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Sunday Patriots Notes: Checking in with New England’s rookie class one week into training camp

Related: Cole Strange’s work ethic has left a positive impression on the Patriots. Just like his punt-catching skills.

NFL: JUL 29 New England Patriots Training Camp Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With training camp in full swing, there is a lot going on around the New England Patriots and the rest of the league. Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last few days that we did not have time to cover elsewhere: welcome to this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.

Checking in with New England’s rookie class. The Patriots’ rookies were the first players to report to camp this year, with 15 of them checking in on July 19, one week before the opening practice. Led by first-round pick Cole Strange, the group has seen some action during the first four sessions thus far.

Sunday being the first off-day now presents us with a perfect opportunity to check in with those first-year players. Of course, this is just a brief status update with one big disclaimer before diving in: players have not yet put on full pads, so evaluations will change drastically this coming week.

OL Cole Strange: Strange is the Patriots’ staring left guard at the moment, but with players not wearing full pads yet has not been able to fully showcase his skills as a blocker. Both his teammates and head coach Bill Belichick have spoken highly of him, though, and he also caught eyes during a punt-catching contest on Friday.

WR Tyquan Thornton: Tyquan Thornton has seen a lot of action early on in camp, and he has made some good plays while running primarily with the second-team offense. His speed stands out, though, especially when he is used as a gunner on punt returns.

CB Marcus Jones: With veteran Jonathan Jones on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), the third-round rookie has seen some action with the starting offense. Aligning in the slot, he looked competitive in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills; he also saw some action as a punt returner, even though he had one muff on Friday.

CB Jack Jones: Jones was one of the standouts of mandatory minicamp, but he has not been able to fully carry his momentum into training camp. That said, he has seen opportunities aplenty over the first four days.

RB Pierre Strong Jr.: The fourth-round running back has had a quiet camp so far. Strong Jr. was limited on all four days, departing for the lower fields to do some individual work each time.

QB Bailey Zappe: With Brian Hoyer missing back-to-back practices and not seeing any competitive drills on Day 2, Zappe has been the second most active quarterback behind Mac Jones. The fourth-round rookie has been erratic at times, but also has thrown some pretty good passes in between.

RB Kevin Harris: Harris appears to be a depth option at the running back position right now. He has seen a handful of opportunities as a pass catcher, though.

DL Sam Roberts: Roberts’ size stands out but he has not been able to have much of an impact so far. Once the pads come on that might change.

OL Chasen Hines: Hines was placed on the non-football injury list (NFI) ahead of training camp. He missed the first four practices and remains sidelined for now.

OL Andrew Stueber: Stueber was also placed on the non-football injury list ahead of training camp. He too missed the first four practices and remains sidelined for now.

C Kody Russey: With David Andrews opening training camp on PUP, Russey was the No. 2 center behind James Ferentz early on. At one point, he received the opportunity to work with Mac Jones during 7-on-7s.

DT LaBryan Ray: Just like other linemen, Ray has not been able to show off his skill as an interior defensive lineman just yet. His time will come starting Monday.

LB DaMarcus Mitchell: Mitchell stood out a few times this week. He saw time on the kickoff return team. He participated in a punt-catching competition with Cole Strange. And he is wearing the shortest of shorts.

DB Brenden Schooler: Schooler might have been the most active member of the Patriots’ undrafted rookie class this week. He saw plenty of action in the kicking game, after all, and spent considerable time working in a group with veterans Matthew Slater and Cody Davis.

P Jake Julien: Jake Bailey starting the week on NFI opened a door for Jake Julien to see plenty of reps at punter. He had some booming kicks, and it will be interesting to see how the competition unfolds now that the incumbent has returned.

As of right now, it looks as if New England could see some sizable contributions from its rookie class this year. Cole Strange will start at left guard, Marcus Jones is competing for a role on defense and special teams, with Tyquan Thornton, Jack Jones and Pierre Strong Jr. also involved. Additionally, Brenden Schooler might be able to sneak his way onto the 53-man roster as a potential five-unit special teamer.

Ivan Fears’ presence can still be felt. Even though he retired this offseason, long-time Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears still continues to hang around the team. On Friday, he was spotted watching running back drills and exchanging some words with Damien Harris after one of them:

Despite him no longer running the show at the position, Fears’ presence looms large whether he is at practice or not. Just ask Damien Harris.

“Ivan Fears is obviously one of the most influential people in my life, period, much less football career. It’s definitely tough with him going, but the show does go on — unfortunately — and Vinnie stepped in,” the fourth-year back said.

