Patriots Rookie Check-In: How First-Year Players Are Faring So Far

The class looks promising thus far

by

October 6

The New England Patriots’ future looks bright after their narrow loss to the heavily favored Green Bay Packers.

Several New England rookies played key roles in that overtime defeat at Lambeau Field, including its fill-in quarterback (Bailey Zappe), top defensive playmaker (Jack Jones), new special teams sparkplug (Marcus Jones) and a starting offensive lineman (Cole Strange).

“I’m really proud of the young players on this team,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said postgame. “We had a lot of rookies step up and make big plays.”

After a string of subpar drafts from 2017 to 2019, the Patriots found building-block players in 2020 (Kyle Dugger, Mike Onwenu) and 2021 (Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Rhamondre Stevenson). Four games in, this latest class looks like another promising haul.

Here’s a closer look at how each of New England’s 12 rookies (10 draft picks, two undrafted free agents) has performed thus far:

LG Cole Strange (first round)
Strange has been locked in as the Patriots’ starting left guard since Day 1 of spring practice, and he’s looking more and more comfortable in that role as the season progresses. He subbed out for James Ferentz for two drives in the season opener but otherwise has played every offensive snap through four games and has helped power a rushing attack that ranks first in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

“Cole’s given us a good level of play all year,” head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “He gets better every week. He gets better every day. He’s a smart kid. He’s learned a lot. He’s able to process a lot more on a weekly basis. … He’s absorbed a lot of information and processed it well.”

Strange, who plays with an entertaining level of nastiness, also held up well in pass protection against a talented Packers front, allowing just one pressure.

WR Tyquan Thornton (second round)
A broken collarbone in Week 2 of the preseason derailed what had been a promising summer for Thornton, but the Baylor speedster finally is back on the field. He returned to practice Wednesday, opening his 21-day window to return from injured reserve.

The Patriots saw firsthand with N’Keal Harry how detrimental a prolonged early layoff can be for a young receiver, but they’ve praised Thornton’s engagement and work ethic behind the scenes.

“Tyquan really came into a good situation because you have so many guys in that (receiver) room who have played a lot of football, a lot of years in the league,” assistant receivers coach Ross Douglas said Tuesday, referencing Jakobi Meyers, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. “… He’s truly fortunate to be able to develop behind those guys and really, truly learn from them. It’s a very ideal circumstance for him to continue his development as a young player.”

CB Marcus Jones (third round)
It took a few weeks, but Jones — a record-setting return man in college — finally earned the Patriots’ top kick and punt returner jobs. He took over for Myles Bryant at the latter last week and instantly impressed, picking up 29 and 20 yards on his two punt-return attempts. The 20-yarder gave the Patriots possession near midfield in overtime, though they couldn’t capitalize.

“He’s done a great job adjusting, getting used to the NFL, working every day in practice,” special teams coordinator Cam Achord said Tuesday. “I can’t say enough about the guy. … He’s beginning to show improvement, and obviously he had a couple of good ones on Sunday.”

Jones also had a 37-yard kickoff return against Green Bay. He had an apparent miscue when he allowed a punt to bounce and be downed at the 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter, but he and Achord both said he did what he was instructed to do on that play.

With Bryant still New England’s top slot cornerback option, Jones hasn’t been able to carve out a role on defense yet. He’s played just four defensive snaps across three appearances (one healthy scratch).

CB Jack Jones (fourth round)
The Patriots look like they’ve found a future star in Jones, who forced and recovered a fumble and snagged an athletic pick-six off Aaron Rodgers last week in his first NFL start. The brash Arizona State product played the part of uber-confident cover man after the game, as well, saying he finds it “disrespectful” when quarterbacks try to complete out routes against him. (Remember, he said this after playing Aaron Rodgers.)

