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Sunday NFL Thoughts: How have the Patriots 13 rookies looked so far?

Let’s look at each of the rookies to evaluate their performances.

We’re three weeks into the season and we have a long week, so I’ve decided to look at the Patriots 13 rookies, how they’ve contributed, and plays or facts that defines their performance so far.

1. CB Cyrus Jones, 2nd round, 60th overall

46 snaps on defense (23.4%), 10 snaps on special teams (12.5%)

Jones has seen his defensive contributions increase from 8% of the snaps in week 1, to 12%, and to 47% in week 3. He passed Justin Coleman in the depth chart and allowed just 1 reception on 2 targets for a mere 7 yards against the Texans.

The Patriots had wanted Jones for his dynamic return ability, but the fumbling issues he had during the offseason have carried over into the regular season. He have averaged 11.0 yards per punt return, which is outstanding, and 25 yards per kick return, which is also great. But he fumbled twice against the Texans and was benched in the 4th quarter in favor of Danny Amendola.

2. OG Joe Thuney, 3rd round, 78th overall

215 snaps on offense (100%), 15 snaps on special teams (20.0%)

Thuney is one of five players on the Patriots to have played 100% of the snaps (RT Marcus Cannon, OC David Andrews, LB Jamie Collins, and FS Devin McCourty are the others). Despite being a rookie, Thuney has emerged as one of the top linemen on the roster and it could be argued without much dispute that he is the 2nd best lineman on the team, behind LT Nate Solder.

The Patriots have relied on Thuney’s quickness in the run game to open up rushing opportunities to the left side of the formation.

One of the most difficult plays for a lineman is to cross the face of the defender to seal them away away from the stretch play. I’m not referring to Thuney’s role, but to C David Andrews’s aim of getting in front of #97, and RT Marcus Cannon’s goal to block #93. Defenders are just so quick these days that we watched Patriots fail this block time and time again in 2015.

Thuney is able to wall off the defensive tackle, pass the block to center David Andrews, and then get to the second level and block the linebacker. Watch how rookie RG Ted Karras and Cannon are unable to perform the same block (#93, DT Ndamukong Suh, makes the eventual tackle).

If you watch Thuney, you’ll notice his first step is blazing fast and he plays with fantastic technique and angles. Once he’s a little bit stronger, he’s going to be a dominant force in the NFL.

3. QB Jacoby Brissett, 3rd round, 91st overall

102 snaps on offense (47.4%), 0 snaps on special teams (0%)

Brissett has played a little more than a game and a half at quarterback and he won his first NFL start on a short week. He was named practice player of the week after the Patriots victory over the Dolphins. Since he’s still a work in progress, everything that was in Brissett’s scouting report still stands.

He is dangerous when he scrambles. He’s a true leader that players will respect. He protects the football. He struggles with placement on passes 20+ yards down the field. He’s a work in progress.

Brissett appears to have a bright future. Hopefully he can heal from his hand injury in a timely fashion.

4. DT Vincent Valentine, 3rd round, 96th overall

57 snaps on defense (28.9%), 11 snaps on special teams (13.8%)

Valentine has settled in as the #3 defensive tackle on the roster and he’s really emerged as a quality strength player. Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown are playing roughly 50% of the snaps, so Valentine’s roughly 30% snap contributions mean more than, say, an offensive lineman playing 30%.

He has one sack and 7 tackles on the season, but it’s been his control of the line of scrimmage that has been the most impressive.

Here we see Valentine lined up between the left tackle and the left guard in 3-technique. He engages the left guard and gains good leverage, standing the guard up high in his stance. When the guard is high up he doesn’t have control. This allows Valentine to dip low when he sees the ball carrier and rip away from his blocker to make the stop.

Valentine makes plays like this on a weekly basis. When Malcom Brown was a rookie, he was also playing roughly 30% of the snaps. I’d argue that Valentine is ahead of where Brown was at this point last season.

5. WR Malcolm Mitchell, 4th round, 112th overall

87 snaps on offense (40.5%), 0 snaps on special teams (0%)

As Danny Amendola (51 snaps) continues to return from his injury, Mitchell has emerged as a valuable third receiver in the formation. Mitchell has collected 4 receptions for 75 yards, with three of those receptions coming on third down and picking up first down yardage.

