I've spent the last few days since the Patriots lost a surprisingly winnable game against the NFC Champions Sunday, going through the leftovers and reheating them in the microwave. And while dining on them, it occurred to me just how important the 2023 Rookie Class is going to be for this franchise. When you miss on a draft the way they did in the 2019 N'Keal Harry one, it will have a ripple effect that gives the drafts that follow an increased urgency. You've got to clean up that mess before the mistakes pile so high you're the NFL version of the grandma on Hoarders.
Besides, this year's rookie crop is expected to play perhaps more than any other in recent memory. We can stipulate that any year when you're starting the season with a first year quarterback under center (Drew Bledsoe in 1993, Mac Jones in 2021), by default that makes it a crucial rookie class. But some of what turned out to be the most successful drafts in franchise history didn't need their best prospects to contribute much right away. In 2010, Devin McCourty was installed as the CB1 right away, but Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Murdnandez split time at tight end with Alge Crumpler. The 1996 draft yielded Terry Glenn, Lawyer Milloy and Tedy Bruschi. But while the first two were stars right away, the team was still figuring out how to make the best use of Bruschi as they went to the Super Bowl and he finished with just 11 tackles (and offering a preview of the greatness that was to follow, four sacks). I think in non-rookie quarterback seasons, you've got to look at:
- 2012: Chandler Jones (1st), Dont'a Hightower (1st)
- 2001: Richard Seymour (1st), Matt Light (2nd)
- 1977: Raymond Clayborn (1st), Stanley Morgan (1st), Horace Ivory (2nd) Don Hasselbeck (2nd)
- 1976: Mike Haynes (1st), Pete Brock (1st), Tim Fox (1st)
… as comparable years in terms of how much the 2023 team needs to yield immediate dividends from their investments in the draft.
So while you might argue it's bananaland to be evaluating the Class of '23 after just one game - and I'll agree with you - it's a process that will go on all season. And there's no reason not to start now. Besides, we've got the Aaron Rodgers injury covered and the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce relationship is in more capable hands than mine. So …
First of all, it's worth noting that Brian Baldinger likes what he saw:
Taking them in draft order:
As Baldy points out, against an elite deep ball receiver like AJ Brown, stayed with his man and let nothing get over his head. On the day, Gonzalez was credited with 10 targets, by far the most on the team. Probably owing to the fact he was lining up opposite Brown (five targets, four completions, 47 yards) and DeVonta Smith (4, 2, 22), and was once on Kenneth Gainwell (1, 1, 2). Beyond that he tackled well, finishing second on the team with five, gave up just 19 yards after the catch, and came off the edge on a corner blitz for a sack. And did nothing less than break up a crucial 4th down pass to give the offense the ball back down one score:
So all in all, not a terrible debut. Especially given the crap he was taking not long after getting drafted:
How can you not be over the moon about this guy? Again going back to the Baldy Breakdown, he stood All Pro Lane Johnson right up, got his arms extended, and drove him back to get his hand on Jalen Hurts arm and force an incompletion. Then flipped sides to bullrush a 365 pound Jordan Mailata and flush Hurts from the pocket:
In all, he had four pressures, giving him the highest PFF grade among all rookie pass rushers:
And that's despite taking just 13 passing snaps. I think we can safely assume he'll get more opportunities to add pelts to his saddle as we go forward.
To go back to the well, that first play Baldinger shows is Mapu over the top in perfect bracket coverage on Brown. He was targeted once, while covering Gainwell (caught for eight yards), so we don't have much to go on statistically. His real value is (we hope) his ability to be a Wild Card, moving around the formation in a variety of roles as the Patriots evolve ever more into an amorphous, positionless, subpackage based defense. Sunday he took seven snaps as in-the-box hybrid S/LB and two at free safety, including that tester by Brown, while also playing on both special team returns units. The Pats are reasonably deep in that back third of the defense. But the way they rotate guys through, they need to be. Mapu will get his chances.
Antonio Mafi and Sidy Sow
Maybe it's unfair to not give each guard a separate paragraph, but honestly, who's going to read them both? Besides, you don't go through life dreaming of growing up to be an interior offensive lineman because you lust for glory. Among all OG's with more than 40 snaps, Mafi was 47th in PFF grade and Sow was 58th. Which, one could argue, is not good. With Mac Jones setting a career high with 54 attempts, Mafi was responsible for a sack, a QB hit, and five hurries. Sow was blame for one hit and four hurries. In all, Jones was pressured 18 times (8th most in the league), including, interestingly enough, all three of his touchdown passes. The Patriots also struggeled to run the ball, particularly when they ran directly behind the guards, with one carry for -1 behind Mafi and five attempts for 10 yards directly behind Sow. Still, Jones wasn't sacked for the first 57 minutes of the game, despite facing a generationally good pass rush. Most importantly, the crucial stat of QBs Snapped in Half was 0.0, which was 1.5 fewer than the O/U I set in my head when I learned Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu were scratched. Consider these guys a work in progress.
Chad Ryland and Bryce Baringer
See: Guards, Separate paragraphs. Ryland wasn't asked to do anything but hit a couple of extra points and kick off (four kicks, three touchbacks). Despite the fact that I and pretty much everyone in New England wanted to see him get a chance at a chipshot field goal that would've made it a 5-point game with 9:39 to play. The decision to go for it on 4th & 3 might be a reflection of some desire by Belichick not to put pressure on his new K, but that seems awfully unBelichickian. As far as Baringer, there was plenty to like. Statistically he's somewhere in the middle among all punters in the league at the moment, in terms of yards, net yards, hang time and all that. But on a couple of occasions he flipped the field and dropped the ball inside Philly's 20. There was one of those attempts at pinning them that took one bounce and shot into the end zone like a 3-iron you hit thin for a 23-yard net. But overall, fine. These guys look like they belong in the NFL. Right now that's all we can ask.
Twice Boutte did a good job of running himself open, only to fail to get both feet down in bounds. Neither was an automatic, to be sure. One he had to go up to get it and his heel came down on the white paint. The other was a bang-bang where he couldn't stick the landing. Those are kinds of 50/50 plays that decide games and he'll have to improve. But it's not like he didn't prove he can run routes and get his hands on catchable passes. And he seems to have the perfect attitude about it.
The one they call Pop played 25 of his 27 passing snaps from the slot. Demonstrating that Bill O'Brien is grooming him to be the next inside, quick-footed, short area, change-of-direction receiver that can be the key that unlocks everything else in the Escape Room. But then also managed to beat man coverage on a seam route, breaking it outside to create space for himself:
So not a total success, obviously. I mean, the scoreboard said it before I did. But in the grand scheme of things, a very promising start for a group that is going to be Mission Critical if this season has any hope of going somewhere. The rookies passed their first test.
Only 16 more to go.