Early predictions for Patriots’ five most impactful rookies in 2024

Early predictions for Patriots’ five most impactful rookies in 2024 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Having fully-formed opinions on any first-year player following the rookie minicamp portion of the NFL schedule would be lunacy.

It’s a couple of practices. In shorts and T-shirts. And there’s very little in the way of truly competitive moments.

But now that reporters have had an opportunity to get their eyes on Patriots draft picks — now that videos dot the internet showing New England‘s first-year players performing football-ish acts on a football field — it’s as good a time as any to ask what 2024 will look like for these guys.

As the offseason progresses, we’ll have further opportunities to watch the 2024 draft class — and the undrafted rookies — perform in OTAs, mandatory minicamp and eventually training camp. At that point, opinions will have coalesced.

Until then, knowing what we don’t know about four months before the start of the regular season, let’s take an almost-blind stab at which five players will be the most impactful from the Patriots’ rookie class.

1. Ja’Lynn Polk, WR

The No. 2 receiver at Washington last year very well could be the best player at his position on his new team. Based on where he aligned at rookie minicamp, it seems as though the Patriots are comfortable with the idea of Polk playing a role similar to the one he played for the Huskies, as a do-it-all “Z” who can be trusted to move the chains with pro-ready middle-of-the-field chops.

The Patriots have other options to fulfill that particular gig; Kendrick Bourne and K.J. Osborn are vets who could function as “Z” options. But Polk’s sure hands, explosive lower-half (10-foot-9 broad jump at the combine, 88th percentile), and savvy against zone coverages should make him a dependable piece for the Patriots passing game from Day 1.

2. Layden Robinson, OL

We’ll get to the quarterback later. We’ll get to offensive tackle later. After Polk, it’s Robinson who may have the best chance to start Week 1. After spending his collegiate career at Texas A&M at right guard, the Patriots threw him in at left guard during rookie minicamp, and perhaps that will be his best opportunity to contribute early and often as a pro.

Cole Strange is just two years removed from being a first-round pick, but the soon-to-be 26-year-old left guard suffered a knee injury late last season. Jim Nagy, executive director of the Senior Bowl, made an interesting point about Robinson during a recent spot on WEEI.

“He’s probably a guard only,” Nagy said. “And the reason it tells me that I think the Patriots probably see him as a starter is that I don’t think he can play center, and I don’t think he can play tackle, and you’re certainly not in the business of drafting one-position backup offensive linemen… If you just saw Layden Robinson as a backup, you probably wouldn’t have drafted him in the fourth round.”

Maybe the Patriots will be willing to give him a redshirt year before he enters the starting lineup, but the guess here is that he’ll be given an opportunity to compete for a starting job right away.

There will be a competition at quarterback, but with ready-to-roll veteran Jacoby Brissett on the roster, Maye will have to secure a decisive victory in training camp for the Patriots to be willing to thrust the North Carolina product into the starting lineup from the jump.

He has mechanical elements to his game that the coaching staff will focus on. Footwork. Throwing motion. And then there’s the Xs and Os. What he’ll be asked to know in Foxboro will be vastly different than the scheme he ran for the Tar Heels. Add it all up, and it does seem as though there’s little upside — particularly for a team that’s not truly in contention this year — to trotting Maye out as the starter in September.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It certainly doesn’t mean that by some point in the middle of the season he won’t be starting. But the No. 3 overall pick may have a tougher barrier to entry for a starting role than the two players ahead of him on this list.

At some point in time, he’s going to be the most impactful player on the entire roster. But he might not be the most impactful rookie for the Patriots right off the bat in Year 1.

4. Caedan Wallace, OT

Like Maye, Wallace has plenty of learning to do. He’s played more football than Maye, having started 40 games at right tackle for Penn State. But the Patriots have a right tackle they just paid a boatload of money in Mike Onwenu. Their need is at left tackle. And it’s urgent.

But they can’t force Wallace to be ready sooner than he’s capable of just because there’s a need there. Taking a player in the third round and asking him to protect his quarterback’s blindside when he didn’t in college would be asking a lot. Perhaps the Patriots feel as though they can get by with veteran Chukwuma Okorafor, which would allow Wallace to get prepared behind the scenes. Like Maye, Wallace could end up starting sooner rather than later.

During training camp, Wallace will have an opportunity to make this look like an underestimation of his abilities. There’s no doubt that if he’s a Week 1 starter at one of the game’s premier positions, and if he plays effectively there, he could ultimately be deserving of the No. 1 spot on this list. But slotting him here for now feels right.

There’s something working in Baker’s favor that could make him even more productive as a rookie than his fourth-round label would indicate: The Patriots don’t have many wideouts who look like “X” receivers. Baker is one. His 6-foot-1 frame and nearly 80-inch wingspan helped him be an acrobatic-catch machine outside the numbers at UCF.

Though he wasn’t a true burner (4.54-second 40) at the combine, he was fast enough to be a consistent threat for an explosive play in college. His drop rate last season (just over 10 percent) was higher than he would’ve liked, but if he can get that issue ironed out — and if the Patriots feel as though they need someone with his physical skill set to live on the outside — he could be a quick contributor as a rookie.

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