Phil Perry

20 Under 25: Do Patriots have enough ‘building blocks' in young core?

The Patriots' path back to relevance needs to start from within.

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At the NFL Scouting Combine in 2020, NBC Sports Boston spoke to a Patriots executive about the long-term prospects of the franchise. This was just before Tom Brady's departure. This was before the coaching-staff shuffling that has seen Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and now Bill O'Brien take hold of the Patriots offense. This was just as it was becoming clear that the pool of talent acquired via the draft was running dry in New England.

At the time, the Patriots had just seen a pair of drafts without a first-round draft choice (2016, 2017) and two more without a first-round "hit" (2018, 2019). Their second-round picks in that span were Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson and Joejuan Williams. 

Joe Thuney represented their best player from those four classes, and he was destined to play one more season in New England on the franchise tag before signing with the Chiefs. Jacoby Brissett, Vincent Valentine, Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Chase Winovich, Damien Harris and Yodny Cajuste were their third-rounders in that four-year stretch.

It wasn't exactly the kind of group an exec would do backflips over. And, at the time, this particular exec's message was very clear: If the Patriots didn't start to draft better, things would get "ugly" in Foxboro -- and quickly.

In 2020, there was hope with Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche in the second round and Mike Onwenu in the sixth. In 2021, the trend continued to point upward with Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson leading the class. The 2022 class left folks scratching their heads in the immediate aftermath, but as rookies, they were too new to the league to be judged too harshly. 

Now that 2023 is nearly through, however, it appears as though the Patriots are still in the midst of a long-term draft rut. And the concern for the Kraft family has to be that if the team continues to turn in drafts that yield no star power, things could stay ugly for a while.

No one is left from the 2019 class. 

Dugger, Uche and Onwenu aren't signed beyond this season. And while they're good players, none has established himself as a Pro Bowl performer or franchise cornerstone. 

The centerpiece of the 2021 class is no longer guaranteed to start after a brutal Year 3. 

The 2022 class produced a first-round starting left guard in Cole Strange but more question marks than anything else. Second-round receiver Tyquan Thornton has fallen out of favor. Fourth-rounders Jack Jones and Pierre Strong are no longer with the club, and fourth-round quarterback Bailey Zappe hasn't been able to supplant a scuffling Jones.

Where are the building blocks, then? There are a few. And with a few additional draft classes providing a wave of cost-effective young talent, the picture in Foxboro can change quickly. Just look at the 2023 Texans.

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Barmore is making a push for an early extension given his level of play during a lost season. And with each passing week, Stevenson is looking more and more like the star he was in Year 2. Marcus Jones, a third-rounder in 2022, has been hurt for the bulk of the season but has the kind of explosive athleticism that could make him a threat in multiple phases in 2024 and beyond. Meanwhile, rookie Christian Gonzalez looked like a star before he was lost for the year in Week 4.

There's the semblance of a core there. But it's in dire need of reinforcements, which could include a new face-of-the-franchise quarterback, setting up this coming draft as one of the most important in franchise history.

It's a draft that could be the first in nearly a quarter century to be controlled by someone other than Belichick.

With that context, here's a look at the nine Patriots candidates eligible for this year's "20 Under 25" contest. (Editor's Note: You can vote in this year's contest here or in the voting module at the bottom of this article.)

Bryce Baringer, P

He's a punter. Got it. Still matters. And while Baringer has been far from perfect in his rookie season, the Michigan State product has been among the best at his position since mid-October. Between Weeks 6 and 10 he led the NFL in average yards per punt (54.5) and average net yards per punt (46.5).

Christian Barmore, DT

When the Patriots selected Barmore in the second round in 2021, he was perceived as one of the steals of the draft. A first-round talent with some questions about how he'd fit in a pro locker room, Barmore arguably has played his best season in Year 3. After beginning his career as a pass-rush specialist, he's turned himself into an every-down player. From Week 6 to Week 10, according to Pro Football Focus, he graded out as the No. 15 interior defensive lineman and the No. 8 interior pass-rusher.

