One of the overriding themes of the New England Patriots’ 2019 draft class was an emphasis on proven collegiate production.
Go right down the list:
— Wide receiver N’Keal Harry (first round) surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in each of his final two seasons at Arizona State.
— Cornerback Joejuan Williams (second round) led the SEC in pass breakups and passes defended in 2018.
— Defensive end Chase Winovich (third round) racked up 18 sacks and 44 1/2 sacks at Michigan.
— Running back Damien Harris (third round) rushed for 3,073 yards at Alabama and ranks third in SEC history in yards per carry.
— Offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste (third round) and Hjalte Froholdt (fourth round) started 30 and 37 collegiate games, respectively.
— Quarterback Jarrett Stidham (fourth round) was a second-team All-SEC selection in 2017.
— Punter Jake Bailey (fifth round) is Stanford’s all-time leader in punting average.
Even cornerback Ken Webster (seventh round) broke up 11 passes as a sophomore before a knee injury sidelined him for a full season and relegated him to part-time duty.
The lone exception to this rule — the one 2019 Patriots draft pick who was not a standout performer at any point during his college career — was defensive lineman Byron Cowart.
The appeal of Cowart, whom the Patriots traded up to select in the fifth round (No. 159 overall), is in his potential, not his past production. Because there simply wasn’t much of that during his four collegiate seasons — two-plus in the SEC and one in the Big Ten.
The top-ranked recruit in the country coming out of Florida’s Armwood High School in 2015, Cowart was a major disappointment at Auburn, registering just 15 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss and zero sacks in 26 games before leaving the program a month into his junior season.
After spending the rest of 2017 at a community college while helping care for his ailing mother, Cowart landed at Maryland and finally found some semblance of consistency. He started all 12 games for the Terps in 2018, finishing with 38 tackles, five TFLs, three sacks and two interceptions — not eye-popping stats, but far more respectable than what he’d managed at his previous stop.
What can the Patriots expect from Cowart? Probably not much right away. We reviewed film from five of the 21-year-old’s games at Maryland, plus his performance at the Senior Bowl. Although he showed flashes and has some enviable physical tools, he’s far from a complete player at this point in his career.
First, the good: Cowart is big (6-foot-3, 298 pounds), has long arms (33 3/4 inches) and uses his hands well. Many of the positive plays we found on tape resulted from him swatting opposing tackles’ hands away as he rushed the passer.
As a run defender, Cowart generally displayed good strength at the point of attack, which Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio praised during his post-draft news conference.
Cowart’s two interceptions last season both came off deflections. He nearly returned one of them for a touchdown but fumbled at the goal line.
As for his flaws, Cowart is too predictable in his pass rushing, lacking the burst, bend and creativity needed to hassle quarterbacks on a consistent basis. He ranked 74th among draft-eligible edge defenders in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rush productivity metric. Expect to see him working closely with Patriots pass-rush guru Joe Kim this summer to expand his repertoire.
Cowart also doesn’t possess great play speed — his testing numbers weren’t stellar — and struggled to separate himself from blockers after initial contact.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Patriots’ plan is for Cowart. He primarily lined up over or outside the tackle in Maryland’s 3-4 defense, shifting inside on only a few snaps each game. He’s at least 20 pounds heavier than most Patriots defensive ends, though, suggesting he’ll likely play an Adam Butler-type role as a sub-package defensive tackle.
While Butler is more of a pass-rush specialist, Cowart was better in run defense than he was pressuring the QB at the collegiate level. Caserio called him “probably a little bit more of a run player.”
Cowart did play 4-3 D-tackle at the Senior Bowl and was a handful for opposing guards, blowing up one running play and nearly getting his hand on a pass from Stidham, his new Patriots teammate.
A sign of things to come? The Pats hope so.