While each of these plays have been huge, I think Mitchell’s blocking in the open field has been the most impressive aspect of his game. Here he is on the near side of the screen on Brissett’s big touchdown run. This score doesn’t happen without Mitchell.

You can find any number of plays where Mitchell is working to block and free the ball carrier down the field, whether it’s a passing or blocking play. It must stem from his time at the University of Georgia, where blocking is more common than receiving, and Mitchell does it with gusto.

Blocking like this will earn him more time on the field and so long as he keeps making the catches to move the chains, he’s going to be a part of the game plan moving forward.

6. ATH Kamu Grugier-Hill, 6th round, 208th overall

KGH is the Patriots only draft pick that is no longer with the team. He was released and claimed on waivers by the Eagles. He has played 21 snaps on special teams and 1 on defense for Philadelphia.

7. LB Elandon Roberts, 6th round, 214th overall

6 snaps on defense (3.1%), 1 snap on special teams (1.3%)

Roberts was a healthy scratch in week 1, but was active in week 2 and 3 after starting LB Dont’a Hightower suffered an injury. All of his snaps came in week 2 after the Patriots had built up a considerable lead against the Dolphins. He was named practice player of the week after the Patriots victory over the Dolphins.

It is clear that Roberts is the last linebacker in the depth chart (Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo then Roberts). Don’t be surprised if the Patriots try to move Roberts to the practice squad as a roster casualty when QB Tom Brady or ED Rob Ninkovich returns. Ninkovich plays linebacker, too, so that exchange would make a lot of sense.

8. OG Ted Karras, 6th round, 221st overall

98 snaps on offense (45.6%), 16 snaps on special teams (20.0%)

Karras was asked to be the starting right guard as Shaq Mason returned from his broken hand and he’s done a good job. He has dropped from 80% snaps in week 1, to 51%, to 0% this past Thursday. Still, he’s done everything and more than you could ask from a rookie 6th round pick.

Like Roberts, it’s possible that Karras could be released to make space for QB Tom Brady if, and only if, veteran OG Jonathan Cooper is finally ready to play in the next two weeks. It’s clear that Mason is the top option at the position, and while Karras is a valuable interior linemen, he would be redundant if Cooper were healthy and available to take the field.

9. WR Devin Lucien, 7th round, 225th overall

Lucien did not make the active roster and has been on the practice squad.

10. CB Jonathan Jones, UDFA

0 snaps on defense (0%), 60 snaps on special teams (75.0%)

Jones ranks 3rd on the team in special teams snaps behind LB Barkevious Mingo (64 snaps) and S Nate Ebner (61 snaps) and it’s become obvious why the team kept him over Cre’von LeBlanc and Darryl Roberts. Jones has been outstanding.

Watch Jones navigate the open field to stop the Cardinals return man at the 11 yard line. Jones is second from the middle of the far side (Matthew Slater is on his inside).

This play seems fairly simple, right? He’s just running down the field and no one gets in his way. But Jones does this a lot to the point that it’s clearly a skill and not miscommunication by the opponent. Jones has an uncanny ability to use his 4.33 second 40 yard dash time to get down the field, while steering his way through all the traffic like a New York taxi.

“Well you know the time-speed is always a tricky thing because time-speed isn't football speed,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Friday. “When you run a 40-yard dash there's nobody in front of you, nobody's going to hit you. It's just Point A to Point B, and there's something to be said for that. Football's in a lot of cases not like that. So, a players running a ball or running full speed covering a kick or running the ball and there is people in front of him and people trying to tackle him, it's a little different speed than running a sprint on the stop watch.”

In Jones’ case, his timed speed matches his football speed and he’s fast.

11. RB D.J. Foster, UDFA

4 snaps on offense (1.9%), 4 snaps on special teams (5.0%)

Foster was a healthy scratch in week 1 and 3, but he played all eight of his snaps in -week 2 against the Dolphins. In his four offensive snaps, he saw 1 carry (7 yards) and 2 targets in the passing game (1 catch, 2 yards). It’s clear the coaching staff wanted to get him involved.

Foster was named practice player of the week after the Patriots victory over the Cardinals.

12. DT Woodrow Hamilton, UDFA

Hamilton did not make the active roster and has been on the practice squad. He was named practice player of the week after the victory over the Dolphins.

13. LB Quentin Gause, UDFA

The Patriots added Gause to the practice squad on September 7th. He is a former Rutgers graduate that spent the offseason with the Eagles.