New England

Pressure on Wynn, Michel and Harry

Only in New England could a 9-1 start be met with such skepticism that sucks nearly all the enjoyment from the room.

The Patriots boast the league's No. 1 scoring defense (10.8 points per game) and the third-ranked scoring offense (28.7), in addition to the top spot in the AFC playoff picture and the homefield advantage that comes with it.

There is a fundamental flaw for the Patriots, however, which has the potential to rear its head somewhere down the road.

Whether that's this season or in the future remains to be seen, but New England has gotten next to no contributions this season from its last three draft classes, principals of which include 2018 first-round selections Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel and 2019 first-rounder N'Keal Harry.

That has the potential to change, perhaps as soon as this week, with the activation of Wynn from injured reserve – just one week following the debut of Harry, who spent the first eight weeks of the season on IR.

Wynn has appeared in just two games in his brief career to date, far and away the fewest of any 2018 first-round draft choice; Mike Hughes, a cornerback for the Vikings, has played in the second-fewest at 15 games. Twenty-five of this year's 32 first round choices have appeared in at least seven games for their respective teams, 18 of whom have played in at least 10.

The immersion of Wynn and Harry into New England's offense, on top of a return to form for Michel, could be enough to give the Patriots an edge in the suddenly razor-thin margin for error they have with the Baltimore Ravens breathing down their necks.

Wynn could project as the long-term replacement for Nate Solder and Trent Brown at left tackle, or he could be going the way of Dominique Easley: a first-round draft choice of the Patriots in 2014 who was cut after two seasons, each of which ended with a trip to injured reserve.

Compared to Wynn, Easley was almost a beacon of health. He appeared in 22 of a possible 32 games in 2014 and 2015, while Wynn has played in two of 26 to date.

"We've had a couple days, and then kind of put everything together and see how things turned out after the first two days," Bill Belichick said on Friday morning, asked about expectations for Wynn. "Sometimes guys do a little more, they're good, and sometimes a little soreness or maybe a little – I don't want to say setback, but maybe when it all comes together, it doesn't come together as quickly as it might in other cases."

Wynn has been portrayed as a savior for New England's struggling offensive line, where Marshall Newhouse has been thrust into duty protecting Tom Brady's blindside. Newhouse has allowed Brady to be sacked six times this season and is ranked 64th among 76 qualified tackles, per advanced stats service Pro Football Focus.

"Isaiah always works hard," Belichick said. "He did a lot of scout team work to get his timing back and all of that, so working against a defense. But yeah, he works hard and he's always ready to go."

Harry faces a taller task in making himself useful during the stretch run. In addition to putting his nagging ankle injury behind him, Harry has to get caught up to the standards of Brady in the passing game.

A 3-catch, 18-yard debut against the Eagles last Sunday, in which Harry played 43% of New England's offensive snaps, isn't the most encouraging sign. The three catches on four targets are nice, but Harry's inability to break tackles or create space between defensive backs means he remains a work in progress.

Brady described the offense as "up and down" after last week's 17-10 win over Philadelphia.

"We could probably do everything better," he said.

With both Phillip Dorsett (concussion) and Mohamed Sanu (ankle) questionable for Sunday's game against the Cowboys, Harry could be presented with an opportunity to break out.

Which brings us to the curious case of Michel, who ranks 45th among 47 running backs currently qualified for the rushing title, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Michel appears to be fully healthy, yet to appear on an injury report in the regular season.

The struggling offensive line hasn't helped matters, but Michel's sophomore slump is perhaps most notable for his failure to develop as a pass catcher. Michel has a bad drop in each of the last two games for the Patriots, which has seemingly led to reduced playing time. He played in just 22% of New England's offensive snaps against the Ravens and 30% against the Eagles, two of his three lowest usage rates in 2019.

Michel's contributions to the Super Bowl run last season ensure he'll never be truly labeled a bust, but he’s off to a massively disappointing start in establishing himself as a star.

Wynn, Harry and Michel are so important to these Patriots because of how little they've gotten from the last three draft classes otherwise. Adam Butler and J.C. Jackson, each of whom signed with New England as free agents following the 2017 and 2018 drafts, respectively, have arguably given the Patriots more than almost any other player they actually spent a selection on.

The 2019 draft class, which shone so brightly in the preseason, has been limited to 4.5 sacks for Chase Winovich in a sub role and two AFC Special Teams Player of the Week awards for punter Jake Bailey.

The Patriots didn't draft in the first round in 2013, 2016 or 2017, while Easley and 2015 first round pick Malcom Brown have since moved on. Dont'a Hightower (2012) and Devin McCourty (2010) are the only players New England drafted in the first round prior to 2018 on the current 53-man roster.

Hightower and McCourty, along with the selections of Jerod Mayo, Nate Solder and Chandler Jones in the first round between 2008 and 2012, laid the foundation for New England's second spurt of Super Bowl titles this century. So too, of course, did the selections of Patrick Chung, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen later in those drafts.

Right now, the Patriots are in a draft day malaise never before seen in the Brady-Belichick era.

Contributions from Michel, Wynn and Harry can not only change that narrative, they can help ensure New England gets no favors in the first round by keeping the team picking 32nd overall – the slot reserved for Super Bowl champions.

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