FOXBORO, Mass. — New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was feeling complimentary Wednesday morning in one of his tri-weekly video conference calls
Belichick heaped generous praise on outside linebacker Derek Rivers. He even said he missed seeing the media in person. (No, really.)
But Belichick saved his highest acclaim for 2019 fifth-round pick Byron Cowart, who played in just five games and took the field for 44 total snaps last season as he was buried on the defensive tackle depth chart behind Danny Shelton, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler.
Shelton is gone, and his prospective replacement at nose tackle, Beau Allen, has yet to take the practice field in front of the media this summer. That leaves about 500 defensive snaps for the Patriots to fill along their defensive line this upcoming season.
Cowart, at this juncture, is the favorite to take on a greater role, though some shuffling will have to be done on the defensive line. Danny Shelton is a massive human being at 6-foot-2, 345 pounds. Cowart is a slightly less massive human being at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds. Shelton’s departure and Allen’s disappearance might require Lawrence Guy to play more snaps at nose tackle while Butler and Cowart fill out the middle of the defense at defensive tackle and strong-side end.
And while Cowart lacks Shelton and Guy’s sheer mass, he makes up for it with his athleticism.
“He’s a very strong and physical player,” Belichick said Wednesday morning. “I think he’s one of the most explosive players that we’ve had or do have. But, really for him, it’s a lot about experience and technique and made a ton of growth in the last 12 months here from where he was last year in training camp, and I think that’s going to hopefully continue to ascend. I think his pass-rush techniques have gotten much better. DeMarcus (Covington) and Joe Kim have both worked very hard with him on developing things that will work for him, not necessarily what another player does or doesn’t do, but really trying to utilize his strengths and skillset. …
“(Cowart) has more of a run background than a pass-rushing background. I’d say his development in both areas has been significant, but he’s probably made more growth in the pass rush area, just because he didn’t do it as much.”
Covington, the Patriots’ defensive line coach, said the Patriots are “expecting big things” out of Cowart this season.
Cowart, a five-star recruit coming out of Armwood High School in Seffner, Fla., before going on to play at Auburn and Maryland, showed promise as a pass rusher in the preseason last summer, registering nine pressures, including two sacks and two QB hits, on just 71 pass-rush opportunities last summer. With some help from Kim, a martial arts expert who specializes in work with pass rushers as the Patriots’ skill development coach, and Covington, Cowart could be a force in the middle of New England’s defense with his combination of size, explosiveness and pedigree.