Few if any rookie classes in NFL history have had to deal with as tumultuous an entry into the league as 2020’s. With the Coronavirus pandemic forcing the cancelation of on-field workouts during the spring and a move of offseason preparation to a virtual forum, first-year players had to wait until the beginning of training camp to finally get onto the practice field and meet their teammates and coaches in person.
The New England Patriots’ rookies were obviously no exception, and now find themselves in the busiest period of their pro careers up until this point: not only did they have to get used to a new environment, the ramp-up leading into training camp has also seen them participate in their first real full-team practices since arriving in the NFL. And the challenges are only going to get tougher, according to Bill Belichick.
“We’ll get a much better evaluation of where they are in the next week to 10 days when things start happening on the football field and we start playing some football,” said the Patriots’ head coach during a media conference call on Friday.
Belichick is referring to the third and final phase of this year’s training camp: beginning next week, teams will be allowed to hold full-contact drills and work in 11-on-11 settings. For New England’s rookies this will be a christening of sorts: they will get to experience NFL-level speed and physicality for the first time. From that point on, there will be only two options — sinking or swimming.
“They’re in deep water and turbulent water and it’s going to get rougher, just in terms of the volume and the level of competition and becoming a professional athlete and the full day and the consecutive days that get strung together with very high demands, both physically, mentally and rest and recovery and all that. I think all the guys are adjusting to it,” said Belichick.
“I think they’re just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction knowing that they’re not really able to keep up, but they’re doing the best they can and they’re way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. So, a lot of progress there, but a long, long way to go. They’re really all in the same boat. It’s a hard-working, conscientious, diligent group that has a lot that they’re going to have to absorb.”
The Patriots have 19 rookies on an active roster that currently carries 76 men. While some of them are guaranteed spots on the team through early September’s roster cutdowns based on their roles and/or draft status, the majority will be fighting to earn practice reps and subsequently roster spots in a summer without preseason football. Not all will be able to do that given the circumstances, but the foundation in terms of work ethic and general demeanor seems to be on par with Belichick’s usually high standards.
“It’s a really hard-working group,” he said. “There haven’t been any problems. They’re just trying to do the best they can, but they’re swimming. They’re in deep water, and their eyes get opened every day as we move up in the process. And we’re still a long way from anything close to real football. But we’re doing more now than we did before, so each day is an acclimation day and an adjustment day for them.”
Of course, not every youngster that was originally picked by by the Patriots during or after late-April’s draft has been able to make those adjustments. A first group of undrafted rookies has already been released during cutdowns from 90 to 80 players (although some were later re-signed), while seventh-round draft pick Dustin Woodard announced his retirement from football on Thursday.
Those that remain, meanwhile, will put on their pads for the first time next weeks and show that they can — to borrow from Belichick’s book of maritime metaphors — survive through the waves that will come crashing down on them.