AFC East Reporter
Which NFL teams have the best young cores? FOX Sports took a deep look at every team’s core of players drafted between 2019 and 2023 to ascertain which franchises have the most promising base of young talent. Our writers ranked all 32 individually, and the final result is an aggregate of all those lists. We’ll count them down for you before the start of the 2023 NFL season, starting with the worst (No. 32) all the way up to No. 1.
The New England Patriots need to be among the biggest risers on this list in 2023. They currently have 17 rookies on their 90-man roster, and New England drafted 12 of those rookies.
Over the past five years, the Patriots have made a whopping 50 draft selections. Given their volume of picks, it’s troubling that they are near the bottom of these rankings. That seems largely due to their rough 2019 draft, with none of those prospects currently on the team. (They got production from running back Damien Harris and punter Jake Bailey but couldn’t land any players at premium positions, despite taking a wide receiver, cornerback and pass-rusher in the top three rounds.)
Because of this massive influx of prospects, the Patriots will likely have six players in starting roles who are 25 years old or younger in 2023. And they might have as many as nine, depending upon the shuffle of training camp.
A middling 25-25 in the post-Tom Brady era, coach Bill Belichick hopes to thrust his team back into Super Bowl contention. Maybe 2023 isn’t the year. But if these youngsters develop, then the Patriots may be in the conversation in 2024.
QB Mac Jones
G Michael Onwenu
G Cole Strange
RB Rhamondre Stevenson
OLB Josh Uche
DT Christian Barmore
CB Marcus Jones
CB Jack Jones
Standout: Rhamondre Stevenson
He carried the Patriots offense in 2022, even when the unit went to hell. Nothing seemed to click under the leadership of offensive coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge — except Stevenson’s production. In his second NFL season, Stevenson had 210 carries for 1,040 yards and five touchdowns. He also led the team in receptions with 69 catches for 421 yards and a touchdown.
Belichick doesn’t typically feature a running back like he did with Stevenson, but Harris went down with an injury. What allowed Stevenson to take over?
“Physically being able to do it. Mentally he’s good, his conditioning, durability. I’d say … all of those things are a factor,” Belichick said last week.
New England is considering signing free agent Ezekiel Elliott and the team has worked out a handful of other free-agent backs. It seems the Patriots are considering a 1-2 punch that starts with Stevenson. But that shouldn’t discount the way he has taken a major role in this offense — or the way he buoyed it during a really tough 2022 season.
Bill Belichick on Patriots’ QB1: “We’ll give them a chance to compete”
Potential breakout OL Cole Strange
It would be fun to pick receiver Tyquan Thornton in this section. But right now, there is no evidence he will break out. He’s simply trying to break through. Thornton, the team’s second-round pick in 2022, has barely managed to log catches in team drills during training camp this summer after an extremely quiet rookie season (22 receptions, 247 yards, 2 TDs).
So let’s take a much safer bet: Strange. After being drafted No. 29 overall, he started for all of 2022 at left guard. He dealt with a rotating cast of tackles. The underwhelming performance of the entire offensive line led the team to fire Patricia, who also served as the position coach. Strange should benefit from working under Adrian Klemm, the new offensive line coach who joined the team by way of the Oregon Ducks.
Strange posted a solid pass-blocking grade of 67.8 in 2022, via PFF, but underwhelmed as a run blocker (48.3). My sense is that the team’s failed efforts to change its run-blocking scheme limited his efficiency in that category. That part of his game should improve vastly in 2023.
“He had a great offseason,” Belichick said last week. “He really took advantage of that physically. Obviously, mentally he is light years ahead of where he was, like all rookies are. Knowing what they expect, knowing the offense, knowing defenses and can anticipate things better. His communication is way better on the offensive line. Yeah, he had a really good offseason, and it has been evident all through the spring.”
Contracts to consider Josh Uche, Michael Onwenu
At age 27, safety Kyle Dugger doesn’t qualify as a young player for our purposes. But he is also due a contract alongside Uche and Onwenu. They were all in the 2020 draft class.
Last year, Uche had the breakout season the Patriots hoped for, with 11.5 sacks. And he did that while playing just 33% of snaps. (That’s just incredible efficiency.) Strangely enough, he hasn’t quite received the national love he deserves. Perhaps that respect (and a new contract) will come if he puts up another double-digit sack total. Uche is going to get paid big money, whether the Patriots choose to extend him or he hits the open market.
The same is true of Onwenu, who has probably been even more consistent and more productive than Uche. While Uche has been a standout situational player, Onwenu has been one of the most trustworthy offensive linemen since he started in his rookie season. He is a special player who has done everything right. He’s currently rehabbing an ankle injury but should be back in time for the regular season.
- Mac Jones regressed in just about every category from 2021 to 2022. His PFF grade fell from 78.9 to 67.5. His completion percentage fell from 67.6 to 65.2. His passing yardage total fell by almost 800 yards and his yards per attempt declined by 1.3. His quarterback rating fell from 92.5 to 84.8.
- Bill Belichick is 18 wins away from passing Don Shula for the NFL’s all-time record.
- Though Belichick emphasizes adding personnel solely for special teams, last season the Patriots finished with the league’s worst unit, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic. New England was ninth-worst in offensive DVOA. The Pats did, however, finish third-best in defensive DVOA.
- Michael Onwenu has given up just six sacks and seven QB hits in three seasons (per PFF) while playing 402 snaps at LG, 1,231 snaps at RG, 892 snaps at RT, and 103 snaps at TE (from PFF)
- Josh Uche recorded an overall grade of 83.1 last season, the 15th-best among all edge-rushers (from PFF)
Bill Belichick under pressure to get Patriots back on track?
QB Mac Jones
“Big year for Mac. Expect him to be much better this year with [new OC Bill O’Brien] calling plays. Last year was a complete waste.” —AFC scout
“I think he is getting a little too much criticism heading into the season. Last year was just a bad situation for him. He is not the most gifted QB and the arm strength is never going to be ideal, but watching him in college and his rookie season, he makes good decisions and has good accuracy on his throws. I think as long as he keeps his cool in games and shows more of the confident leadership he displayed at Alabama, he will operate that offense well and get the ball to the playmakers.” —AFC scout
OLB Josh Uche
“Uche is an upcoming UFA who could cash in with a big year rushing the passer.” —AFC scout
G Michael Onwenu
“Onwenu has surpassed expectations by far. If his weight stays in check, he is a difference-maker.” —AFC scout
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more