NFL

Way-Too-Early Grades for the Patriots’ 2023 Rookie Class

Equipped with a new offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien and returning most of their 2022 starters on defense, expectations were high for the Patriots entering this year’s draft. Bill Belichick and the front office loaded up on young building blocks, taking a whopping 12 players.

Despite glaring needs at the skill positions and right tackle, New England went defense-heavy with their first three selections. Christian Gonzalez was as close as it gets to a perfect pick, while Keion White and Marte Mapu were high-ceiling projects.

New England opted for offensive line depth and a new kicker in the middle rounds, once again forgoing a chance to get more weapons for Mac Jones. They finally addressed wide receiver by double-dipping late on day three, taking talented but polarizing prospect Kayshon Boutte and undersized spark plug Demario Douglas. Ameer Speed and Isaiah Bolden rounded out the class as two tall, long, and athletic developmental corners who excelled on special teams. Dual-threat Malik Cunningham was also added as a priority free agent signing after the draft.

It’s been a rough season for New England, and early returns from their massive rookie class have been all over the place. But there have been undeniable bright spots among the group, with multiple players who could have significant roles past this season.

Here’s my recap of how the Patriots’ first-year players have performed and my grade for each.

Note: Players with fewer than 100 snaps on offense or defense received an incomplete grade.

ROUND 1

CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon, Pick 17 (From PIT) 

Christian Gonzalez was a consensus top-10 pick entering this season’s draft, revered for prototypical size, athleticism, and advanced coverage ability. There were concerns about his consistency and toughness against the run. but Gonzalez and physical playmaker Devon Witherspoon seemed like different flavors of CB1. So it was pretty shocking when Gonzalez slipped out of the top 10, past undersized ballhawk Emmanuel Forbes, and into the Patriots’ lap at 17th overall.

Gonzalez was exactly what New England’s group of undersized cover corners needed, and the on-field fit was seamless. Gonzalez struggled against jump balls to DeVante Parker in training camp, but he looked like the best player on either side of the ball. That impressive play carried over into the regular season, where he was quickly thrown into the fire against top receivers.

In Week 1, the rookie was tasked with most 1-on-1 matchups against A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but Gonzalez didn’t give up any big plays and broke up a 4th down slant to give New England a chance of winning.

He was initially asked to cover Jaylen Waddle on an island in Week 2 against Miami. But when Marcus Jones went down with a torn labrum, Gonzalez shifted to press coverage against Tyreek Hill and shut the All-Pro down. Gonzalez also recorded his first career interception as a deep zone defender.

The rookie went on to smother Garrett Wilson and CeeDee Lamb in their matchups before suffering his own season-ending labrum tear in Week 4. Through the first 4 weeks of the season, Gonzalez’s 80.8 OFF defensive grade ranked 6th among corners with at least 100 defensive snaps. His 67.5 passer rating allowed was the 4th-lowest over that span among corners with at least 20 targets, including zero touchdowns or deep receptions. Gonzalez was even one of the top vices/jammers on the punt return team.

Gonzalez felt too good to be true on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Month in September. Sadly, the football gods dropped the other shoe, and a dazzling campaign was cut painfully short. But assuming his shoulder doesn’t become a persistent issue, Gonzalez should be a rare blue-chip player at a premium position as New England embarks on an epic rebuild.

Grade: A

ROUND 2

DL Keion White, Georgia Tech, Pick 46

Keion White drew late draft buzz after being invited to night one of the NFL draft. Despite playing in a less-heralded program at Georgia Tech and needing a lot of technical refinement, White’s rare tools and versatility made him an intriguing early-round prospect. The hyper-athletic ball of clay didn’t hear his name called in Round 1, but the Patriots grabbed him midway through the 2nd.

White’s imposing physique and easy explosiveness popped immediately, and he looked like a human highlight reel in New England’s preseason opener.

His alignment flexibility was perfect for the Patriots, serving a largely absent role in the defense as a stand-up outside linebacker and odd-front defensive end. White even had some eye-popping plays in the regular season opener, flashing against a future Hall of Fame right tackle in Lane Johnson.

As one of the players tasked with replacing Matthew Judon, who went down with a torn bicep, White’s been one of the league’s most active defensive rookies. His 236 snaps are 5th among first-year edge defenders and 10th among rookie defensive linemen. After recording a career-high 37 defensive snaps in Week 5, White suffered a concussion that sidelined him until Week 8 in Miami. He hit a new career-high with 57 snaps, but that number dropped to 30 in Week 9 and sank to 19 last Sunday in Germany.

White has flashed disruptive ability throughout the season, tying for 6th in run stops (6) among rookie edge defenders and ranking 9th in pressure rate (9.0%) among 21 such players with at least 25 pass rushes. He’s shown the ability to stand up to and split double teams while showing his awesome blend of size and athleticism as a pass rusher.

