GREEN BAY, Wis. — Early in the offseason, Robert Kraft put pressure on Bill Belichick and new personnel executive Matt Groh to perform well in the 2022 NFL Draft. The New England Patriots owner made similar comments ahead of the last year’s draft, which ultimately produced Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson, among others.
And while it’ll be a while before we know just how good this Patriots rookie class is, the early returns have been encouraging — with Sunday’s game against the Packers representing a high mark.
Most notably, fourth-round quarterback Bailey Zappe played admirably in relief of Brian Hoyer, who left in the first quarter with a head injury. Zappe ultimately wasn’t good enough to prevent a 27-24 overtime loss for New England, but the rookie drew widespread praise from his teammates for stepping up and playing well in a near-impossible spot.
However, he wasn’t the only Patriots rookie who showed well at historic Lambeau Field. In his first start, fourth-round cornerback Jack Jones forced and recovered a fumble, racked up seven tackles and got a pick-six against Aaron Rodgers. First-round guard Cole Strange held up well in pass protection and appeared to excel in run blocking. Third-round corner Marcus Jones finally got a chance to show off his punt-returning skills and delivered two returns for 49 yards, including a 29-yarder, while averaging 27.8 yards per kickoff return. Even undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler made a great tackle in punt coverage despite being flagged for a soft horse-collar penalty (Patrick Chung’s words, not ours).
It was an encouraging game for the youngsters, and it didn’t go unnoticed by Patriots veterans.
“Really proud of the young players on this team,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said in the locker room. “Had a lot of rookies step up and make big plays. Obviously, Bailey, but … Marcus in the kicking game, Jack Jones. Proud of the way the young guys played.”
Safety Devin McCourty agreed with Slater’s assessment.
“I thought some of our young guys really stepped up and played well,” McCourty said. “Marcus, Jack, (Zappe). Thrown in the fire. … I thought those guys definitely stepped up and played well.”
Rookies and veterans alike are expected to prepare and work hard in New England so they can be ready when called upon. Second-year back Rhamondre Stevenson knows that as well as anyone.
“On this team, it’s like, if you’re a rookie or not you just gotta put your best foot forward and go out there and just perform,” Stevenson said. “And I think they did a great job of that.”
Belichick was his typical self after the game and during his Monday morning Zoom call, focusing on the team as a whole rather than individuals. But the Patriots head coach did sound impressed by the performance of Marcus Jones, who was a dynamite returner in college but backed up Myles Bryant in the first three games.
“Marcus has worked hard on the return game all year,” Belichick said. “The ball-handling and the decision-making and all that at this level is just a lot more difficult and a lot more challenging than what it is at the college level, given the skill of the punters and the kickers and the kicking game in general. But felt like he had had a good week and we were ready to take a look at him in that role. And I thought that he stepped up and handled it pretty well. So, that was good.”
Again, the Patriots’ 2022 rookie class hasn’t proven anything yet. And it remains to be seen whether there are any potential stars in the group. (To that end, second-round wideout Tyquan Thornton is eligible to come off injured reserve this week.)
Still, through four games, New England should be thrilled with how its rookies have handled the jump to the NFL.