Finding things that Bill Belichick hasn’t done since taking over his post with the New England Patriots in 2000 is getting more challenging by the day, but you can cross another one off the list in the aftermath of the 2019 NFL Draft.
For the first time in his tenure, the Patriots selected a wide receiver with their first-round pick. N’Keal Harry, out of Arizona State, is on his way to New England via the 32nd overall pick.
“I’m just ecstatic to come in, work hard, constantly improve and just live up to the expectations,” Harry said.
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Starting with the decision to draft Harry -- who his college coach Herm Edwards has compared to former Cowboys' wideout Dez Bryant -- here are eight thoughts on New England’s haul over the weekend:
• The expectations for Harry, who’s 6 feet, 2 inches tall, are that he’ll be the first true wide receiver drafted by Belichick to have a lasting impact on the organization since Deion Branch and David Givens, both taken way back in 2002. Harry caught 213 passes over three seasons in the desert, the last two of which came under former NFL coach Edwards at the helm of the Sun Devils. He racked up 2,889 yards and caught 22 touchdown passes in his career at Arizona State.
Harry, who had a pre-draft visit with the Patriots, stood out as “a pretty mature kid,” according to Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio.
“He’s a big, strong receiver with good hands, good with the ball after the catch and he had a chance to play against some decent people in the Pac-12, so we’ll get him out here and try to get him the program and get him moving,” Caserio said. “The expectation will be no different than it is for any other player that comes in and get started, build a foundation and then go from there.”
With Julian Edelman the third-oldest receiver in the NFL currently under contract – he’ll be 33 on May 22 – and the depth chart in Foxboro littered with uncertainty beyond him, Harry will get every chance to make an impact with the Patriots and buck their unsettling track record of drafting wide receivers.
• While wide receiver was a massive need for New England, the Patriots weren’t necessarily starving for cornerbacks with Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen and Jonathan Jones all viable options – not to mention last year’s second round pick, Duke Dawson, still here but yet to take an NFL snap. But that didn’t stop Belichick from trading up in the second round for Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams, a massive corner at 6-foot-4 who instantly becomes the biggest player on a crowded depth chart at the position.
Williams is similar in stature to former Patriot Brandon Browner, who teamed with Darrelle Revis to give New England perhaps its finest tandem ever at cornerback in the 2014 season.
“I wouldn’t say necessarily that because we’re playing against this, we need this,” Caserio said when asked about drafting Williams as it pertained to his size. “You start to do that and there might not be an application. You just actually look at the player and then say for his size, he has a pretty unique skill level relative to playing the corner position. So, I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s in response to that. He’s probably unique relative to other players at the position whether it’s safety or corner.”
• A right-footed punter? Has Bill Belichick gone mad? The Patriots have never entered a season with a righty punter under Belichick – only injuries during the season have forced them to use one at any point. That didn’t stop them from actually trading up a few spots to select Stanford punter Jake Bailey in the fifth round.
This marks the second time in Belichick’s tenure the Patriots have drafted a punter (Zoltan Mesko, 2010, also in the fifth round), but it doesn’t make much sense given the presence of Ryan Allen on the roster. Allen re-signed with New England in March for one year and carries a dead cap hit of just $100,000, but it’s not like Allen was punting at the level of former Patriot Ken Walter or something; he was middle of the road in both average (45.1 yards, 16th) and net (39.5, 19th). Allen faced a brief competition from undrafted punter Corey Bojorquez last August, so it looks like he’ll have to fend off another challenger once again.
• Ask yourself this: when the Patriots drafted Kevin O’Connell or Ryan Mallett in the third round of the NFL Draft back in 2008 and 2011, respectively, did you ever get the feeling that either of them were the heir apparent to Tom Brady? Of course not. Which is why the use of a fourth-round pick this year on Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham shouldn’t be viewed as anything but a move for depth; an indication that perhaps Brian Hoyer’s days as Tom Brady’s backup are numbered, or that the team has seen enough of 2018 seventh-round pick Danny Etling. Perhaps both are true.
Stidham, who played his freshman year at Baylor in 2015 before transferring to the SEC, took an undeniable step back between his 2017 and 2018 seasons. While his touchdown-to-interception ratio remained nearly identical (18-to-6 in ’17, 18-to-5 in ’18), his completion percentage dropped from 66.5 to just 60.7.
“I think there’s different things that happen throughout the season, and I think myself, Coach [Gus] Malzahn, Coach [Chip] Lindsey, if we were all to kind of look back and go back and read through the season, I think we’d just open it up a lot more,” Stidham said. “When you lose a guy like [Detroit Lions running back] Kerryon Johnson and [Indianapolis Colts tackle] Braden Smith up front, some of those guys that have a lot of experience, you just have to find out your identity.”
• The Patriots also grabbed Hjalte Froholdt, an offensive lineman out of Arkansas, in the fourth round of the draft. Froholdt is just the second native of Denmark ever to be drafted into the NFL, and things worked out pretty well for the first one: kicker Morten Andersen, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was the NFL’s all-time leading scorer until former Patriot Adam Vinatieri broke his mark last season.
• One year after using a first-round pick on Sony Michel, the Patriots took running back Damien Harris out of Alabama in the third-round. The move makes sense on a number of levels, especially given Michel’s history of knee injuries, the ongoing health concerns with Rex Burkhead and the need to lessen the load on receiving back James White.
• Chase Winovich (third round, defensive end, Michigan), Yondy Cajuste (third round, offensive tackle, West Virginia) and Byron Cowart (fifth round, defensive tackle, Maryland) addressed needs at spots where New England is thin.
• He wasn’t quite Mr. Irrelevant, the last overall pick, but cornerback Ken Webster was two picks away from the distinction at No. 252 overall. Webster said he played a lot of special teams in his freshman and sophomore seasons at Ole Miss… but not much since, thus decreasing his odds of making New England’s final 53-man roster.