White’s also had some downright frightening reps as a blocker on the punt return team.

But finishing plays has been an issue, as he has yet to record a sack or hit despite being one of four rookie edge rushers with double-digit hurries (12). His 4 missed tackles are also the 3rd-most among first-year defensive linemen.

Most of White’s struggles stem from his biggest draft knock: poor technique. His pass rushes lack a consistent plan or counter-measures, which leads to quick losses. As a run defender, he’s been overpowered by bigger linemen, which is magnified when he’s aligned inside or doesn’t play with low pads.

The sky is the limit if White hones his technique and becomes more deliberate in his approach. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a promising sign that the dominant moments from his college tape have shown up in the pros.

Grade: C

ROUND 3

SAF Marte Mapu, Sacramento State, Pick 76 (From CAR)

Marte Mapu was one of my favorite Patriots picks in this year’s draft. After flying under the radar for his small school status, the nickel corner/safety/linebacker put himself on the map with impressive Bowl game performances. 2022’s Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year flashed exceptional instincts, closing speed, and ball skills in the box. Mapu also showed enough willingness and toughness in the run game to solidify himself as an intriguing chess piece.

Mapu was limited for most of the summer after offseason pec surgery, but he looked like one of the fastest players on the field and lined up everywhere for the defense. While listed as a linebacker on New England’s roster, on the field, Mapu was more of a safety who spent some time at linebacker. He only played in the preseason finale, but the explosiveness and flexibility were all over his tape.

Mapu was expected to spend most of his time on special teams while mixing in on late downs as a dime linebacker. Fast forward to the regular season, and Mapu is both a core special teamer and one of three rookie safeties to play at least 100 defensive snaps (147). He’s mainly been an interchangeable piece in the Patriots’ base three-safety nickel with Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers.

But despite understandable hype and having a bigger role than Adrian Phillips, Mapu has failed to make an impact through ten weeks. He hasn’t gotten his hands on a pass, has just 2 tackles against the run, and his 41.8 PFF defensive grade is bottom-5 among safeties with at least 100 defensive snaps. Since a strong rep against the Eagles, where he and Christian Gonzalez smothered a deep shot, Mapu’s coverage has been fine at best and disastrous at worst. He’s been involved in two breakdowns for big plays, one of which contributed to a deep Tyreek Hill touchdown in Miami.

Jabrill Peppers was also visibly frustrated with Mapu after bailing the rookie out on a broken coverage against the Commanders.

Mapu has seen his role on defense dwindle after playing 25+ snaps in three of the first five games. He didn’t play any defensive reps in Week 6 against the Raiders, and in the past three games, he went from 18 defensive snaps in Week 8 to 10 in Week 9 and just 4 in Germany. He also recorded a season-low 6 special teams snaps last week.

All isn’t lost with Mapu, as he’s dealing with a steep learning curve in a role that requires a lot of communication and awareness. It’s concerning how easily he’s been pushed around in the run game, but I also think he’s being miscast as an early-down defender. More focused assignments in passing situations, like spying quarterbacks or covering tight ends man-to-man, might be better for Mapu as he adjusts to the NFL. But New England has trusted veterans Mack Wilson and Jalen Mills in those roles, so we might not see the rookie get those opportunities until next season. But for now, it’s hard to call Mapu’s early returns anything more than disappointing.

Grade: D

ROUND 4

C Jake Andrews, Troy, Pick 107 (From LAR)

Jake Andrews was one of the Patriots’ more perplexing draft picks, as he filled an already occupied role on an offense desperate for weapons and youth at right tackle. Wanting a David Andrews replacement was understandable, with the longtime captain nearing retirement. But an undersized, small-school player with limited versatility felt like a reach.

New England tried the greener Andrews at right guard early in the offseason program, but he quickly fell down the depth chart and spent most of his time at center. He was solid in the middle this preseason, generating movement on the ground and allowing just one pressure in three games.

But despite being active for every regular season game on a depleted offensive line, his only snaps have come as a blocker on extra points.

At this point, we know little more about Andrews than we did when he was drafted.

Grade: Incomplete

K Chad Ryland, Maryland, Pick 112 (From NYJ)

In New England’s next head-scratcher early on day three, Chad Ryland was taken to replace veteran Nick Folk after a shaky 2022.

Folk was more consistent in the kicker battle this summer, with Ryland’s high kicks leading to issues in windy conditions, but the rookie showed enough flashes to win the job.

Ryland’s been an upgrade over Folk on kickoffs, averaging the 6th-longest average hangtime among players with at least 10 attempts. He’s also made all his extra point attempts, albeit on the 4th-fewest tries among qualified kickers. But only the Giants’ Graham Gano (65%) has a lower percentage of field goal makes than Ryland (71%). The rookie has made all 3 of his attempts inside 30 yards, but he’s 3-4 from 30-39 yards, 5-7 from 40-49 yards, and 1-3 from 50 and beyond. His most recent miss was a relative chip shot against the Colts that forced New England to pursue a touchdown on their final possession instead of a field goal.

