In his final meeting with reporters before the Patriots’ bye week, head coach Bill Belichick offered a midseason progress report on New England’s rookie class.
The gist: some positive signs so far, but the real conclusions will be drawn over the next two months.
“I think our rookie class has been attentive,” Belichick said in a video conference. “They’ve tried to, I think, really learn, be coachable and take the information and instruction that they’ve gotten from their coaches and also from their teammates. They have a long way to go. We’re kind of around the halfway point of the regular season. When you take a look and compile the preseason, training camp and all that on to it, we’re well past that. These guys have played a lot of football. They have improved.
“But of course, the biggest games are yet to come. There’ll be more challenges, and more difficult challenges going forward than what they’ve had already. So how good they are or aren’t, or how they respond or don’t respond, for all rookies in the league — not just our rookies of course, but everybody’s — will be a big question mark. It’ll be a big question to be answered for each of them individually and their teams of how they perform in the second half of the year.
“(Do) they hit the proverbial rookie wall, or level off, or do they build on the experience and the things that they’ve learned already this year to grow and become better and contribute more in the latter part of the year? I think we’ve seen plenty examples of both. So, we’ll see how all that plays out.”
Here’s a rundown of how each Patriots rookie has fared thus far. Those without Pro Football Focus grades listed have not played enough offensive or defensive snaps to qualify.
LG Cole Strange (first round)
PFF grade: 50.2 (63rd of 81)
That rookie wall Belichick referenced? Strange has careened headlong into it over the last two weeks. Without injured veteran center David Andrews next to him, the controversial first-round pick was benched in back-to-back games, putting his spot in the starting lineup in jeopardy. Strange said his demotions were due to poor fundamentals, which were evident on some of his poor run-blocking plays in last week’s win over Indianapolis. If the Patriots choose to stick with Strange rather than replacing him with converted tackle Isaiah Wynn, they’ll need to hope getting the uber-experienced Andrews back from his concussion can help stablize his game. The Chattanooga product hasn’t been dominant at any point this season, but he was not a liability until recently. The Patriots need to hope Andrews’ impending return from his concussion coupled with some bye-week tweaks can get Strange back on track.
WR Tyquan Thornton (second round)
PFF grade: 55.4 (104th of 114)
Thornton certainly has been active since returning from the broken collarbone that sidelined him for the first four games. He’s been on the field for 66% of New England’s offensive snaps over his five appearances, peaking at 85% in the Week 7 loss to Chicago. The Baylor burner has not, however, been especially productive. Thornton scored two touchdowns against Cleveland in Week 6, but overall, he’s caught just nine passes on 19 targets for 81 yards and carried three times for 16 yards. His numbers in the three weeks since that Browns game: 11 targets, three catches, 37 yards, no touchdowns, 27.3% catch rate. The Patriots should do what they can to get Thornton more involved after the bye.
CB Marcus Jones (third round)
The Patriots’ other rookie Jones hasn’t had a major defensive role thus far (75 snaps, four tackles, two pass breakups), but he’s become a major asset in the return game. After beginning the season as the backup kick and punt returner, he now leads the NFL in kick-return average and ranks fourth in yards per punt return (minimum 20 returns) and has ripped off three big-play runbacks over the last two games. With the Patriots’ offense scuffling, these types of field-position boosts are valuable contributions.
CB Jack Jones (fourth round)
PFF grade: 86.9 (first of 113)
No rational football observer would say Jones is the best cornerback in the NFL at this stage of his career. But the fact that he’s now held the top spot on PFF’s grading scale for several weeks running illustrates just how good he has been in his first pro season. His 49.4 passer rating against is the fifth-lowest of any corner with at least 150 coverage snaps. He’s grabbed two interceptions, including a pick-six, broken up three passes and forced and recovered a fumble while rotating with starters Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills. He’s shown improvement as a run defender, too. We’ll see how Jones fares against the gauntlet of opposing wideouts on New England’s second-half schedule, but getting this level of play, this early from the fiery Arizona State product has helped the Patriots forget all about J.C. Jackson.
RB Pierre Strong (fourth round)
The Patriots don’t yet trust Strong with any sort of legitimate offensive role. The South Dakota State product appeared in seven games and has a growing role on special teams, but he’s logged just 10 snaps on offense, totaling one carry for 5 yards and zero receptions. When Damien Harris missed last week’s game with an illness, the Patriots opted to promote J.J. Taylor from their practice squad to be their RB2 behind Rhamondre Stevenson rather than give those snaps to Strong or fellow rookie Kevin Harris.
QB Bailey Zappe (fourth round)
PFF grade: 67.1 (20th of 39)
Zappe kept the Patriots afloat and became a full-blown fan sensation during Mac Jones’ injury-related absence, becoming the first QB in the Super Bowl era to win each of his first two starts and post 100-plus passer ratings in both. Those starts came against two less-than-stellar defenses, however, and his performance in relief of Jones in Week 7 quickly lowered the temperature of Zappe Fever. For now, the starting job is unquestionably Jones’, even if a portion of the fanbase still prefers the rookie. We’ll see if that changes if New England’s offense continues to sputter in the second half of the season.
RB Kevin Harris (sixth round)
Barring a rash of injuries above him on the depth chart, expect this to be a redshirt year for Harris, who began the season on the practice squad and played in just one game. He was a healthy scratch last week even with Damien Harris unavailable.
DT Sam Roberts (sixth round)
Roberts saw a brief pop in playing time while Lawrence Guy was sidelined, but he’s played just one snap since the Chicago game, which featured him losing his rush lane on a key Justin Fields scramble. He has impressive physical tools, but it’s not surprising that it’s taking him additional time to develop as he makes the jump from Division II to the NFL.
OL Chasen Hines (sixth round)
Hines didn’t play a snap for the first 1 1/2 months of the season, then landed on injured reserve despite never appearing on an injury report. Seems like a redshirt year for the LSU product, who was behind James Ferentz on the interior O-line depth chart.
OL Andrew Stueber (seventh round)
Stueber has yet to practice or play for the Patriots. He’s on the non-football injury list, reportedly for a torn hamstring suffered during the offseason.
ST Brenden Schooler (UDFA)
Schooler already looks like not just the next great Patriots special teamer, but one of the best in the NFL. He’s recovered two muffed punts and one blocked punt and is tied for second in the league with seven solo special teams tackles, registering at least one of those in each of the last four games and five of the last six. “He’s not playing like a rookie, let me tell you that,” Matthew Slater said Sunday. “He’s playing like he’s been doing this for a long time.”
DL DaMarcus Mitchell (UDFA)
Mitchell, like Schooler, has been a special teams-only player thus far. He’s fourth on the team in special teams snaps played and has one solo tackle with two assists. Mitchell also was responsible for one lowlight when he botched an attempt to down a punt inside the 5-yard line, instead rolling into the end zone for a touchback.
ST Raleigh Webb (UDFA)
The only player on this list who wasn’t in camp with the Patriots, Webb was signed off the Ravens’ practice squad following Cody Davis’ season-ending knee injury. He’s since filled many of Davis’ roles in the kicking game, playing 39 special teams snaps over the last three weeks. He played slot receiver for Baltimore during the preseason but likely will be a special teams-only player for New England.