Lazar: the Patriots’ Youth Movement is Off to a Great Start

The Patriots' 2018 and 2019 rookie classes are looking good in the first two weeks of the preseason.

4450
0
SHARE

We are experiencing a youth movement in New England.

On the one hand, the hype is building for the young Patriots partially because they’re the ones playing in the preseason.

We haven’t seen Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, four-fifths of the starting offensive line, James White, Devin and Jason McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Patrick Chung, Lawrence Guy or Michael Bennett in 2019.

But still, the 38 players on the 90-man roster with one or fewer years of NFL experience are making a lot of noise.

Of those 38, 19 of them came from the last two draft classes where the Patriots took seven players in the top 100 and made three selections in the first round.

From the 2019 rookie class, the Patriots have seven players that received a starter-level grade or better from Pro Football Focus in the first two preseason games (70 or better).

And the average grade of those seven players was 83.5 out of 100, which is considered a high-level starter by PFF’s standards.

Along with the rookies, the Patriots are also returning a talented group of second-year players that includes 2018 first-round picks Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel, cornerback JC Jackson and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Yes, it’s only the preseason, and some of the production by the young guys is coming against backups, but it doesn’t feel fluky.

The following group that I’m going to break down is made up of talented football players with legitimate NFL traits and budding understandings of New England’s system:

(note: 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry is not included due to injury, but is another promising young player for the Patriots)

ISAIAH WYNN  

Let’s start with the 23rd overall pick in the 2018 draft, left tackle Isaiah Wynn. Wynn missed his entire rookie season after rupturing his Achilles last August.

We already know about Michel, Jackson, and Bentley, and on Saturday night we got our first look at Wynn since the injury.

In 19 snaps, Wynn did not allow a single quarterback pressure in pass protection, and although his run blocking wasn’t perfect, he did pretty well there too.

In pass protection, Wynn takes an aggressive mindset with balanced footwork and heavy hands.

Here, the entire O-line is setting aggressively because of the play-action pass. Wynn, the left tackle, gets his two hands in the center of the defender’s chest and Titans linebacker Sharif Finch isn’t going anywhere.

Earlier in the game, we saw something similar out of Wynn. This time, he gets those hands locked inside of Brent Urban’s shoulders with a heavy upward strike. After losing momentum, Urban tries to bull rush Wynn, but the Pats left tackle anchors nicely.

Along with grip strength, Wynn also has fantastic footwork and foot speed as a run blocker.

On this play, the Patriots ran a power play with a pulling guard and Wynn on the backside. The Pats left tackle keeps his pads low, gets his hands on the defender, and turns his upper body along with his feet. Wynn walls off the backside end as rookie running back Damien Harris picks up the first down.

Wynn will be the starting left tackle for the Patriots in Week 1.

CHASE WINOVICH 

Through two weeks of preseason games, the third-round pick out of Michigan leads the entire NFL in quarterback pressures (13) and is tied for third in run stops (seven).

To add even more context, Winovich’s win rate against those trying to block him is an outstanding 40 percent.

Along with athleticism and effort, WInovich is also a refined football player that processes things he sees quickly.

Against the Lions, Winovich recorded his first sack with a speed rush. He has a terrific first-step along with a unique ability to turn the corner. By flipping his hips towards the QB, there’s nowhere for the tackle to put his hands on Winovich, and that’s assuming the tackle can get low enough to do so.

A week later, Winovich recorded another sack and seven other quarterback disruptions.

On the sack, Winovich gets a good jump off the ball getting the right tackle too far upfield, and then comes with a counter club move to climb the pocket and sack Tannehill.

Although Winovich hustles all over the field, it’s controlled aggression with a plan and an understanding of his assignment.

Here, Winovich is met by the tight end on a “sift” block coming across the formation. The Pats rookie could beat the tight end to the inside, the quickest path to the QB, but he’d risk losing outside containment on Logan Woodside. Instead, he stays outside of the tight end to keep Woodside in the pocket and then chases him down when Woodside takes off.

As a run defender, Winovich quickly sniffs out blocking schemes and makes plays on the football.