Ryland’s work on kickoffs and extra points saves his grade, but it hasn’t been the start he or the team hoped for.

Grade: D+

OL Sidy Sow, Eastern Michigan, Pick 117

Sidy Sow was another confusing 4th-round addition to the offensive line, especially as a 25-year-old rookie. Despite being a guard for most of his extended college career, the Patriots drafted Sow intending to play him at right tackle. This experiment didn’t go well, as he struggled against faster edge defenders on an island, and being a square peg in a round hole made Sow look unplayable by preseason’s end.

He moved back to guard in Week 1 with Mike Onwenu out and endured a baptism by fire against the Eagles’ deep front. Sow wouldn’t see the field again until Week 6, but flashed while filling in for Onwenu again in Vegas. The next week against Buffalo, Onwenu kicked out to right tackle, with Sow taking his spot at guard, and that’s been New England’s top duo since. From Weeks 6-9, the rookie didn’t allow a single sack or hurry, and his 1.5% pressure rate allowed was the 3rd-lowest among guards with at least 50 pass-blocking snaps. Sow’s recovery ability has made up for some early losses, and his experience flashes against line games, which have been a major issue this season.

With offensive line coach Adrian Klemm away from the team for health reasons, Sow’s pass blocking took a step back against the Colts. He gave up multiple pressures for the first time since Week 1, including his first career sack allowed on an inside move against Dayo Odeyingbo. But it wasn’t all bad, as Sow had his best run-blocking performance of the season.

Sow’s hand placement must improve, as his wide strikes allow defenders to control his chest. But his size, power, and athleticism make him a potential long-term answer at right guard.

Grade: B-

ROUND 5

G Atonio Mafi, UCLA, Pick 144

Atonio Mafi seemed like a clear Onwenu replacement plan when he was selected as another addition to the offensive trenches. The converted nose tackle boasted similar bulk, immovability, and power on his best reps, and Matt Groh acknowledged a desire to get bigger inside through the draft. However, pad level and punch timing issues made Mafi a more difficult projection than the pro-ready Onwenu.

Mafi was the first man when left guard Cole Strange suffered a knee injury early in training camp, spending most of the summer with Mac Jones and company. He had a solid preseason, even sitting out the finale with other roster locks, but he had some trouble against line games.

With Onwenu and Strange in and out of the lineup for the first six weeks, Mafi played significant snaps as the top backup inside. Unfortunately, Mafi’s awareness and technique issues were magnified against a weekly barrage of stacked defensive fronts.

Grade: D

ROUND 6

WR Kayshon Boutte, LSU, Pick 187 (From CAR)

Kayshon Boutte entered the 2022 college season as a projected top pick. But character concerns and a steep decline in production allowed the Patriots to take a late-round flier on the talented prospect.

Boutte took a while to earn reps with the top unit this summer, and he only did so sparingly, but he gained steam late by making impressive grabs daily. His stock hit an all-time high after taking a slant to the house in the preseason, and he eventually earned a 53-man roster spot as the team’s sixth receiver.

Boutte filled in for DeVante Parker as the team’s X receiver in Week 1, but poor sideline awareness and deep ball tracking led to zero receptions on four targets. He was a healthy scratch for the next eight games, but with Kendrick Bourne on injured reserve and Jalen Reagor and Tyquan Thornton having poor performances in Week 9, Reagor got another shot against the Colts. Boutte had a quiet performance, mixing in at the X spot with JuJu Smith-Schuster, but he did record his first career catch.

Unfortunately, Boutte playing just 79 snaps this season disqualifies him from this grading system. A 6th-rounder struggling to crack the lineup isn’t unusual, but you’d like to see a talented player carve out a role in a razor-thin position group. That said, Boutte’s return to the field shows he’s doing enough in practice to earn some trust. Hopefully, he can build on last week’s opportunity and give New England a glimmer of hope for their future at wideout.

Grade: Incomplete

P Bryce Baringer, Michigan St., Pick 192

Bryce Baringer was selected to shore up a disastrous 2022 punting situation, including Jake Bailey and Michael Palardy ranking toward the bottom of the league by virtually every metric.

He competed with 3rd-year lefty Corliss Waitman for the starting spot throughout the summer in a close battle. Waitman grabbed the upper hand midway through preseason, but Baringer bounced back late to win the top job. Waitman signed to the practice squad as insurance after roster cuts but was released in early October.

Baringer’s been a busy man behind New England’s bottom-tier offense, with his 50 punts being the 3rd-most in the NFL. But the rookie has been reliable overall, tying for the league lead with 24 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. His bottom-10 average hangtime is also deceptive, as he’s dealt with many short fields where placement trumped power. He also recorded the NFL’s longest punt last week in Germany, booting a touchback from his own territory.

