Winners and losers from the Patriots’ 2021 draft

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The New England Patriots have assembled their 2021 NFL draft class. There’s a clear headliner among the rookies, and — surprise, surprise — he’s also a player Bill Belichick said very little about. Alabama quarterback Mac Jones is the most important player in this class. His success will determine the broader evaluation of how the Patriots did in this draft, whether that’s fair or not. But the arrival of the Patriots’ eight rookie draft picks will have a major ripple effect around the roster.

So we decided to take a look at the biggest winners and losers from the Patriots’ moves in the NFL draft.

Winner: N'Keal Harry, WR

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The Patriots didn't draft a receiver until their final selection, a seventh-round pick. And while UCF's Tre Nixon has special physical tools (with blazing speed and agility), he's a long shot to make the team -- and an even longer shot to push Harry for a roster spot. I won't go so far as to say Harry's spot on the team is safe. But it's clear the Patriots didn't bring in his eventual replacement in the draft. His path to a starting role is much clearer than I anticipated it being. He'll compete against Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers for snaps.

Losers: Sony Michel & Damien Harris, RBs

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The arrival of Rhamondre Stevenson is probably a precursor for Sony Michel's departure from New England in 2022 when his rookie deal expires. Damien Harris now has a competitor for touches, particularly at the goal line where I think Stevenson (6-foot, 230 pounds) should be particularly useful for New England. That could help take some weight off Cam Newton, who had 14 rushing touchdowns in 2020. Harris and Michel have been playing the role as big backs in the offense, but they're honestly not that big. So New England will probably plop Stevenson directly into that role.

Winner: Mac Jones. QB

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Jones admitted he secretly wanted to join the Patriots during the pre-draft process. And as far as the top 15 picks go, it's probably the best landing spot for him. In fact, it seems Jones was destined for a fantastic landing spot. The three teams that liked him were the Patriots. San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints (who reportedly tried to trade up for him). He couldn't really go wrong. New England has a system that -- at least during the Tom Brady era -- was built for a pure pocket passer. On one hand, that system functioned at such a high level because Brady was the one operating it. But if Jones develops into a quarterback comparable to Matt Ryan or Matthew Stafford, then the Patriots should be just fine. And Jones is lucky to go to New England, where the team has recent success taking developmental pocket passers into starting-caliber quarterbacks (Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Cassell and, to some degree, Brian Hoyer).

Loser: Cam Newton, QB

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At the very least, Newton will have increased competition for his job. Last year, Jarrett Stidham didn't push Newton much for a starting gig. This training camp, Mac Jones could do just that. But looking at the bigger picture, Jones is likely to start -- at least by Week 1 in 2022. Even if the Patriots put Jones on the Patrick Mahomes timeline (where they redshirt the rookie quarterback in Year 1), that means Newton will lose his job next year. And in the meantime, Newton's deservedness of the starting job will come into question at every point he struggles. That's the nature of sports media. Expect headlines: Should the Patriots turn the offense over to Mac Jones? Heck, those headlines are already out there. Newton will be under increased scrutiny and he must perform well in 2021, lest he ends up without any suitors in 2022. Because New England will probably have less of a need for him next year.

Winner: Christian Barmore, DT

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Here's a classic second-round project for Bill Belichick. Think about Kyle Dugger (talented but played DII in college), Rob Gronkowski (talented with injury concerns), Ras-I Dowling (talented with injury concerns) and Cyrus Jones (talented with character concerns). In the second round, the Patriots like to take first-round caliber talents with fairly significant concerns. That's what New England is getting in Barmore, who may need increased structure with the Patriots to stay on task. Certainly, he did not impress NFL analyst Warren Sapp during a workout where they were together. But it sounds like New England could be a good place to get the most out of him.

Loser: Chase Winovich, EDGE

Sam Darnold Jets
Sam Darnold Jets

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Over the last two years, the Patriots have added edge linebackers Josh Uche (2020 2nd-rounder) and Ronnie Perkins (2021 3rd-rounder). Winovich, meanwhile, saw head-scratching snap counts during the 2020 season, which invited questions about whether he was getting benched during some games. So with the increased competition on the edge from young players and veterans (Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy), Winovich may take a step back in terms of snaps in 2021.

Winners: Stephon Gilmore & J.C. Jackson, CBs

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The Patriots didn't add a cornerback in the draft. And in free agency, New England added Jalen Mills, who seems like a slot cornerback and a depth option at safety. Even though New England seemed to mull trading Gilmore and even with J.C. Jackson testing restricted free agency on a second-rounder tender, the Patriots could see both players return to the team. It's just that Gilmore will probably need a raise, which New England can afford.

Winner: Cameron McGrone, LB

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The Patriots don't need McGrone to contribute in his first year on the team. He's joining an organization that is willing to let him sit on injured reserve or the non-football injury list for 2021. And that's particularly good for a young prospect like McGrone, who might need more time to develop. Not only will he likely spend 2021 recovering from an ACL injury, but he'll also spend time understanding the nuances of the NFL.

Losers: S Joshuah Bledsoe, OT William Sherman & WR Tre Nixon

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Unlike McGrone, these rookies won't have the luxury of injured reserve or the non-football injury list. Bledsoe was a fifth-rounder, Sherman went in the sixth and Nixon was a seventh-rounder. It was a good year for players to enter the draft because there were only roughly 600 prospects who did -- as opposed to 2020 when there were roughly 1,200. But that means the quality of player isn't what it would normally be for a draft pick. My sense is that a lot of rookies won't make the team. That could include these three players, who are looking to break into position groups loaded with veterans. It's a doubled-edged blade. On one hand: it's great they got drafted. On the other hand, their goal is to make the team. Making the Patriots will be hard.

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