Winovich swallowed Titans running back Jeremy McNichols for a three-yard loss here. The Titans ran a zone-blocking scheme to Winovich’s side. The fullback tried to block Winovich, and Winovich side-stepped his cut block attempt to make the play.

The Pats rookie also makes plays that don’t show up in the box score.

Here, he swims over the tight end trying to block him and takes on the fullback in the backfield, forcing the running back to bounce to the outside. Winovich and #92 Nick Thurman should get credit for this TFL since it was their penetration that made it happen.

Winovich will win people over with his non-stop pursuit of the ball, but he’s a lot more than a high motor.

JARRETT STIDHAM

Stidham is different than the others since the hope is he won’t start any games this season.

The rookie quarterback threw three passes that should’ve been intercepted by the defense against the Titans that won’t show up in the box score.

But on the Patriots’ game-winning drive, Stidham went seven-for-seven for 89 yards to lead the Patriots on a 99-yard touchdown drive.

Stidham put the Patriots in the lead with a 23-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Damoun Patterson on third and 12. The Titans defense was in man coverage with a single-high safety in the middle of the field. Stidham knew Patterson was one-on-one on the outside, so he took a shot with a perfectly placed back-shoulder throw for the score.

Last week, Stidham was even more impressive with better ball security.

Here’s an excellent breakdown from former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky on Stidham.

Film Review: Jarrett Stidham Flashes Potential in Preseason Debut

You can also read my breakdown of Stidham’s performance against the Lions.

JAKOBI MEYERS 

The breakout star of training camp, Meyers also made big plays in both preseason games.

Despite 92 catches for 1,071 yards last season, Meyers went undrafted due to his inexperience at wide receiver (2.5 years) and a horrible 40-yard dash time (4.63s, 13th percentile).

However, the NC State product is the real deal, with excellent footwork in his releases to along with the catch radius and strong hands of a nearly six-foot-two receiver.

Meyers has a football IQ to process coverages and inside-outside versatility, running 40 percent of his routes out of the slot through two games.

Here’s one of Meyers’s infamous route releases that broke Titans defensive back Dane Cruikshank’s ankles. Meyers takes three rapid-fire steps off the line of scrimmage to get up on Cruikshank’s toes and then explodes into a crossover-like move to get instant separation.

There are several examples of Meyers putting defenders in a blender with his route releases over the last two weeks.

Meyers could contribute this season, let alone make the team.

DAMIEN HARRIS 

We got an extended viewing of rookie running back Damien Harris after he sat out the preseason opener, and he also looks the part.

The Alabama product went on a two-play sequence at the end of the first quarter where he gained 30 yards all on his own.

First, Harris released into the flat as a check-down option for Brian Hoyer on second down. Harris made the first defender miss to pick up ten yards and a first down.

On the next play, Harris nearly scored but had to settle for a 20-yard run.

The Patriots had an inside trap play set up to Harris’s left with right guard Hjalte Frohodlt pulling from the backside. But Titans linebacker David Long shot his gap before Froholdt could complete his pull and the Tennessee defense had Harris’s primary rushing lanes plugged up. Harris saw the Titans defense getting blocked down, and cut it backside for an explosive run.

Harris’s all-around game gives the Patriots another weapon in an already deep backfield.

JOEJUAN WILLIAMS 

The second-round pick had a solid week of joint practices and allowed only one catch on five targets with two pass breakups on Saturday night.

Williams began holding his own against Tennesee’s top wide receiver Corey Davis in joint practices.

(video via @ZackCoxNESN)

Here, Williams showed great patience at the line of scrimmage to stay square as Davis set up the fade route. He played through Davis’s body into the sideline and then used his length to break up the pass.

In the game, Williams broke up both passes thrown his way while covering Davis.

On his second pass breakup, the throw could’ve been better, but that’s a pretty smooth transition at the top of his drop for a 6-4, 211-pound corner. Plus, he can use his length to disrupt at the catch point.

When the Patriots drafted Williams, the six-foot-three Davis is the matchup they had in mind, and the rookie was up to the challenge all week in Tennessee.

The Patriots rookies and second-year players are rapidly ascending into potentially significant roles for the 2019 team and beyond.