New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick often talks about how second-year players make the biggest leap in ability over the offseason. Rookies spend their offseason preparing for the NFL Combine and the Draft instead of for football and then they have a lot of information thrown their way. Sophomores get the full offseason to take what they learned as rookies and apply it for maximum growth.
Belichick spoke with the media at Tuesday’s practice to confirm that every player on the roster (including LB Dont’a Hightower, WR Malcolm Mitchell, and DT Alan Branch) was in attendance and to discuss a number of players- from CB Jonathan Jones to QB Jacoby Brissett to RB D.J. Foster to CB Cyrus Jones- making that sophomore jump.
“Jonathan [Jones] is one of a number of players that are in their second year that you usually see a level of jump from those guys,” Belichick said, “because they’ve been through our system before and have a better understanding of what’s in the league and other schemes and so forth. I think all those guys from our rookie class last year have all made good progress – definitely ahead of where they were last year.”
“Last year’s rookie class [has] gained a lot of experience and has a lot better chance to make the jump this year based on all the things that are in the second year players’ favor,” Belichick added.
“[Cyrus Jones is] another player in that rookie to second year category,” Belichick continued. “He’s definitely further ahead than he was last year...they’re all ahead of where they were last year.”
The Patriots have a lot of rising sophomores expected to take on expanded roles or take a step forward in their production. LG Joe Thuney is looking to build on a solid rookie season as a starter and DT Vincent Valentine, WR Malcolm Mitchell, and LB Elandon Roberts look to improve their rotational contributions, while Brissett, Foster, the Joneses, OG Ted Karras, and DT Woodrow Hamilton look to solidify roster spots.
This sophomore jump could also expand to include players like CB Eric Rowe and LB Kyle Van Noy that joined the Patriots midseason and were not a part of the offseason program where the team lays the foundation for the upcoming year.
“It’s a teaching camp,” Belichick explained about spring activities. “The most important thing for us is to get the information taught so the players have a chance to go out and execute it competitively in training camp.”
“I’d like to think everybody improves every year,” Belichick added. “You have a chance to learn from the previous year and start all over again and put that to use. I think we all gain something. There’s definitely a margin to it as the years add up, but yeah, sure. I think everybody improves in that extra year of experience.”
The young rotation of players allowed the Patriots to exchange some draft picks for proven veterans and together they should form one of the deepest and youngest rosters in the Belichick era.
It also doesn’t hurt that Belichick sees some similarities between this year’s rookie class and last year’s.
“This group [of rookies] has worked hard, similar to last year’s group,” Belichick said. “Yep, they’ve been good. They’ve worked hard. They’re trying. They’ve got a long way to go, but they’re getting better every day and they’re making progress. But they’ve got a long way to go, so we’ll see. Just keep trudging along.”
If the Patriots find another class of rookies that can contribute as much as the 2016 rookies, then there’s no limit to what New England can do next offseason with so many players still on rookie deals.
Belichick also had an excellent Q&A session on what he’s seen from CB Malcolm Butler:
Q: What have you seen from Malcolm Butler this spring since his return?
BB: He’s been here.
Q: Is Butler the same guy now as before?
BB: He has another year of experience, but he’s been here this spring.
“How’s Butler?” “He’s here.”