While the New England Patriots invested nine picks during this year’s NFL draft, only four rookies are currently on the team’s active roster — and one of which is a free agency pickup. First-round running back Sony Michel is joined on the 53-man squad by three cornerbacks: second-round selection Duke Dawson, seventh-rounder Keion Crossen, and undrafted rookie signing J.C. Jackson.
With the exception of Dawson, who started the season on injured reserve and was only recently activated off the list, the rookies have seen considerable action so far on offense (Michel), defense (Jackson) and special teams (Crossen). Seeing them turn into regular contributors is — even without looking at their statistics — in itself an impressive feat considering the steep learning curve first-year players face when entering the league.
The fact that the youngsters are already that well integrated into the system is not just a testament to their abilities to adapt but also to the team assisting this process. “Any rookie who comes in here, you’ve got to spend a lot of time with them,” de facto Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores said during a conference call earlier this week. “But that’s our role as teachers. I mean, we’re coaches, but inevitably, we’re teachers.”
“We try to teach the game — how to study the game, how to play the game — and that’s kind of how I view myself as a coach. I’m a teacher, I just teach football,” Flores continued. So far it seems as if this teaching process is going well for the Patriots: Michel is the team’s lead back and has registered 144 carries for 649 yards and five touchdowns so far this season. Jackson and Crossen, meanwhile, are valuable rotational players with the former recently serving as New England’s number three cornerback.
“We spend a lot of time with that group, that corner group,” Flores said about Jackson, Crossen and Dawson before taking a big-picture look at helping rookie players develop. “You know, we’ve got a couple young linebackers, a couple young D-linemen, and offensively it’s the same. It’s hard to come into this league and there’s a lot to learn [...] I love teaching and so does the rest of the staff, so it’s good for all of us.”
New England’s coaching staff obviously takes center stage when it comes to teaching, but Flores also pointed out that veteran players have an integral role in this process. “I would say our veteran players, they do a really good job of working with the young players, helping them improve, helping them understand why we’re doing this, why we’re not doing this, why we’re not doing that, etcetera,” Flores said.
“So, whether it’s Devin [McCourty] to Jason [McCourty] to Duron [Harmon] to [Patrick] Chung to [Dont’a] Hightower to [Kyle] Van Noy to [Elandon] Roberts, they all do a really good job of helping those young guys because they were young once and they had an older player help them out, so I think they all understand that,” Flores continued. This part of the process also gets supported by the coaching staff, said the 37-year old.
“It’s something we try to preach to them as veteran players: ‘Hey, remember when you were young? I do. You weren’t very smart then, so help these guys out,’” New England’s linebackers coach, who himself is currently in a transition period towards becoming defensive coordinator, said. “I think they embrace that, and we’ve got a good group of veteran players who understand that [...] we’re lucky to have that.”
Throughout the years, the Patriots have always taken pride in having strong leadership with players like Tom Brady, Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork all helping the team’s rookies to get up to speed. “They kind of take on a coaching role that way,” Flores said about veteran players being a big part of player development. This year appears to be more of the same — and the results so far are encouraging.