The New England Patriots made two surprising picks with their first two choices in the 2019 NFL Draft. What these two picks show is the team evolving on offense and defense to a changing NFL.
The 2019 NFL Draft is over and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have come out of the draft with a number of players ready to contribute in 2019 and beyond. Armed with a surplus of picks, the Patriots moved up and down the draft board in their usual fashion under head coach Bill Belichick.
While the final analysis takes years to accurately rate a draft, no one has the time to wait for such analysis. This season especially, there was a seismic shift in the philosophies of head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick as evidenced by his first two draft picks. Belichick’s strength has always been adapting to changing trends and this draft shows he is again at that forefront of change.
So as the drafted rookies start heading to Foxboro to meet the coaches and get into the strength and conditioning with rookie camp around the corner (three days are allocated to all teams between May 3-13), let’s take a look at their top two draftees and determine what Bill Belichick and the front office was thinking as they made their pick.
Round 1: WR N’Keal Harry
Despite a need at wide receiver, the consensus was that since Bill Belichick did not use a first round draft pick on a wide receiver in the first round for the past 19 years, he never would. Surprise, surprise, he instead took advantage of a run on edge rushers and defensive tackles in the first round and had his choice of wide receivers with just one off the board when picking at number 32 overall.
New England is going into 2019 with two established wide receivers in Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett. Outside-the-numbers wide receivers Josh Gordon (indefinite suspension) and Demaryius Thomas (injury) are both question marks to start the season. Just the presence of Thomas and Gordon marks a change in the New England offense.
Gordon and Thomas are big, outside receivers who can win outside the numbers without separation. A typical New England offense is buzzing across the middle of the field with smaller, quicker targets getting separation. With tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, the Patriots needed to find a receiver who can overpower defenders and make a catch even when covered.
Enter N’Keal Harry.
Harry, despite being an outside wide receiver instead of a tight end, has the size, strength and tenacity to be the threat on the border to win contested passes. The days of playing Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson or a slot receiver outside and watching him be outmuscled or not able to get up and catch contested passes in tight coverage are apparently over in New England.
Like drafting Sony Michel in the first round last year, the Patriots are looking for playmakers–regardless of the position. Just because they do not have Gronkowski at tight end does not mean the team is locked into a tight end centric offense. The positions are malleable and the team needs players who can produce, not a specific positional group.
Everyone expected New England to try to replace Rob Gronkowski at tight end in the offense. With no comparable player in the NFL or in the NFL Draft, the Patriots are forced to adjust their offense again. Sadly, there’s only one Gronk and the offensive system has won Super Bowls (four of the six of them, actually) without Gronkowski on the field.
The addition of Josh Gordon last season may have been the catalyst for change. Brady has rarely had a big, outside receiver in the offense. David Givens was in that role early and he was big only in comparison to fellow wide receivers Troy Brown, David Patten and Deion Branch. Outside-the-numbers receivers cycled in and out with the likes of Brandon Lloyd, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Malcolm Mitchell burning bright for a short period of time before fading away.
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Even so, none of these other outside receivers had the size and power of Gordon. Gordon gave Brady the jump-ball threat, the easy come-back for six or seven yards, the ability to out-muscle a smaller defender down the field instead of Brandin Cooks “wait for the ball” as defenders recover and make a play (see 2018 season in New England and versus the Patriots in Super Bowl 53).
Having these big outside receivers will make life easier for the smaller receivers running inside routes. With Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett (whose quickness and speed should translate better to inside the numbers routes), and possibly 2018 sixth-round draft pick Braxton Berrios in the slot, teams are not able to jam the middle with extra defenders with Gordon, Thomas and Harry on the outside able to make them pay for single-coverage.
With Gronkowski gone, Gordon and Thomas question marks, it makes perfect sense to find an offensive weapon who can contribute immediately in round one. Bringing in Harry gives them an outside target with the size, strength, and strong hands to take pressure off the between-the-numbers passing game.
Harry signals that next step of evolution of the offense away from a tight-end/slot receivers middle-of-the-field only passing game that began with the drafting of 2018 first-round draft pick Sony Michel. Michel was able to suck defenders up to the line of scrimmage and open space for Edelman (and Gordon when he was active).
With Harry, defenses that do not adjust to the new look Patriots offense in 2019 could pay dearly.
Round 2: CB Joejuan Williams
Cornerback is not a position of need in New England for 2019. They are loaded with the best cover corner in the NFL (Stephon Gilmore), a savvy veteran (Jason McCourty), a rising star (J.C. Jackson), a redshirt 2018 second-round slot cornerback (Duke Dawson), a young veteran slot cornerback (Jonathan Jones), and an athletic freak still honing his skills (Keion Crossen).
However, for 2020 there may be some holes. McCourty will likely be losing a step and Jones is an unrestricted free agent. In addition, Dawson has not stepped on the field, Crossen is still raw, and one injury at the position exposes the depth of what has become the group that drove the Patriots to the Super Bowl this postseason. Gilmore’s contract status as he approaches age 30 is also something to watch.
Also missing from that group is a cornerback with the ability to man-up on some of the bigger receivers in the NFL. Like the Patriots coming around to big, outside receivers with Gordon, Thomas and now Harry, they also are apparently seeing the need to have someone with the length and strength to be able to not let those 50-50 throws become a mismatch on defense.
The other reason for drafting Williams is his long arms and six-foot-four frame. Think of the Patriots having to use their safeties in man-coverage on tight ends this past season–it was not pretty. In fact, the Patriots turned to top cornerback Gilmore in coverage of Travis Kelce in the AFC Championship game.
Gilmore is a fantastic coverage cornerback. The Patriots paid top-dollar for him in free agency and he has proven to be worth every dollar. Long, aggressive and possessing great ball skills, he is the true number one cornerback the defense needed. However, his weakness is when he is giving up size.
Go back to the 34-10 loss to Tennessee in week ten. Other than a great defensive plan, wide receiver Corey Davis (six-foot-two and 210 pounds) and athletic tight end Jonnu Smith (six-foot-three and 250 pounds) had their way with the New England secondary. It was Gilmore’s worst day in New England in 2018 and Patrick Chung had no answers in covering Smith.
With Williams, they have someone to match up with Davis and Smith. Now, they have a big, strong cornerback to take on the big outside receivers who are too strong for the smaller cornerbacks and the athletic pass catching tight ends who are too quick for the New England linebackers and too long for the safeties.
Patrick Chung has done yeoman’s work over the years against tight ends, but each year more and more teams are using tight ends who are basically big slot receivers. With Williams, Belichick finally has his chess piece to move and counter these tight ends.
As the NFL game evolves, the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick have evolved. The top two draft picks this season further illustrate how the offense and defense are moving forward with these trends to be malleable to counter-attack them and keep the Patriots in contention for Super Bowls each year.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01