Fears coached the Patriots running backs for 20 seasons but earlier this year handed the keys over to Vinnie Sunseri. The 28-year-old served as Fears’ assistant last year and was the logical candidate to take over.

“Vinnie does an incredible job day-in and day-out, always preparing us to be our best and always making sure that we have all the tools and all the resources we need to come out here and play free, and play with enthusiasm, and play with a clear mind, the way that we can go out there and make plays,” said Harris.

“Obviously we miss Ivan, and he’s irreplaceable, but Vinnie does a tremendous job and we all rally around him and we learn from him and we’re all in this together. We will do whatever we can to make this ship go.”

Training camp has a family feel. Training camp is obviously a physically and mentally challenging affair for all involved, with players in particular asked to perform at a high level while under considerable pressure. At the end of the day, their jobs are on the line and every slip-up or lack of focus could prove fatal to one’s chances of making the roster or practice squad when all is said and done.

In the middle of it all, the human aspect of the sport should therefore not be forgotten. Luckily, camp is also a reminder of that side of the game.

Several players, after all, had their close family present as a look at some social media feeds shows:

Of course, the Foxborough Family extends a lot further. The team, after all, is identifying itself with its fans as well — and there were a lot of them present during the first four days of camp.

Wednesday’s opening session was already a sign of things to come. While fans trickled in comparatively slowly with it being a workday morning, the seats were well-filled and the energy high as soon as practice was kicked off shortly after 9:30. Players such as wide receiver DeVante Parker seemed to feed off the energy coming from the bleachers.

From that perspective, the first week of a camp was a buildup culminating in Saturday’s jam-packed affair:

The Patriots had a full house on Saturday, and even had to open the ramps up to Gillette Stadium to give everybody an opportunity to watch the session. Needless to say that New England loves its team, even with the greatest player in franchise history a memory of the past.

Having quarterback Mac Jones, who received ovations every day when he entered the field, sure helps with that, though.

Belichick recognizes Danny Amendola’s contributions. Two days before kicking off training camp, former Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola announced his retirement from the NFL. Amendola spent five years in New England, won a pair of Super Bowls, and always appeared to play his best football when the lights were brightest.

He didn’t earn the nickname “Playoff Danny” by accident, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick also recognized his dependability earlier this week. Speaking to reporters the day after Amendola’s retirement, Belichick compared him to the likes of fellow slot receivers Troy Brown, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.

“I love Danny,” Belichick said. “He was a very good player for us, had a lot of skill, mostly played inside, but could play outside. Could return, very smart, tough, dependable, great hands and concentration. He was a good football player. Glad we had him here, and he certainly was a big contributor for us while he was here for the most part — I mean he missed a little time but, he was out there every chance he could be.

“He was tough and he was a good football player. ... Very dependable. He was tough, he’d block. ... We’ve been very fortunate with the players that we’ve had here, but Danny certainly is ranked high in that group.”

Patriots avoid Hard Knocks for at least another year. With training camp underway, so is the production of HBO’s Hard Knocks. The Detroit Lions are the team featured on the show this year, and the first episode coming up on August 9 at 10 p.m. ET serves as a reminder that we will not get to see New England be eligible to do the show until at least 2024.

In order to be featured on Hard Knocks, after all, teams have to fulfill several criteria. One is missing the playoffs in back-to-back years — something that has never happened with Bill Belichick as the team’s head coach. The Patriots did miss the tournament in 2020 but bounced right back in 2021 by going 10-7 and qualifying as the sixth seed in the AFC.

Their trip to the playoffs may have been but a short one, but it reset the clock for the organization to potentially be featured on the show. Despite his affinity for NFL Films, which co-produces the series, Bill Belichick is probably not too sad about that.

N’Keal Harry’s ‘reset’ is off to a quiet start. Coming off three mostly disappointing seasons, former Patriots first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry was traded to the Chicago Bears earlier this month. Earlier this week, Harry shared his thoughts on leaving the team that selected him 32nd overall in 2019.

“I was actually asleep and my manager was at my house and he came downstairs,” Harry said. “[He] told me I just got traded. When he told me I got traded to the Bears, I was excited. I jumped out of bed. I was just excited, man.”

Harry struggled to make an impact in New England, but he is looking forward to the opportunity of doing just that as a Bear. So far, however, he’s been rather quiet in his first training camp in Chicago.

According to reports out of Lake Forest, Harry has had some encouraging moments but also dropped a pass at one point that directly led to an interception. It appears his “much-needed reset,” as he called it, is a work in progress.