New England Patriots fans likely weren’t particularly familiar with Joshuah Bledsoe before their team selected him in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Bledsoe, despite playing in nearly four dozen games for an SEC program, didn’t enter the draft as a highly touted prospect. And since a wrist injury prevented him from working out at his pro day, we don’t have a clear picture of his athletic profile, preventing him from potentially appearing on the various “Patriots fits” lists published during the pre-draft process.
Take even a cursory glance at Bledsoe’s scouting report, though, and you won’t be surprised he wound up in New England.
The Patriots value versatility in the secondary, and Bledsoe was a multi-talented player during his four seasons at Missouri, rotating between strong safety, free safety, linebacker and slot alignments. He’s highly experienced, appearing in 46 of a possible 48 games as a collegian — including 12 as a true freshman in 2017 — and starting every game in 2019 and 2020. And he’s a former quarterback to boot, which Bill Belichick was quick to point out in his post-draft news conference.
“Bledsoe’s a versatile player at Missouri, did a lot of different things for their football team,” the Patriots head coach said. “… A very athletic player, high school quarterback, point guard, defensive safety. Very, very instinctive player.”
Belichick also surely appreciated the image of Bledsoe dragging a fired-up teammate away from a brawl that broke out during Missouri’s loss to Florida (watch No. 1 with the yellow undershirt).
The Patriots drafted Bledsoe early in the sixth round, at No. 188 overall. After the pick, Yahoo Sports NFL writer Eric Edholm joked he was “shocked” they didn’t grab Bledsoe in Round 2. Belichick, of course, has been known to reach on safeties in the past, using Day 2 selections on projected late-rounders like Jordan Richards, Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson. (He went 1-for-3 on those picks.)
Bledsoe came off the board roughly when expected. NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein pegged him as a sixth-round prospect. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had him going in the sixth or seventh. Pro Football Focus was lower on the 22-year-old, projecting him as a seventh-round pick or undrafted free agent.
So, Bledsoe wasn’t a reach, and he has the type of positional versatility New England typically looks for in its defensive backs. But he enters the NFL with some significant concerns about his coverage ability.
Primarily a slot defender over the last two seasons (421 of his 667 snaps in 2020), Bledsoe was tasked with manning up some of the top receivers in this year’s draft class. He saw a ton of Florida’s Kadarius Toney (first round). He lined up across from both DeVonta Smith (first round) and Jaylen Waddle (first round) against Alabama. He took the lead on covering Terrace Marshall (second round) when Missouri visited LSU.
These matchups produced some of Bledsoe’s marquee highlights, most notably an end-zone breakup of a deep ball to Smith (thrown by fellow Patriots draftee Mac Jones):
… and a walk-off, game-winning, goal-line PBU against Marshall:
Less-heralded pass-catchers gave Bledsoe problems, too. According to PFF, he allowed 28 catches on 48 targets for 485 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games last season, with a 111.9 passer rating against that ranked tied for 261st in the FBS. Opposing receivers averaged 17.3 yards per catch against him.
His coverage numbers in 2019 were slightly better, but similar: 28 catches on 54 targets, 421 yards, 102.5 passer rating against. He surrendered a total of eight touchdown passes over those two seasons and managed just one interception in his college career. It came in the second half of his final game.
Bledsoe did lead all Missouri defenders in passes defended in 2019 and 2020, but he did so with just six last season and went without one for six consecutive games, stretching from late October through mid-December. He had 10 PBUs as a junior.
It’s unclear how the Patriots plan to deploy Bledsoe, but the 5-foot-11, 204-pounder could struggle to keep up with NFL slot receivers.
As a run defender, he can struggle to separate from blockers once engaged, but he does a nice job of navigating through traffic to find the ball-carrier. Against Alabama, Bledsoe shot past a pulling guard to drop Smith for a loss on an end-around. This aggressiveness was helpful on screen plays, too.
Bledsoe isn’t exactly a thumper — we didn’t see any pad-rattling hits in our review of his senior-year game film — but he plays with physicality and was strong at the point of attack in goal-line situations, standing up lead blockers to allow for swarming gang tackles. One such stuff set up the aforementioned game-sealing breakup against LSU.
With New England boasting a deep and talented defensive backfield and a handful of versatile safeties, Bledsoe’s clearest path to a roster spot this summer will be on special teams. The Patriots are lacking in free safety depth behind aging starter Devin McCourty, however, so perhaps Bledsoe will see reps there in training camp. He played more than 250 snaps as a deep safety between the 2018 and ’19 season and repped there in the 2021 Senior Bowl, as well.
Bledsoe might be a better fit as a box safety, but the Patriots are well-stocked there with Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and newcomer Jalen Mills, all three of whom can play multiple spots.