Even before he replaced an injured Jalen Mills in the starting lineup, Jones impressed as a rotational corner. The only reception he allowed in the first three games was to Tyreek Hill, who snatched a would-be interception away from him in Week 4. In total, Jones has surrendered six catches on 11 targets for 86 yards with no touchdowns and one pick, per Pro Football Focus, which has him as the NFL’s highest-graded cornerback entering Week 5. It’ll be interesting to see whether he’ll keep that starting job once Mills is healthy enough to return.

“Jack has just brought another playmaking person to our defense,” safety Adrian Phillips said Monday. “You’re always looking for playmakers. You’re always looking for guys who are great in man (coverage) and who can make plays on the ball. Just seeing him being able to be out there and basically read the routes, read what the receivers are doing, he just does it so effortlessly. You can tell that it’s natural to him.”

Jones does have a few things to work on, though, namely run defense and tackling. He has four missed tackles this season, per PFF, and the Packers targeted him at times in the run game. Packing some more weight and muscle onto his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame should be an offseason priority.

RB Pierre Strong (fourth round)
With Ty Montgomery on IR, Strong is third on the depth chart behind Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, but his impact has been minimal thus far. His only three offensive snaps have been kneeldowns, and he’s played just 11 snaps on special teams over his three appearances. It’s unclear when or if Montgomery will be able to return, but the Patriots clearly don’t believe Strong is ready for an offensive role.

QB Bailey Zappe (fourth round)
Zappe acquitted himself well in a near-impossible situation last week, stepping in for an injured Brian Hoyer late in the first quarter and nearly piloting the Patriots to what would have been a monumental upset.

New England ran a pared-down, run-heavy offense with Zappe in the game, and there were a few plays the Western Kentucky product likely wants back (including his final snap in overtime). But he played with composure in his unexpected NFL debut, opened the second half with back-to-back touchdown drives and mostly avoided game-changing mistakes, save for the strip-sack fumble that was more the fault of right tackle Isaiah Wynn.

“I thought they did a good job with him (on Sunday), just trying to get him settled in and being smart and not putting him in a bind,” Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell, who coached Zappe at the 2022 Senior Bowl, told reporters Wednesday. “Continue to run the football, do things to get the ball out, and then a little play-action. I thought Coach (Matt) Patricia called a good game getting him in there, and I know if he’s the guy (this week), he’ll be much more settled. That’s hard for a rookie to just go in there and there you go, you’re rolling. They’ll have a good plan for him, but he’s got the FBI (football intelligence), for sure.”

With Hoyer still in concussion protocol, Zappe would be in line to make his first NFL start Sunday against Detroit if Mac Jones’ high ankle sprain keeps him sidelined. Jones was upgraded to limited in Wednesday’s practice but still had a pronounced limp.

RB Kevin Harris (sixth round)
Harris did not make the Patriots’ 53-man roster and currently is on the practice squad.

DL Sam Roberts (sixth round)
An injury to Lawrence Guy pushed the physically imposing Roberts onto the gameday roster for the first time last week. The Division-II product was strictly an emergency option against Green Bay, with his lone snap coming on Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal in overtime. Roberts blocked five kicks at Northwest Missouri State but couldn’t get a hand on that one.

OL Chasen Hines (sixth round)
Hines is the Patriots’ second backup interior lineman behind Ferentz, and the Patriots haven’t needed his services thus far. He’s dressed for two games but has yet to play a snap.

OL Andrew Stueber (seventh round)
Stueber is on the reserve/non-football injury list and is not expected to play this season.

ST Brenden Schooler (UDFA)
The highly athletic Schooler has all the makings of the Patriots’ next special teams great. He’s already excelling in kick and punt coverage, filling the gunner spot opposite Slater. His horse-collar tackle penalty against Green Bay initially was decried as “soft” by ex-Patriot Patrick Chung, but on further review, it appeared to be the correct call. Schooler has played 65 special teams snaps this season, trailing only Slater, Cody Davis and Jahlani Tavai.

DL DaMarcus Mitchell (UDFA)
Like Schooler, Mitchell has been a special teams-only player. He’s played 59 snaps in the kicking game and has one tackle.

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Thumbnail photo via Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports Images
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