The New England Patriots surprised most NFL analysts at the 2020 NFL Draft by not selecting a quarterback to replace the departed Tom Brady. Last month they plucked Cam Newton from free agency on a one-year deal. If Newton impresses in 2020 and sticks with the team, which three players should be the Patriots 2021 draft targets to maximize Newton’s abilities?
For the longest time this NFL offseason, it looked like Jarrett Stidham would be the Patriots starting quarterback for 2020. Although head coach Bill Belichick had intimated that not selecting a successor to Brady (freshly departed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) in the 2020 NFL Draft was not by design, there seemed to be a confidence in Stidham as the heir apparent in Foxborough.
Then along came Newton.[sv slug=mocksim]
Three Patriots 2021 NFL Draft targets to maximize Cam Newton’s abilities
The Patriots appear to have a bargain replacement for Brady, with Newton signing a $1.1 million dollar “prove it” contract. If Cam can rejuvenate an offense that had noticeably stagnated in 2019, then there is no reason to believe that he won’t earn an extension for 2021 and beyond.
Assuming that Newton is the quarterback in New England for the 2021 season, who should be the Patriots 2021 NFL Draft targets that will help complement the abilities that Cam brings to the position?
Pat Freiermuth, Tight End, Penn State
As the saying goes: “you never really realize how much you need someone until they’re gone”. Did the Patriots miss any single player more than they missed Rob Gronkowski in 2019? The enigmatic tight end was a consistent receiving weapon throughout his career, and his ability to change the game as a downfield threat was no more evident than in Brady’s final Super Bowl win as a Patriot.
For what Gronkowski was to Brady, Greg Olsen has been to Newton during their time at the Carolina Panthers. Olsen was thrice the leading receiver for the Panthers during Newton’s tenure as the starting quarterback and compiled back-to-back-to-back 1,000+ receiving yard seasons. Most notably he was the Panthers leading receiver by a considerable margin when they made it to Super Bowl 50.
What better way to replicate the success that both Newton and the Patriots have had using the tight end position than to draft Pat Freiermuth in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Freiermuth ticks all the boxes as the perfect weapon to help maximize Newton’s abilities
He will provide the receiving threat that Gronkowski provided for Brady, and Olsen provided for Newton. Last season, Freiermuth was the second leading receiver for Penn State behind standout wide receiver K.J. Hamler, with 507 receiving yards (11.8 yards per reception). He was also second on the Nittany Lions with seven touchdowns, having led the team with eight touchdowns in 2018.
Freiermuth isn’t just a receiving threat, however. He is a superb blocker as a tight end, something that went very much under the radar as a major part of Gronkowski’s role in New England. As the Patriots attempt to run the ball more, especially with a quarterback of Newton’s athletic ability, having a tight end who is proficient in the run game is going to be a major advantage.
The Patriots would need to use their first-round selection, currently projected to be pick 27 using Pro Football Network’s Mock Draft Simulator, to land Freiermuth as he ranks as one of the top prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Kenneth Gainwell, Running Back, Memphis
One player more than any other has had the most impact on the evolution of Newton’s game. Since the Panthers introduced Christian McCaffrey, Newton has become a more efficient passer of the ball, reducing his depth of target and increasing his completion percentage.
McCaffrey has become the standard-bearer for the modern running back. The NFL places more value on running backs who can contribute in the passing game as well as the ground game, allowing them to stay on the field for all three downs.
At present, that player doesn’t exist for the Patriots. Sony Michel will head into 2020 as the lead back in New England, whilst James White is often used in obvious passing situations. Both are talented players however the Patriots lack a do-it-all back in the mold of McCaffrey.
Enter Kenneth Gainwell
At 5’11″ and 190 pounds, Gainwell has a similar build to McCaffrey and the similarities don’t end there.
After a standout redshirt-freshman campaign for Memphis, Gainwell is starting to garner attention amongst the top running backs in the nation. He proved in 2019 that he can be equally devastating on the ground and as a receiving threat. Gainwell rushed for 1,459 yards at 6.3 yards per carry, whilst catching 51 passes for 610 yards at 12.0 yards per reception.
Memphis felt so confident in Gainwell’s ability as a pass-catcher that they often lined him up in the slot position, something that the Panthers have done with McCaffrey. It makes him a true three-down back and offers that versatility that is invaluable at the NFL level.
Kenny Gainwell becomes the first FBS player since 1997 to record 200 receiving yards and 100 rushing yards in the same game! Dude is BIG TIME! #GoTigersGo @The_BarnBurner @SportsCenter pic.twitter.com/lshrXIeNwb
— Mason (@BarnBurnerSlim) October 20, 2019
Gainwell offers a blend of explosiveness, vision, and superb contact balance making him extremely difficult to take down in the open field.
If he produces to a similar level in 2020, presuming we get a college football season, then there is every chance that Gainwell receives day one buzz ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, the 2020 NFL Draft showed us that NFL teams will wait on running back talent so Gainwell could easily be available with the Patriots second-round pick, projected to be the 59th overall selection.
Seth Williams, Wide Receiver, Auburn
One of the most common explanations for the regression of the New England offense in 2019 was that the Patriots had failed to surround Brady with a supporting cast of offensive weapons. Julian Edelman led the receiving room for the fourth time in his career.
Aside from the diminutive slot receiver, no other receiver broke 400 receiving yards, and running back White was the next most successful receiving threat.
Newton has hardly had a variety of top talent at the wide receiver position during his time in Carolina either. Some might argue that dragging a receiver corps that consisted of Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess, and Corey Brown to Super Bowl 50 may be his most remarkable feat.
Patriots should target a wide receiver with one of their 2021 Draft picks
Although more will be expected of former first-round pick N’Keal Harry in 2020, an additional receiving presence as one of the Patriots 2021 draft targets would be highly advisable. As Edelman will be approaching the twilight of his career, it is almost tempting to add a dynamic slot presence like North Carolina’s Dazz Newsome.
However, adding Seth Williams would give Newton a receiver who can pose a threat on the perimeter as well as provide a red-zone target. Williams has amassed 13 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Auburn, including eight in 2019.
At 6’3″ and 225 pounds, Williams possesses the ideal size and weight to be a true WR1 in the NFL. He has good hands and has shown so far in his Auburn career that he can snag the ball in traffic. He shows body control and composure, the example below shows Williams securing the game-winning touchdown in the 2019 season opener against Oregon.
Auburn’s Seth Williams called game in Wk 1 last season😤pic.twitter.com/fvYlWrZfX9
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 23, 2020
Due to the punishment handed out by the NFL for filming the Cincinnati Bengals, the Patriots currently don’t own a pick in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. There is potential that they will receive a compensatory selection in the third for the loss of Brady to the Buccaneers.
Either way, Williams should be available in the fourth round of a deep 2021 NFL Draft wide receiver class.
Oli Hodgkinson is a writer for the Pro Football Network, you can follow him @ojhodgkinson