Did you know the New England Patriots had the worst draft in the NFL this year? Well, at least according to the general consensus they had.
The Patriots finished dead-last in a composite ranking of 18 grades handed out by draft experts immediately after the three-day event. The writing for that was already on the well, after the team had pulled a huge surprise out of its hat in the first round by picking Chattanooga guard Cole Strange with the 29th overall selection.
The Strange pick, and those that followed, triggered some intense reactions. The Los Angeles Rams’ leadership was seen laughing at the Patriots’ Round 1 choice, while local and national media like questioned the club’s decision-making.
The Boston Herald using the word “confounding” to describe the team’s haul, whereas ESPN questioned the value the Patriots received out of their early-round picks. The Boston Globe even went so far as to refer to New England as a “laughingstock”.
Fast forward half a year and to the Patriots beating the Cleveland Browns 38-15 in a game that saw some major contributions by the rookie class.
Cole Strange, as he had all year, started at left guard and went wire-to-wire. Wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (2-50) — the biggest reach of Round 2, according to one metric — scored a pair of touchdowns. Defensive backs Marcus Jones (3-85) and Jack Jones (4-121) played roles on both defense and special teams. Quarterback Bailey Zappe (4-137) started his second straight game in place of an injured Mac Jones; he went 24-for-34 for 309 yards and two scoring passes.
The Patriots also received contributions from other members of their first-year class. Whether it was Pierre Strong Jr. (4-127) or Kevin Harris (6-183) subbing in at running back, Sam Roberts (6-200) helping replace starting defensive tackle Christian Barmore after his knee injury, or undrafted free agents Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell showing up in the kicking game, all of them had a hand in New England’s third win of the season.
The game in Cleveland was not the first that saw contributions out of the Patriots’ group of first-year players. However, they have not been quite as prominent so far.
The team’s rookie class therefore continues to defy its critics. Most importantly, though, it helps shape the identity of the 2022 Patriots: after several years of minimal rookie contribution, this year’s group is the next after 2021’s to leave its mark on the team.
“Got some contributions from some of our younger players here today,” head coach Bill Belichick pointed out post-game. “Strong, Harris, got a chance to play; Thornton. They had good plays for us. Strange, he’s been doing that for us all year. Zappe hung in there.”
While not every rookie had the same level of involvement against the Browns, the group made its fare share of highlight reel plays. From Zappe and Thornton becoming the first Patriots rookie quarterback-receiver duo in almost 30 years to connect for a touchdown, to Brenden Schooler recovering his second fumble of the year on a muffed punt.
“We have a lot of rookies right now that are stepping up and playing their role well,” said defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. after the game. “Big Sam got in there, DaMarcus got in late in the game, those guys are doing wonderful. Tyquan’s doing an excellent job, Zap’s continue to work hard. And those rookies are back behind great leaders at their positions and around them to help them and support them. They’re doing phenomenal.”
Wise Jr., who himself is in his sixth season in the NFL, was not the only veteran to speak highly of the youngsters on the roster. Seventh-year cornerback Jalen Mills also echoed his remarks.
“Exciting to see those guys out there make plays,” Mills said. “[They are] executing not only the things that are coached to them in a meeting room and then going out there and practicing and executing, but also doing it in the game.”
The early returns have undoubtably been promising, which in turn changed the narrative surrounding the New England rookie class so far. Though the sample size is still a small one, the group is trending in the right direction.
Of course, to stay on their current trajectory the rookies need to keep putting in the work — something Belichick made clear during his Monday morning media conference call.
“These guys have only played — it was their sixth NFL game, or less. So, there’s a lot for them to learn every week as they play new players, face new quarterbacks, new offensive coordinators and schemes,” he said.
“There’s a ton for them to learn at every position, every day, every week. Those guys have a long, long learning curve ahead of them that they’re on and gaining ground on, but it’s a marathon and we’re barely in the first mile.”
So far, however, that marathon has looked quite encouraging — a lot more encouraging than the mood surrounding the Patriots’ draft class was back in May.