, the third-round pick who plays the position that most easily translates from college football to the NFL, has played five whole snaps this year.
And on it goes down the list. The Patriots’ draft class is warming the bench, playing in just 2.3 percent of the team’s offensive and defensive snaps. The only team that has played its rookies less is the Cowboys, and they didn’t have a first-round pick.
Of the 10 picks, only third-round pick Chase Winovich (252 snaps, 29.8 percent) and fifth-round punter Jake Bailey are seeing the field regularly. The rookie who has played the most for the Patriots wasn’t drafted — receiver Jakobi Meyers, who has played 394 of 960 possible snaps (32.8 percent).
Coach Bill Belichick defended his use, or lack thereof, of the rookies on Wednesday.
“We’re 10-3. Wouldn’t say we have a terrible team,” Belichick said. “A lot of other good players out there, a lot of good players that have been very productive, and we’ve won 10 games.”
OK, but it’s not like the Patriots couldn’t use the help, especially on offense. The Patriots are desperate to find a reliable receiver to pair with Julian Edelman. And the run game has been horrid — their 3.5-yard average ranks 29th in the league, and starting running back Sony Michel ranks 43rd out of 46 qualifying backs with a 3.46 average. Michel was so bad against the Chiefs that after rushing five times for 8 yards in the first half, he didn’t get a single carry in the second half.
Isn’t it time to see what Harry and Harris, especially, can do?
Harry, Williams, and Harris are not alone in their inactivity. Third-round offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste was drafted with a known injury and has sat out the season as expected. Fourth-round guard Hjalte Froholdt hit injured reserve at the end of training camp, and seventh-round defensive back Ken Webster didn’t make the team, which is common.
Fourth-round quarterback Jarrett Stidham has only played 15 snaps, which is to be expected when you’re backing up Tom Brady. And fifth-round defensive tackle Byron Cowart has only played 46 snaps.
A trio of undrafted rookies have made an impact, though only Meyers is currently not on injured reserve. Receiver Gunner Olszewski played 79 snaps on offense and was a reliable punt returner until hitting IR in Week 9. And fullback Jakob Johnson got his chance when James Develin went down earlier this season, playing 72 snaps in four games before getting hurt.
But this draft class continues a troubling trend for the Patriots, who have whiffed a lot in the draft the last few years. Harry has just five catches for 40 yards and a touchdown after missing the first half of the season. Harris has four carries for 12 yards, all in mop-up time against the Jets in Week 7.
Last year’s first-round picks were Michel, who has not performed like an elite running back, and left tackle Isaiah Wynn, whose three sacks allowed (in just five games) are second-most on the Patriots (Marshall Newhouse allowed 5.5). The Browns took running back Nick Chubb four picks after Michel in 2018, and Chubb currently leads the NFL in rushing (1,281 yards on 5.06 yards per carry).
Before Wynn and Harry, the Patriots’ previous two first-round picks were defensive tackles Malcom Brown (2015) and Dominique Easley (2014), neither of whom amounted to much. The Patriots’ history of recent second-round picks is gruesome: CB Duke Dawson (2018), CB Cyrus Jones (2016), and S Jordan Richards (2015).
The third round has not been much better. DE Derek Rivers and OT Tony Garcia (2017), G Joe Thuney, QB Jacoby Brissett, and DT Vincent Valentine (2016), and DE Geneo Grissom (2015).
To be fair, the Patriots have found a few late-round gems of late: LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (fifth round 2018), DE Deatrich Wise (fourth round, 2017), LB Elandon Roberts and C Ted Karras (sixth round, 2016), and DE Trey Flowers and G Shaq Mason (fourth round, 2015).
But the Patriots’ draft classes are not blossoming, particularly on offense. The team hasn’t developed a reliable receiver to complement Edelman. And they haven’t used a real draft pick on a tight end since Rob Gronkowski in 2010 (Lee Smith, 2011 fifth round; A.J. Derby, 2015 sixth round; Ryan Izzo, 2018 seventh round).
It’s possible that Belichick is red-shirting Harris, like he sat Shane Vereen and James White for most of their rookie seasons. Of course, those two played the pass-catching role, which is much more complicated. Harris is a between-the-tackles runner who should be able to play right away, as Michel and Stevan Ridley did as rookies.
Does Belichick believe that rookies need a year to acclimate to the NFL and get stronger?
“I never said that,” he said.
Then is it fair to say that the rookies haven’t earned playing time?
“I didn’t say that, either,” Belichick said.
Then perhaps it is just stubbornness on Belichick’s part in refusing to play Harry and Harris. More likely, they haven’t earned anyone’s trust yet, and the coaches don’t feel comfortable putting them on the field.
It’s understandable that Williams hasn’t seen the field much. The Patriots’ secondary is loaded with talented veterans — Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, and J.C. Jackson. It’s also understandable that Cowart hasn’t received much playing time, as Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, and Lawrence Guy are all playing well this season.
But Harry and Harris? Come on. It’s time to see what they can do.