Knee Jerk Reaction to Patriots Busy Day Two
|The explosive Dugger headlines a defense heavy Day Two haul. Butch Dill/AP|
Agressiveness was a theme of the night for the Bill Belichick. The Patriots have notoriously been pickier than most teams in terms of their board, seeking out specific players who not only fit specific roles on the field but also into the demanding, work-driven culture of the organization. Tonight, the Patriots clearly felt strongly about landing "their guys", trading up not once, not twice, but three times over the course of the night to ensure they landed a player.
Doing so might have made a tacit statement that they felt there was a major drop off in talent after the third round. The Patriots also entered yesterday with two fourth round picks (125, 139) and acquired a third fourth (129) in their first trade of the night. By the end of the night, they'd cleaned out all of their fourth round picks, spending two of them in their last trade up of the night. Their fifth round pick actually did move up 13 spots through this action, but Day 3 will be 52 picks deep by the time they are on the clock again. With only one pick (159) left before the sixth round, its probably safe to say that the Patriots have likely done the majority of their damage in this years draft.
It was interesting to see the Patriots have such an uncharacteristic need driven approach to this draft, as they devoted four of their five picks to the two biggest immediate needs (tight end and outside linebacker) on the roster. It's indicative of the bed they've made themselves, as they were unable to keep their own free agents at linebacker and struck out on the tight end market and went into the draft with few proven players at either position. The Patriots have traditionally made sure to fill every need position with at least stop gap level veteran depth, freeing themselves to draft without pressure to plug glaring holes on the roster and deviate from the board for need. With the team taking on a big chunk of "the bill" for years of win-now cap management this year, they were capped out and unable to do so effectively this year. As a result, we saw a very simple needs based approach from Belichick, who has usually confounded Pats fans on draft day by defying conventional thought and ignoring fan perceived needs.
So, how did they do? Here's a pick by pick recap of how the night fell for New England.
Pick 37: Kyle Dugger, Safety, Lenoir-Rhyne
Yes, he's a defensive back taken in the second round. Yes, he's a small school underdog who played his college ball at Division II. Yes, all of that is extremely on brand Belichick. No, you shouldn't be pissed about this pick, even though I know you want to be.
Why am I confident that this isn't a repeat of Tavon Wilson or (shudders) Jordan Richards? Let's start with the athleticism. Dugger will be one of the league's most explosive athletes at his position the second he touches the field. According to MockDraftable, Dugger's 42" vertical and 134" broad jump put him in the 97th percentile of NFL players at his position. He brings that explosion from a unique body type, 6'1" and a rocked up 217 pounds (84th percentile), all with borderline offensive tackle length (32 7/8", 89th percentile). Guys with that combination of size, length and explosion are rare, with former first rounders Eric Berry, Eric Reid, Derwin James, Keanu Neal and Terrell Edmunds coming up amongst his measurable comps.
Unsurprisingly, Dugger was absolutely dominant at the DII level, making his tape hard to truly judge due to the shocking difference between him and his competition athletically. However, Dugger showed out well at the Senior Bowl, proving to scouts that his eye popping athleticism would translate against better competition and pushing his stock into the second round.
On the field, Dugger projects to a role similar to the one currently held by Patrick Chung. His athleticism and length makes him uniquely suited for man coverage against tight ends and his size and physicality make him more than capable of handling himself in the box as a de facto linebacker. He's a bit raw both technically and as a mental processor, so he could benefit from waiting and learning behind Chung for a year or so. He'll likely see match up specific usage as a rookie (I can't help but thinking the existence of Lamar Jackson influenced this pick somewhat) while immediately plugging in as a core special teams contributor (six career punt return touchdowns). He's also comes highly regarded as a grinder with tremendous work ethic, toughness and overall football character, making him an excellent program fit.
Grade: B+ I couldn't justify going into the A range due to the amount of projection involved with transitioning from DII to the NFL. But I can't quibble with adding rare athletes on defense, especially when they project to fill an extremely important schematic role within the next few years. The upside is through the roof.
Trade: NE acquires 2.60 and 4.129, BAL acquires 3.71 and 3.98
Pick 60: Josh Uche, Linebacker, Michigan
Uche first caught my eye at the Senior Bowl and quickly became one of my top Patriots targets throughout the pre-draft process. The Patriots clearly agreed, using one of their compensatory third round picks to move up 11 spots to land him. Baltimore including a late fourth round pick allowed us to not drain our supply of picks, with that 98th pick essentially just moving back 31 spots in exchange for the move up.
