The New England Patriots “won” free agency last year and were able to return to the NFL Playoffs after missing out during the Cam/Covid 2020 season. While the playoff results did not turn out as many fans had hoped, New England and head coach Bill Belichick served notice to the rest of the league that the long hoped-for demise of the greatest dynasty in NFL history was not dead yet.
New England leveraged some great free agent signings (Kendrick Bourne, Matt Judon, and Hunter Henry) with an impressive draft (Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson) to leap back into relevance. However, there is much more to be done to continue to stay in the race for the AFC East and to take the next step to build into a Super Bowl contender.
With the NFL Draft Combine showcasing the talent available in this year’s draft, right around the corner is free agency. New England has a large list of internal free agents to address before even looking for outside help.
In evaluating their roster, the Patriots have a dozen former draft picks made in the past three seasons who are entering what could be a “Make or Break” season. The Patriots need to start getting dividends from some of these players in order to have that strong level of inexpensive depth on the roster.
Whether due to injury, needing to build up strength, getting up to speed of the NFL or whatever reason, these are some of the Patriots who are going to need to step up in 2022 and play well after not having done so in the prior years. To make the playoffs again, they need a number of young players to take the next step and turn potential into production.
While it would be nice for the entire dozen players to contribute in 2022, in reality just having three or four of these players be a consistent contributor (not even a starter) and part of the rotation for playing time.
2021 PATRIOTS DRAFT PICKS:
Ronnie Perkins – Edge
Perkins hasn’t been seen on the field since the preseason as he never got on the field and went on the injured reserve in December. Perkins tape at Oklahoma showed a long pass rusher with NFL size, speed and athleticism. He was versatile at Oklahoma and looked like a steal in the third round with many mocking him to go in the second round.
Cameron McGrone – ILB
McGrone suddenly appears to have a shot at serious playing time in camp with Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Ja’whaun Bentley all free agents and unsigned. McGrone tore his ACL at Michigan and spent last season in recovery mode. He is interesting within the linebacker mix as he is not a big thumper linebacker like Hightower or Bentley. He is smaller at six-foot-one and 236 lbs. However, he has speed and range and was strong in coverage in college.
Joshua Bledsoe – FS
Bledsoe played free safety at Missouri and was a starter the final two years. Like McGrone, he tumbled down the draft board due to an injury sustained prior to the draft. Bledsoe is an aggressive player in the secondary but lacks high-end speed and athleticism. He has the potential to earn a role as nickel or dime safety and be evaluated as a replacement for Devin McCourty in the future.
Will Sherman – G
At six-foot-four and 310 lbs, the Colorado tackle Sherman has the needed NFL size and may be a better fit sliding inside to play at guard or even center. Sherman lacks high-end athleticism but with work on technique, footwork and balance could earn a much-needed role on the depth chart at guard with starter Ted Karras a free agent.
Most Likely to Contribute in 2022: Ronnie Perkins
The Patriots desperately needed Josh Uche or Chase Winovich to step-up as a dependable pass rusher opposite Matt Judon down the stretch. That lack of pass rush production was exposed as Judon wore down and was seeing double-teams. There will be a golden opportunity for Perkins to snatch in training camp.
Most Likely to be Released Before Training Camp: Will Sherman
Sherman was already released and cleared waivers before landing on the practice squad. He is on a future’s contract heading into 2022.
NFL DRAFT: NFL Draft Profile: Linebacker Nakobe Dean
NFL DRAFT: 2022 NFL Draft Profile: OL Ikem Ekwonu
2020 PATRIOTS DRAFT PICKS:
Josh Uche – EDGE
Two years in and the Michigan edge rusher remains a tantalizing tease. Blessed with size, speed and athleticism, Uche has struggled to stay on the field. He has played just 21 of 33 games the past two seasons and has contributed just four sacks. Uche ended the season playing just six snaps against Buffalo in the playoffs in a game his skills to pressure and chase down Josh Allen were desperately needed.
Anfernee Jennings – LB
With Josh Uche injured and ineffective, Jennings–a surprise contributor on defense playing inside and outside linebacker as a rookie in 2020–was desperately needed to add to the pass rush and run defense. Instead, his season ended after training camp when he was placed on injured reserve. Jennings contributed on all four downs in 2020 and if he gets back to full health could be a bright spot in 2022.
Devin Asiasi – TE
Asiasi has had a rough go of it in New England. Tight end is a very difficult position to learn in the offense and Asiasi, without a preseason in 2020, clearly struggled to get up to speed. Then the Patriots spent millions to add Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith and Asiasi was buried on the depth chart in 2021. He has soft hands and could still make an impact in the two-tight end offense in 2022.
