In Nick Coe, the New England Patriots bought low on a player who once was considered a premier NFL prospect.
Coe was viewed as a potential first-round talent after racking up seven sacks and 13 1/2 tackles for loss as a redshirt sophomore in 2018. But while Auburn teammates Derrick Brown (seventh overall) and Marlon Davidson (47th) cemented their statuses as top-50 picks last season, Coe’s productivity plummeted, and his draft stock sank.
The 22-year-old finished his final year in the SEC with just 15 total tackles, three tackles for loss and zero sacks. He chose to skip Auburn’s bowl game and his senior season to enter the 2020 NFL Draft but was not among the 255 players selected.
The Patriots ultimately signed Coe as an undrafted free agent, hoping he might be able to recapture some of the magic he showed during his promising 2018 campaign. His contract includes $40,000 in guaranteed money, the ninth-highest total in New England’s 15-man UDFA class.
What are Coe’s chances of cracking New England’s 53-man roster? To answer that question, we must first examine why his 2019 season was such a dud.
Listed at 6-foot-5, 291 pounds on Auburn’s 2019 roster, Coe is a versatile defensive lineman who played everywhere from D-tackle to outside linebacker for the Tigers.
“He can play outside, he can play inside, he can play off the ball,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters during preseason camp. “He’s a very versatile player that gives our defense a lot of flexibility. It’s kind of rare, but I think it’s a good rare.”
Last August, the Montgomery Advertiser ran a story under the headline: “Nick Coe can play any position on the defensive line, and he doesn’t care where Auburn puts him.”
Turns out, that was only partially accurate.
Malzahn and his staff sought to maximize Coe’s multifaceted skill set by playing him in multiple spots last season. But after starting at Auburn’s high-profile Buck position (a hybrid edge rusher role conducive to gaudy pass-rush numbers) in 2018, Coe viewed this new “Swiss Army knife” assignment as a demotion.
He struggled on the field and showed questionable commitment off it, with Malzahn benching him for an October game against Arkansas after he “did not meet (Auburn’s) standard in practice (that) week.”
Coe still sounded hurt by the position change when he returned to campus in March for Auburn’s pro day.
“There’s some things I could’ve done better and everything, but it was never nothing explained to me as to why I didn’t get the starting position or anything, or why I didn’t play that position,” Coe told reporters at the pre-draft showcase. “They understood what was really going on and during the whole process, so I just told them throughout this whole past year it was just uncomfortable and everything.”
He added: “It was really difficult. Just looking at it, I was thinking about even though, for me I took a lot on myself because I wasn’t starting or anything. I thought I’d be starting the same position and all. I took a lot on myself, trying to affect adversity, trying to get better on the field and see if I can get my starting position back. It really hurt me during that time period, and now I realize that I was trying to help the team out more than I was trying to help myself out. Then when I was trying to help the team out with certain stuff, it wasn’t really working out for me.”
It’s unclear how the Patriots plan to utilize Coe, but he’ll first need to buy into a Bill Belichick-imposed team culture that values versatility over nearly every other trait, especially on defense.
If he does and begins to rediscover his sophomore-year groove, he’ll have a clearly marked road map to a roster spot. New England’s defensive line lacked depth last season and hasn’t seen any notable additions since the new league year began, apart from a de facto swap of nose tackle Danny Shelton (now with Detroit) for veteran free agent Beau Allen.
Perhaps Coe, a former national champion high school wrestler who’d slimmed down to 280 pounds by the NFL Scouting Combine, could unseat fourth-year defensive end Deatrich Wise, who proved to be an awkward fit for the Patriots’ 3-4 scheme last year.
Undrafted defensive tackle Bill Murray should be in the roster mix, as well, after receiving $125,000 guaranteed from the Patriots. Fellow UDFA Courtney Wallace also will battle for reps in a position group that features Allen, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Wise, Byron Cowart, Nick Thurman, Murray and Coe.
Thumbnail photo via Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports Images