The New England Patriots have a method for teaching their young players and making sure they're ready to perform in the NFL. While some successful teams opt to throw their rookies in with the lions and have them play for their lives, such as the Dolphins and their defensive back tandem of Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, most teams that play their younger players are bottom feeders without any other options. The Patriots have the luxury of not needing to plug holes on their team with rookies due to the lack of numerous holes.
One doesn't have to look beyond all of the first round busts who have the world expected of them as teams play them from Week 1. The Patriots tend to not play their rookies the entire season. Some teams go on the complete opposite side of the spectrum and sit their rookies until they're needed. These teams tend to draft players they think are the best player available, regardless of team need. The players get to sit down for most of the season as back-ups and tend to only play in blow-outs. They're drafted for the future and get to learn the team's system for a couple seasons before they're called upon.
The Patriots go for a healthy medium. Read about it after the jump!
Let's look at some some of the players the Patriots have brought in around the time of the more prominent draft picks.
In 2004, the Patriots draft Vince Wilfork. In conjunction with that draft pick, the team also signs veteran Keith Traylor for a season. They split starts, Traylor getting 10 and Wilfork getting the rest, including the Super Bowl. Wilfork is asked to perform as a rookie, but he's not expected to carry the entire load. He gets the veteran experience by playing with Traylor, but he gets the just as valuable in-game experience.
In 2006, the Patriots draft Laurence Maroney to be the ultimate replacement for Corey Dillon. Dillon and Maroney split carries for the season, with Maroney and Dillon nearly going 50/50 on carries. Maroney learns for a year to be a feature back and puts up solid numbers in 2007, in a primarily aerial offense.
In 2007, Safety Brandon Meriweather is the first round pick. Should-Be-Hall-Of-Famer Rodney Harrison remained on the roster for all of 2007 and 2008 to teach Meriweather. Meriweather spent most of his rookie year on special teams (see: Pat Chung), but was the 3rd safety and played on the field to give both Harrison and James Sanders breaks. In 2008, when Harrison was injured, Meriweather was able to step up and become the starter.
In 2008, Inside Linebacker Jerod Mayo was drafted. He played alongside Tedy Bruschi and was defensive rookie of the year. With Junior Seau brought on board, Mayo didn't have any pressure- there was a Hall of Famer to support him if he couldn't do his job- of course, Mayo did his job. Mayo has been a stud since Week 1, but he had veteran support next to him on the field in Brushi and behind him on the bench in Seau.
In 2009, this method is put in full focus. Darius Butler split plays with veteran Shawn Springs. Ron Brace and Myron Pryor worked on the line with Jarvis Green and Mike Wright (as well as Ty Warren). Pat Chung went the route of Meriweather and played special teams, but also played a few defensive snaps of his own. Sebastian Vollmer rode the pine behind Matt Light and Nick Kaczur before injuries forced him to start. Julian Edelman and Wes Welker.
So where does this place us? It's clear that the Patriots believe that there are two ways to adjust to the NFL. One is by playing on the field. Another is learning from the veterans. The team just has to hope that the players in 2009 have learned enough from their respective veterans and their playing time to be effective members of the team in 2010.
But what about the 2010 Rookies?
Devin McCourty - Leigh Bodden (FA resigned).
Rob Gronkowski + Aaron Hernandez - Alge Crumpler (FA pick-up).
Jermaine Cunningham - Derrick Burgess (FA resigned).
Brandon Spikes - Jerod Mayo will have to step up his leadership.
Taylor Price + Brandon Tate (basically a rookie) - Randy Moss + Torry Holt (FA pick-up).
Look for these relationships to show during the pre-season and the regular season. Clear interactions on the sidelines and the respect the young players show the veterans in interviews with the press will show how these relationships develop.
The Patriots have made a name for themselves as a team that is willing to use players on their last legs. The team not only manages to get a strong season or two from these players, but they also get years of experience passed on to the future of the team. While fans may question why the front office pursues "old" players and not the big name free agents, the clear future of the team is the young players and the veteran one-year-rentals are part of the investment in developing young players.