That's more than a fair compromise to ensure landing arguably one of the best scheme fits in the entire draft class. Uche was undervalued throughout the pre draft process due to two factors: lack of playing time until his senior year (he was blocked by 2018 draftees Rashaan Gary and his new old teammate Chase Winovich) and a lack of consensus on his next level role. Uche was used mostly as an edge rusher with the Wolverines, but at 6'1", 241 lbs he's too small to hold up in a full time edge role.
Fortunately for Uche, the fluid athleticism in space that he displayed at the Senior Bowl makes you wonder why Michigan didn't try him at linebacker more often. He was rarely asked to drop into coverage in college but looked like a natural doing so at the Senior Bowl, showcasing excellent quickness and reactive athleticism by running easily with all the tight ends and running backs he encountered. He's another guy with freaky length (33 5/8", 90th percentile per MockDraftable), a tool which he'll learn to use in coverage as he gets more reps and experience.
Uche is a little light for full time edge duties now, but his length and explosiveness give him a chance to develop into that kind of role as he gets a little bigger and stronger. He's also understandably raw as a mental processor on the second level, having spent the vast majority of his college snaps on the edge. Thus, with John Simon and Winovich already in place, he could be more of a third down sub-package player as a rookie, factoring primarily in on rush packages. Long-term, he projects as an every down player capable of generating pressure from all over the place, dropping back into coverage, setting the edge or chasing sideline to sideline from the weakside. Think of a smaller but possibly more agile version of Jamie Collins.
Don't underestimate the impact he could have from a third down rushing role right away. Uche has a lightning quick first step, elite closing speed and flexibility to bend and dip naturally around the edge that can't be taught. At Michigan, he often terrorized guards as a blitzer from the MIKE alignment, something New England has commonly done with Collins. He'll get even better as he develops a more diverse rush approach and gets stronger, but we haven't seen a player with his ability to threaten the edge with pure speed in quite a while in New England.
They were aggressive and went up to get a guy who's an excellent scheme fit and brings a bunch of super valuable skills to the table. This front seven was lacking dynamic pass rush ability, speed and coverage talent from the second level and Uche potentially brings all three. Between him and Dugger, they've added some considerable athleticism to the second level of the defense. Add in filling a dire need and I couldn't love the pick more.
Pick 87: Anfernee Jennings, Edge, Alabama
Another pick, another edge/outside linebacker hybrid who fits the Patriots 3-4 scheme. Jennings was a productive three year starter for Nick Saban's loaded Crimson Tide defenses, setting the edge and rushing the passer with bruising phsyicality. At 6'2" and 256 lbs, he's a big classic thumping Patriots outside linebacker.
While Uche and Jennings both technically play outside linebacker in the Patriots system, they do so with opposite styles that should compliment each other well. Uche being undersized makes him less of a candidate for edge setting duties on early downs. That role instead plays directly to Jennings' strengths, as his strength, length and well developed hand usage should make him a reliable physical presence on the strong side edge right away. Likewise, Jennings lacks the elite burst and athleticism of Uche, making him less dynamic as a pass rusher. He did make an impact as a rusher for the Tide, but did so using power, hand usage and a strong motor, not by beating tackles with quickness around the edge. He profiles as more of a powerful pocket pusher than dynamic edge threat, although he could turn into a Rob Ninkovich level 8ish sack a year guy if he fully hits his ceiling. Ninkovich is probably a decent comp as far as projecting a role as a tough edge setter and pass rusher who can occasionally drop into shallow zones.
That lack of elite speed and athleticism limits his versatility compared to Uche. You don't want him dropping into coverage, and you'd be completely misusing him playing him off the ball at the second level. This is a physical power player who should be asked almost exclusively to win brawls on the edge of the line of scrimmage. His upside is limited, but with extensive SEC experience in a comparable system playing for the college version of Belichick, this is about as safe a projection as it gets. He should reach his floor as a productive complimentary role player.
I like the player and the fit a lot, but I'll quibble a little about the value here. It's fair to wonder if they could have landed Jennings with a later pick (most projected him as a Day 3 prospect), freeing them up to pick another one of their guys here without needing to trade up. For example, if you take Devin Asiasi here, I suspect you could get Jennings at 100, getting the same two players while keeping the fourth rounder you gave up to move up for Asiasi. Perhaps they knew something we didn't about a team lurking to snag Jennings before they'd get another crack at him.
