FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots went into the season with one rookie starter. Now, in the seventh week of the season, up to six rookies could start for New England against the Jets.
As key players keep going down, rookies keep being forced to step up. It’s a testament to their ability and the Patriots’ coaching that the team is 5-1, despite so many veterans going down with young players stepping up.
Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were replaced by Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, Aqib Talib was replaced by a combination of Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan, Jerod Mayo‘s starting role in the base defense could be filled by Jamie Collins, and Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will keep getting starting reps with Danny Amendola likely sidelined.
Outside of Weeks 1 and 2, when Thompkins and Dobson appeared to have trouble adapting to the offense, those rookie contributors, which also includes punter Ryan Allen and defensive end Michael Buchanan, haven’t played like, well, rookies.
Thompkins is on pace for 56 catches for 848 yards and 11 touchdowns. Dobson would haul in 51 catches for 613 yards and three touchdowns at his current pace. Jones has 1 1/2 sacks and four hurries, Vellano has one sack and four hurries and Buchanan has two sacks, eight hurries and two quarterback hits. Ryan has allowed five catches on 10 targets for 65 yards and a touchdown, while Harmon has been targeted just once. He allowed a three-yard reception to Kellen Winslow. Collins hasn’t been given as many opportunities as most of his rookie teammates, but he’s been solid in coverage.
Buchanan credits his teammates for helping him pick up the defense quickly. Buchanan has played 84 snaps this season on defense.
“I would definitely just say the guys that are already here,” Buchanan said. “They did a really good job of kinda putting the young guys under their wing at their respective positions. They’re just teaching us a lot. I think all the rookies that are here, we have a bunch of guys who are very willing to learn, able to take coaching from the coaches as well as the veteran players. So, I think that’s one of the reason we’ve been able to contribute to the team so early.”
Jones is a newbie, even among the rookies. He came over from Houston when the Texans cut him prior to Week 3. Jones started this past week, playing all 66 defensive snaps.
“The coaches take a lot of time, they invest in us a lot,” Jones said. “We come in as rookies and we put a lot on ourselves to come in and get better, or to come in extra to meet with the coaches and ask them for meeting time, because we may need it. They’ve really done a lot and invested in us to get us ready for games.”
Jones and Vellano had big shoes to fill in the middle of the defense. Still, Jones doesn’t feel much pressure when he goes into games.
“It’s a team effort and I practiced throughout the week as hard as I can,” Jones said. “I just go in there and the biggest thing, we have to loosen up. Can’t play tight or can’t be thinking too much. That’s when things happen.”
Harmon has had to work double duty. Not only does he fill in for Steve Gregory a few snaps a game, but he’s also taken over Matthew Slater‘s role as the gunner in punt coverage.
“I would say they make it to the point where we prepare so much that we’re able to go in and just do our job,” Harmon said. ” That’s something that they tone on so much. And something that we got put into our heads. ‘If somebody goes down, we need you to come in and be that next guy.’ The way we prepare is probably best to none, you know? It really shows when you put rookies in situations and they can still go in there and be successful.”
Harmon said he played the gunner role during his first two years at Rutgers. He handled those duties with Marquice Cole on Sunday.
Dobson and Thompkins probably had the biggest uphill climb to start the season. The Patriots’ offense is notoriously difficult to learn, but both players have picked it up more and more as the season progresses. Thompkins doesn’t feel any pressure when he’s out there with Tom Brady, though, despite taking over for players like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker.
“I try not to think of it as pressure,” Dobson said. “If you think of it as pressure, it takes the fun out of it and makes it that much harder. I just have to think of it as going out there and having fun.”
That was the popular sentiment the rookies in the locker room. Despite playing in their first NFL season, none of them admitted to feeling pressure when taking the field.
It’s possible the Patriots try to acquire players who don’t tend to feel that way, or they coach them up to be confident while taking the field.
One has to wonder how much longer the Patriots’ success can last as they lose more and more players. But at the very least, this season will serve as solid preparation for this year’s rookie class years down the line. So far, it looks like Bill Belichick drafted a solid crop.