Dalton Keene – H-Back
You forgot about Dalton Keene, didn’t you? Admit it.
It’s okay, almost everyone has forgotten about him so far. Two years and just six games and 140 snaps in 2020 would make him forgettable. Three receptions for 16 yards and all of 2021 on injured reserve make him pretty forgettable.
Keene was supposed to fill the H-Back/tight end role that Jonnu Smith was brought in for (and former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels conveniently forgot to use him in that role). Now he’s fighting for a roster spot. He was a third round draft pick. Wow.
Most Likely to Contribute in 2022: Anfernee Jennings
There is a huge role available for Jennings. If he stays healthy and continues working he can carve out a role playing inside on early downs and rushing on third down.
Most Likely to be Released Before Training Camp: Dalton Keene
I still believe in Devin Asiasi. As a back-up tight end, he could get some snaps and contribute at the goal line. Keene? Not so much.
2019 DRAFT PICKS:
Joejuan Williams – CB
80, 171, 254. Those are the snap counts on defense for the 2019 second-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt for his three years in the NFL. He has one start over three seasons. N’Keal Harry, by virtue of being the first-round draft pick, gets all the attention, but Williams has been a huge disappointment as well.
Not really a redshirt, but Williams was buried on the depth chart and injured during his rookie season. Despite that, the DNP-CDs piled up for Williams. Last season, he had a stretch prior to the bye week playing some meaningful snaps. Then he disappeared again.
This is make-or-break time. He’s in the last year of his rookie deal and has shown nothing. The Patriots desperately need a strong cornerback with JC Jackson likely moving on in free agenc
Chase Winovich – EDGE
The flowing golden locks. The berserker pass rush. The “tweener” fitting into a role in New England. Chase Winovich just seemed destined to be a New England Patriots player. Until suddenly in 2021, he disappeared.
Winovich was a designated pass rusher on third down as a rookie. In 2020 he seemingly carved out a significant role on the defense. After playing more than 50% of the snaps he played just 113 snaps (14%) on defense in 2021. After collecting 11 sacks in his first two seasons, he had none in 2021.
Winovich is on the roster bubble coming into 2022. An additional pass rusher taken in the draft or in free agency could bounce Winovich off the roster. Winovich has to take a step forward after his bizarre year three “redshirt” season in 2021.
Yodny Cajuste – T
Hey, Yodny Cajuste started two games last year at right tackle (against Houston and Dallas). It wasn’t always pretty (especially against Randy Gregory), but at least he got on the field.
Cajuste spent all of 2019 and 2020 on injured reserve. He was in the “break glass for emergency mode” and stayed there until the offensive line was overrun by injuries and Covid-19 and ran out of bodies. He was hardly great, but he at least was somewhat competent and showed some athleticism
Cajuste could be a valuable depth piece on the offensive line in 2022. He should have a better grasp of his role and some experience under his belt. His athleticism still flashed after two years away from the game. He may an important back-up if Trent Brown leaves in free agency.
Byron Cowart – DT
Cowart was a fifth-round draft pick but actually was a major contributor in the defensive line rotation in 2020. After playing just 43 snaps as a rookie, he stepped up in his second season and played almost 50% of the snaps in 2020 (419 snaps played on defense).
Cowart started 2021 on the physically unable to perform list and was initially expected to return. However, after returning to practice (and getting some media attention for his comments prior to Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro), Cowart was not activated and his role was filled by veterans Carl Davis and Daniel Ekuale.
Cowart has an uphill battle to get his job back. New England may be looking to upgrade the position and Cowart may be pinched by a roster crunch there. That said, after his “redshirt” season in 2021, he may be healthy and more than ready to step up as a run-stuffer up front.
Most Likely to Contribute in 2022: Yodny Cajustee
Cajuste has barely been able to carve out a role after missing two training camps and seasons. Last year, he was not great in his rare playing time, but showed the traits that still make him an option as a swing tackle in 2022.
Most Likely to be Released Before Training Camp: Chase Winovich
If anyone has any information as to what Winovich did or said about Bill Belichick last season, let me know. After having a specialized role in 2019 and being in the regular rotation in 2020, the Patriots ended up taking Winovich almost completely out of the defense in 2021. Playing just 113 snaps in 2021 and Ronnie Perkins, Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche in the mix for the same playing time opposite Matt Judon, Winovich could be the odd man out.
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