Kayshon Boutte, WR

A sixth-round pick, Boutte was taken as a Day 3 flier. Now it's looking like he'll spend the vast majority of his rookie year going through the pro equivalent of a redshirt year. Pressed into duty on a few occasions -- he filled in for DeVante Parker in the 2023 opener and wasn't able to get his feet down on what would've been a critical fourth-quarter reception -- he's been primarily a healthy scratch this year.

He likely won't end up having the NFL career envisioned for him when he tore through the SEC as a freshman in 2020. But if he can be a capable No. 3 at some point, he will have been more than worthy of the draft capital invested in him. 

Demario Douglas, WR

"Pop" Douglas has quickly established himself as the most dangerous playmaker in the offensive huddle in New England. After an early-season benching because of a fumble against the Dolphins, he worked his way back onto the field and used his quickness to provide the Patriots an explosive element.

Through 10 regular-season games, he ranked third in the NFL (among wideouts with at least 40 targets) in yards after catch per reception. For a team looking for some young potential-star-caliber talent offensively, Douglas is their best bet.

Christian Gonzalez, CB

When it comes to having 20 Under 25 names at premium positions possessing high-end talent, there ain't many for the Patriots. But there is Christian Gonzalez.

Drafted at just 20 years old, the sky's the limit for this physical specimen. Injured in Week 4 and placed on injured reserve, Gonzalez showed enough in just three weeks -- covering the likes of A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill and Garrett Wilson -- to provide the world with evidence that the Patriots have their No. 1 corner of the present and the future. He may have more in the way of superstar potential than anyone else on this list.

Marte Mapu, S

When the Patriots drafted a hybrid athlete out of a lower-level program in the third round, it seemed like Bill Belichick was looking for the next Kyle Dugger. Mapu, a Sacramento State product who shot up draft boards after an impressive Senior Bowl, hasn't lived up to that billing to this point.

Through 10 games, he played 152 snaps, including 18 in a loss at Miami where he was on the scene for a coverage-bust touchdown to Tyreek Hill. He may end up filling the resulting void if Dugger signs elsewhere as a free agent in 2024, but to this point his value to the Patriots is TBD.

Tyquan Thornton, WR

There are few better examples of the importance of coaching adage: "The best ability is availability." Thornton began his rookie season on injured reserve and made little impact. He began Year 2 injured as well and has been bypassed on the depth chart by the likes of Kayshon Boutte and Jalen Reagor. With the Patriots hurting at receiver, he played zero snaps against the Colts in Week 10 and was a healthy scratch against the Dolphins in Week 8.

Thornton clearly has straight-line speed. But he hasn't exhibited much else to earn himself playing time in one of the league's most disappointing receiver rooms. 

Keion White, DE

Hard to have a more promising start to a career than the one White had. Against the Eagles in the season-opener, he beat one of the most accomplished tackles in the league Lane Johnson for impact plays on multiple occasions. His power looked difficult to handle in pass-rush scenarios, and his technique was sound on the end of the line of scrimmage in the running game.

As tends to be the case with rookies, his play has fluctuated since then. Up against the Jets. Down against the Cowboys. Up again against the Raiders. Down again against the Colts. But once he gets his bearings as a pro, he has the physical traits to be special, as Rob Ninkovich told Next Pats early in the year.

Bailey Zappe, QB

Two years into his pro career, and it seems Zappe isn't long for New England. He was cut to start the 2023 campaign, which served as an indicator of just how highly regarded he was by Bill Belichick and Bill O'Brien. The Patriots brought Zappe back on the practice squad and later re-signed him to the active roster, but even during a half-season of dicey quarterback play, he was not given an opportunity to start through the first 10 games of the year.

Is he a developmental player the team sees as a future leader of its offense? Doesn't look that way. Is he an emergency starter and nothing more? It appears Bill Belichick is unclear on that front. Is he purely a mop-up duty guy? Maybe. His ceiling seems to be that of a backup, and based on how Year 2 has gone in Foxboro, it's worth wondering if he may need to go elsewhere to get an opportunity at a No. 2 gig.

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