Like the rest of this class, Baringer hasn’t been perfect. But he’s been a breath of fresh air after a rough end to Bailey’s Patriots tenure, and he’s afforded the defense some excellent field position despite the offense’s failures. He’s also been flawless in an underrated but crucial role as the primary holder on field goals.

Grade: B+

WR Demario Douglas, Liberty, Pick 210 (Compensatory)

The crown jewel of the Patriots’ offensive rookie class, it was clear early on that Demario Douglas would have a significant role.

After working with New England’s staff at the Shrine Bowl, Douglas took reps with the top offense from day one of training camp. He was untouchable in tackling drills, and his combination of short-area quickness and instant acceleration brought juice to a plodding pass game. Unlike other rookies, Douglas barely played in the preseason. He recorded just five offensive snaps and was targeted twice while working with the starters in Green Bay.

Douglas’ strong summer carried over into the season opener, catching four passes and ripping off two explosive plays. But like all first-year players, there have been speed bumps, most notably his benching in Week 2 after an early fumble. He hasn’t coughed up the ball since, but undisciplined route running has been a weekly issue. This has resulted in broken plays, including a near-interception against the Eagles, as well as hesitation and sometimes frustration from his quarterback.

But through all the bad, Douglas has been the passing game’s only reliable playmaker.

He ranks top-5 among rookie wideouts with at least 10 targets in yards per route run (1.98, 5th), yards after catch per reception (6.9, 4th), and contested catch rate (50%, t-3rd). Most think of Douglas as a gadget player due to his lack of size, but as exciting as he’s been on schemed touches, most of his receptions have come 10 or more yards downfield. He’s also the only New England receiver besides Kendrick Bourne (2) with multiple deep catches (3).

As one of the Patriots’ only building blocks on offense, Douglas can be forgiven for his lack of route-running nuance. The Liberty product was expected to stumble in his transition to the pros, and the spark he’s provided at a position without playable talent has exceeded expectations.

Grade: B-

CB Ameer Speed, Michigan State, Pick 214

While Ameer Speed’s rare combination of size and athleticism made him an intriguing addition to an undersized cornerback room, he was expected to be a core special teamer for New England.

This came to fruition throughout the summer, when Speed mostly played with the backups on defense but was active in the kicking game. He went on to play almost exclusively on special teams for the Patriots, though he did post some impressive defensive reps late in a blowout to the Saints.

https://x.com/tkyles39/status/1711549204726747590?s=20

Speed recorded one tackle in six games with New England but was waived to make room for Jack Jones in Week 7 and claimed by the Colts. He actually tackled Ty Montgomery on the opening kickoff when the teams met last week.

I was leaning towards an F for this grade, but the team wanted Speed back and had a role for him. The move looks bad in hindsight, with Jones himself being waived, but it made sense at the time. Sometimes, you play the game, and sometimes the game plays you.

Grade: Incomplete

ROUND 7

CB Isaiah Bolden, Jackson State, Pick 245 (From BUF via ATL)

Isaiah Bolden was another size-speed pick at 6’2″, 205 lbs. Bolden’s former college head coach, Deion Sanders, praised him for his potential and versatility. As one of the nation’s top kick returners, Bolden was also seen as a project at defensive back whose special teams prowess made him a potential early contributor.

Bolden returned just two kicks during the preseason but nearly broke his first against the Texans. He had some promising moments as a corner, but it was a work in progress.

Bolden was placed on injured reserve during roster cuts after suffering a scary head injury against the Packers, ending his rookie campaign before it started.

Grade: Incomplete 

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENCY

QB/WR Malik Cunningham, Louisville

The Malik Cunningham hype train left the station when the Patriots outbid other teams for the former Louisville quarterback’s services. His slippery running style and surprising polish as a passer made him an intriguing project with potential at multiple spots.

In training camp, Cunningham spent nearly all his time as a wide receiver while mixing in as a wildcat quarterback on the scout team. But when given a chance to throw on the final drive of New England’s preseason opener, he showed off his dynamic running ability while making some genuinely impressive plays with his arm.

Though his efforts earned Cunningham more opportunities on designed runs with the top offense in practice, his preseason quarterback reps were limited to one more end-of-game drive in the preseason finale. He looked rough at receiver, catching just 1 of 9 targets and showing little to inspire confidence in a full-time position switch. The dual-threat was waived during roster cuts but went unclaimed and signed to the Patriots’ practice squad.

Cunningham’s hype picked back up when he was signed to the active roster against the Raiders, but unimpressive tape in a limited role brought expectations back down to reality.

He returned to the practice squad shortly after, and his six regular-season snaps didn’t provide much insight into how much he’s progressed or what his role could look like moving forward.

Grade: Incomplete 

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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