More than a dozen Patriots rookies appeared in an NFL game for the first time Thursday night.
Let’s take a closer look at how each of those first-year players fared in New England’s preseason-opening 23-21 loss to the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium:
LG Cole Strange (first round)
The only projected offensive starter to see action Thursday night, Strange played the first two offensive series, logging 14 snaps at left guard. The Patriots kept things simple up front, and Strange looked solid, finishing his brief cameo without any glaring miscues.
NFL Media’s Brian Baldinger shared an insightful breakdown of Strange’s performance:
WR Tyquan Thornton (second round)
Fellow receivers have remarked on Thornton’s underrated quickness throughout training camp, and he showed that in his preseason debut, using nifty footwork at the top of his route to separate from a Giants defender for a 7-yard touchdown from Brian Hoyer.
It wasn’t a blockbuster performance from the Baylor product, who’s best known for his elite 4.28 speed. He finished with just two catches on two targets for 9 yards and was flagged once for offensive pass interference. But he’s continuing to show that he’s not just a deep threat who needs to run by cornerbacks to be effective.
The Patriots also got Thornton involved as a point-of-attack blocker on several running plays, using him the way they’ve used Julian Edelman and Jakobi Meyers in the past. Thornton will be the skinniest player on the field in every game he plays this season, so he can’t be expected to truck defenders, but he held his own in that area.
Thornton played 22 offensive snaps, with roster hopefuls Tre Nixon, Kristian Wilkerson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey seeing the lion’s share of receiver reps
CB Marcus Jones (third round)
Notably, Jones did not play in this game, sitting out along with most of New England’s starters and regular contributors. That could mean he was dealing with an injury, though he was a full participant in both practices during the week. If Jones was healthy and not playing, that would suggest the Patriots already view him as a starter-level player.
With New England shifting veteran Jonathan Jones to an outside alignment in recent practices, Marcus Jones has been the team’s top option in the slot, seeing substantial work with the first-team defense.
CB Jack Jones (fourth round)
The Patriots’ other Jones checked in on the fourth defensive series and played most of the remainder of the game. The feisty Arizona State product was targeted three times in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, and allowed one 6-yard reception, which came when Jones tried to undercut an out-breaking route but couldn’t get a hand on the ball.
Jones registered a pass breakup on his second target, showing the type of aggressiveness he’s displayed in practice, and nearly intercepted the third, which was poorly thrown by third-string Giants quarterback Davis Webb. As a run defender, Jones took a poor angle on one Giants sweep, resulting in a 19-yard gain on what proved to be the game-winning drive.
The odds of Jones earning a Week 1 starting post — a possibility after spring practice — appear slim at this point, but he’s clearly talented and could graduate into a larger role as the season progresses.
RB Pierre Strong (fourth round)
This wasn’t the most statistically impressive debut for Strong, who finished with six carries for 25 yards and one catch for zero yards. But he fared well in one important area for young backs: pass protection. Strong had three quality blitz pickups, including one on a Bailey Zappe deep ball to Nixon. He came close to whiffing on Zappe’s late touchdown to Humphrey but got enough of the onrushing Giants defender to give the QB time to throw.
Those were positive signs for a player who could be the Patriots’ long-term replacement for the now-retired James White. The speedy Strong also showed good burst on a 9-yard carry late in the fourth quarter.
Strong and fellow rookie Kevin Harris played 27 and 21 offensive snaps, respectively, all with Zappe. Third-year pro J.J. Taylor took every snap with Hoyer.
QB Bailey Zappe (fourth round)
Zappe took over for Hoyer after two series and played the rest of the game. He struggled in the first half (3 of 9, 16 yards) but looked more comfortable after halftime, finishing 19-for-32 for 205 yards and one touchdown with one interception.
The rookie’s two best throws of the night came in quick succession: back-shoulder hookups with Nixon that gained 32 and 36 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Arm strength has never been an issue for Zappe, but his accuracy continued to fluctuate, as it has in most of his training camp practices.
The Giants sent an unusually high number of blitzes Zappe’s way, and he generally handled the pressure well, going 12-for-16 for 135 yards when New York sent an extra rusher, per PFF. His touchdown — to Humphrey with 4:51 remaining in the fourth — and his interception — a pass straight to a linebacker that was tipped and picked — both came on plays on which Giants blitzed.
“(Zappe) showed a lot of grit,” Hoyer said postgame.
RB Kevin Harris (sixth round)
The burly Harris capped the opening drive of the second half with a hard-earned 3-yard touchdown run, but he finished with just 9 yards on six carries and was a negative in the passing game. He had one catch for -2 yards, dropped a swing pass and botched a blitz pickup, leading to a hit on Zappe.
At this stage, Harris looks like a roster long shot in the Patriots’ deep running back room.
DL Sam Roberts (sixth round)
Roberts hasn’t done much to distinguish himself on the practice field this summer, but he was a flat-out beast Thursday night. The Northwest Missouri State product led all Patriots defenders with five QB pressure and had a sixth that was negated by an offensive penalty. The most impressive of those came against No. 7 overall pick Evan Neal, whom Roberts rag-dolled to set up a Josh Uche sack.
Roberts added six tackles — tied for second-most among Patriots defenders — though he was flagged once for illegal hands to the face. It was an eye-opening performance from the physically imposing Division II product, who now will be a player to watch in joint practices with the Carolina Panthers this week.
OL Chasen Hines (sixth round)
Dressed but did not play. Hines just returned from the non-football injury list and practiced for the first time earlier this week. The Patriots likely want to give him a bit more seasoning before throwing him into a live game.
OL Andrew Stueber (seventh round)
Did not dress. Stueber remains on NFI and has yet to practice for the Patriots.
DL LaBryan Ray (UDFA)
Played multiple D-line positions and notched a run stuff on New York’s third offensive possession. The training camp standout played 46 defensive snaps and had four tackles.
ST Brenden Schooler (UDFA)
Served as the personal protector on the punt team and was impactful in kick and punt coverage, registering one special teams tackle. With many core Patriots special teamers either leaving this offseason (Brandon Bolden, Brandon King, Gunner Olszewski, Jakob Johnson) or getting up there in age (Matthew Slater, Cody Davis), Schooler has a real chance to land a roster spot as a kicking-game-only player.
C Kody Russey (UDFA)
Played all 48 of Zappe’s snaps and finished as PFF’s highest-graded pass blocker (zero pressures allowed).
DL DaMarcus Mitchell (UDFA)
Played 11 snaps on defense and 15 on special teams.
P Jake Julien (UDFA)
Averaged 40.5 yards per on two punts after taking over for Jake Bailey. His second pinned the Giants at their own 8-yard line. With Bailey signing a contract extension last month, Julien has no chance of cracking the Patriots’ roster without an injury.
S Brad Hawkins (UDFA)
Started the game and saw the third-most playing time of any Patriots defender, logging a total of 66 snaps on defense and 10 on special teams. Hawkins mainly played as a strong safety but rotated between several positions in the secondary. Despite his high rep count, he tallied just two tackles and was targeted once in the passing game (an incompletion), per PFF.
LB Nate Wieland (UDFA)
Entered the game in the second half, played 18 snaps and was penalized for roughing the passer.
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