The Patriots’ defensive youth movement is underway

Underneath the ups and downs of the Patriots’ season has been a slow, second-half rise.
A youth movement.
The Patriots’ top two rookie draft picks, Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche, have seen their five highest snaps counts of the year in the team’s past five games. They are among several young players seeing more playing time, particularly on defense. Uche quietly starred over the Los Angeles trip, racking up five pressures and allowing zero catches in seven snaps of pass coverage.
His growth, as a quick-twitch pass rusher who was a healthy scratch earlier this season, has been notable.
“It’s taken a little time for (Uche) to adjust and for us to fully understand how he functions in those roles and which ones are the best fit for him depending on what our opponents are doing and what we have to deal with,” Pats coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “He made improvement through training camp then missed some time, then has come back and played well enough to earn more opportunities on the field. So, we’ll just continue to see how that goes.”
Though in LA, Uche was overshadowed by another rookie, Myles Bryant, who had last been heard from in training camp, when he became the latest undrafted corner to make waves. Against the Rams, Bryant made his first interception, wrestling possession away from receiver Robert Woods on a low, errant throw. Perhaps more impressively, he’s wrestled away time from veteran teammates at a new position.
“We were trying to evaluate him at the corner position first, but, between doing scout team and having depth just in general on defense, he’s learned some other positions, as well — more safety-type roles,” Belichick said of Bryant. “He’s a smart kid, he’s picked things up well, and he’s shown that he can handle multiple positions and multiple roles and function effectively in them. So, he’s done a good job for us.”
Bryant said earlier this season his NFL learning curve was flattened by his experience at Washington, where his college coaches stole some of the Pats’ defensive concepts after visiting Foxboro a few years ago. Bryant’s advanced understanding of the playbook has been fertilizer for his the strengths of his game, instincts and quickness, which he’s been able to showcase more recently. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder said Friday the unusual circumstances of this season, created by the COVID-19 pandemic, have heightened his focus.
“I actually look at 2020 as kind of a blessing in disguise just in terms of us not being able to do stuff really outside of football and really just being locked in on football,” Bryant said. “So I mean with that, there’s not really too many distractions out there, and I can just hone in on whatever game plan we have going this week or what new coverages, what the other team does. So for me, I really just try to take the time out and learn this stuff.”
Such growth has come slower for players like second-year defensive back Joejuan Williams, who’s also transitioned to playing safety part-time. Though Williams’ shift was born from necessity, as he’s struggled covering pro wideouts 1-on-1 and now primarily faces tight ends. Had Williams instead hit as expected for the Patriots, who traded up to 45th overall to select him in 2019, their youth movement might be sprinting into a brighter future. It would be conceivable that Williams might offer perhaps as a starting replacement for Stephon Gilmore, whose contract expires after next season, or J.C. Jackson, should the team fail to retain him this offseason or next.
Instead, defensive linemen Chase Winovich and Byron Cowart stand as the Patriots’ lone impact defenders from that draft class. Winovich is an interesting case, given the roller coaster of playing time he’s ridden this year, from seeing 5% of defensive snaps early November to 98% two weeks later and then 38% last week against the Rams. Indisputably one of the Pats’ best pass rushers, Winovich has nonetheless ceded some of his snaps to rookie Anfernee Jennings and practice-squad defensive end Tashawn Bower, two more young contributors.
Cowart has been steadier. The second-year defensive tackle has played the best football of his career the last month, particularly on passing downs. How the team projects his future could affect offseason decisions, with fellow D-linemen Deatrich Wise, Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy all set to hit free agency.
The Pats have already declared their faith in Dugger, first by selecting him with their top pick last April and starting him in their past five games. Dugger is the future of their secondary; a rare 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety with 4.4 speed, a knack for big hits, coverage versatility and talent for blitzing. After a midseason injury, it’s taken Dugger longer to arrive than expected.
But his future, like that of the Patriots defense, has slowly and steadily arrived.

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