Trade: NE acquires 3.91, 5.159, OAK receives 3.100, 4.139, 5.172
Pick 91: Devin Asiasi, Tight End, UCLA
Tight end was immediately on my radar when they traded back up here, with my top target Adam Trautman still on the board. The Patriots did indeed go tight end here, but instead of Trautman went for the athletic Asiasi, who flashed intriguing potential in his one year as a starter at UCLA.
Despite his apparent talent, Asiasi bounced around before finally settling in this fall at UCLA. He played sparingly as a highly touted freshman at Michigan before transferring out to UCLA, sitting out the 2017 season as part of that process. Asasi flashed as a reserve in 2018, backing up 2019's Mr. Irrelevant Caleb Wilson, but busted through as a starter his junior season, recording 44 catches for 641 yards and 4 touchdowns. He surprised many by declaring for the draft early, but validated that decision by becoming just the second tight end to come off the board in a class widely considered weak at the position.
Regardless of how he got here, Asiasi has an intriguing skill set that suggests he could bring a lot of versatility to the Patriots offense. At 6'3" and 257, Asiasi has the size to play an in-line role. While not a mauler in the running game, he's big and strong enough to hold his own physically, with room for improvement with increased strength and coached up technique. However, his appeal comes more from the passing game, where he showed the speed to attack the seam and major YAC ability during his one season of playing time for the Bruins. He looks like a guy who can move around the formation to create athletic mismatches in the passing game.
Of course, any player with only one year of college starting experience will go through some growing pains, with Asiasi having some technique issues to tighten up both as a route runner and a blocker. He also needs to improve in contested catch situations, which were not a strength in college despite his size. However, guys with the size to handle in-line duties and the agility and speed to play a move role aren't all that common, and finding one in this year's maligned draft class is a win.
I initially was disappointed, as I wanted Trautman going into the night. Asiasi projects as probably the lesser blocker of the two, but provides arguably more upside as a pass catcher, which seems to have made him their priority. Addressing a need with a high upside player is definitely a positive, although there's definitely some projection in developing Asiasi into a starting caliber player. If he turns into a good starter at tight end, that's a slam dunk for this late in the draft.
Trade: NE receives 101, NYJ receives 4.125, 4.129, 2021 6th
Pick 101: Dalton Keene, Tight End, Virginia Tech
Ok, here's where things got interesting. With only a few picks remaining in the night, it looked like the night was over from a Patriots perspective, with two picks coming up in the fourth round to open day 3. Just when we didn't expect it, they moved right back up the board, packaging both those picks with a future sixth to move back up and make one more selection before the night ended. With Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm still on the board, the possibility of a quarterback pick had the potential to inject some serious spice into the Patriots draft haul.
That they used that pick on another tight end instead wasn't particularly surprising, given how weak the position was for them in 2019. That it was used on Keene, a player commonly mocked to the Patriots late into Day 3, was the surprise, as consensus higher ranked options like Trautman, Brycen Hopkins, Harrison Bryant and Albert Okwuegbunam were all still on the board.
The Patriots, as usual, don't care for the media's rankings, and it shouldn't surprise us to see them target a guy regardless of outside perception. Keene struggled for attention in the pre-draft process due to being criminally under utilized at Virginia Tech. He was never fed touches as a focal point of the offense, but consistently flashed playmaking ability whenever given opportunities throughout his Hokies career, while showcasing his versatility by lining up in line, in the slot, at fullback, at H back and just about everywhere else.
There's a lot of projection here due to a Hokies scheme that rarely tested Keene as a route runner, but Keene has potential as a move option in the passing game. He's got good reliable hands and tracking ability, but most importantly he's a plus athlete who was dynamite after the catch in college. As a blocker, he's not strong enough to really be much of a people mover on the edge in-line, but he's tenacious when asked to block in space against linebackers and safeties. His experience lining up in the backfield could help Josh McDaniels scheme him into some creative touches in space, and he could be a threat right away on crossing routes due to his speed.
As underdeveloped as Keene's route running is, he'll probably be a used sparingly on offense as a rookie. His athleticism does project him into major special teams usage immediately. He's also a great program fit who will likely become a fan favorite at some point because of the relentless energy, toughness and enthusiasm with which he clearly plays.
This is where you lost me a little, Bill. I don't mind the player, but I can't get down with value of selecting him this early, let alone trading three picks to move up and do it. There's a good chance he'd be still sitting on the board at 125 or 129. I didn't see the value of the trade up at all, but Keene could justify the pick and the trade up if he turns into a versatile passing game weapon. Again, that's far too murky of a projection for me to justify the trade up.