By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
How do you stay humble when all you know is going to the Super Bowl? For the Patriots' 2016 draft class, it's easier than others.
Four players remain on the Patriots' 53-man roster from the 2016 draft, and they've all led various paths to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. They've had to overcome different forms of adversity, meet different levels of expectations. The common thread is that they've ended up at this point in every year of their careers so far.
What's more impressive than batting 1.000 in Super Bowl appearances? Staying hungry. Taking nothing for granted. Leaving the past in the past. It's an unavoidable set of challenges for a team to be this consistently successful.
Ask the Class of 2016, and they'll tell you something similar.
"Everyone only wants one thing"
History tends to follow the Patriots around. It's built in to these Super Bowl appearances, as the monumental achievements of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick rise to monolithic levels. But left guard Thuney is on the verge of making his own kind of history.
According to Elias (via ESPN's Mike Reiss), Thuney would become the first NFL player ever to start in the Super Bowl in each of his first three seasons. He doesn't just start every game, he plays literally every snap. Thuney is the only Patriot who never sat out a play all season, and he's played under 100 percent of the snaps only five times in 56 career games (including playoffs).
He understandably treated Super Bowl LI like any sensible human would - as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But he just kept on playing, and the Patriots keep getting back.
"First year, first Super Bowl - I was just like, ‘This doesn’t really happen often, you have to soak it in,'" Thuney told 985TheSportsHub.com. "Got to credit the guys in the locker room, our coaches, and the organization. Everyone’s pulling in the same direction. Everyone only wants one thing. I’m just really fortunate to be a part of it and just hold up my end."
You could say that Thuney has held up his end. He was a key component to neutralizing Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones in the AFC Championship, and he continues to be an asset in the ground game with his underrated athleticism and downfield blocking. Thuney may not have All-Pro or Pro Bowl nods on his resume and his name is rarely called during a game broadcast. But that's a good thing for a guy whose main job is to keep Brady clean.
One thing Thuney does have on his resume is three Super Bowls in three years. It's no accident, considering he's been virtually perfect in the all-important "games started" column. Bill Belichick would take that several steps further.
"Joe’s done a great job for us. He’s one of our best players, one of our most consistent players," Belichick said in November.
Thuney has spent three seasons manning left guard, a position held down by Logan Mankins for nine seasons. After two years of a revolving door at the position, Thuney weathered an up-and-down rookie season to lock down left guard as tightly as any spot on the roster. Thuney takes a simple approach to keeping his humility intact despite anchoring a starting spot. He only looks forward.
"You’ve got to take it a day at a time," said Thuney. "[Last year] doesn’t really matter anymore. We’ve got to be here in the moment and take advantage of it. You’ve just got to prepare as best as you can."
"You have to stay ready"
The Patriots locker room is often surprisingly loose and care-free. For a team that's certainly all business when it comes to football, offensive lineman Ted Karras stands out as a gregarious, jovial presence. He's always available, always keeping it light. His availability is a reflection of his role on the team.
No team wants to deal with uncertainty on the offensive line, but injuries do happen. And the seamless success of the Patriots' otherwise-durable offensive line is a testament to Karras' consistency and focus. He's the Patriots' ultimate "next man up" player.
“It’s very special," Karras said. "I feel very lucky to have joined and been able to carve out a role in an organization such as this. It’s very special to me and I feel blessed and lucky."
The great-nephew of All-Pro former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras and a third-generation player whose father and grandfather also won championships, Karras knows what he was born to do. Socializing may come naturally to him, but that doesn't matter once his number is called on the sidelines.
"I love my role - but you have to stay ready," said Karras. "I’m a football player, I’m paid to play football. So when it’s my turn to play, I better come in and deliver. That’s my job to do, so I take that very seriously."
Karras played a career-high 171 snaps this season, starting twice after right guard Shaq Mason suffered a calf injury. His biggest opportunity of the season, however, came in the divisional round against the Chargers when a banged-up Mason missed three plays. Karras came in, allowed no pressures, and chipped Pro-Bowl edge rusher Melvin Ingram to help buy Brady enough time to complete a four-yard pass to Chris Hogan.
Should a similar situation arise in Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams, the Patriots feel comfortable knowing Karras will be ready to step in. More importantly, Karras feels confident in himself.
"I’m just trying to stay consistent with the level of talent and success that these guys bring," Karras said. "There’s a lot of pressure. I’m happy to keep delivering. I really enjoy it."
"I never took it for granted"
For Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts, every season presents a new challenge. And his approach to getting better is to treat them like he just turned the difficulty up another notch.
A sixth-round pick out of Houston, Roberts has had to earn every snap. It hasn't always been perfect for him. He carved out a role as a run-stuffer in his rookie season, but he got caught out of position on a big fourth-quarter run by Devonta Freeman that nearly helped the Falcons seal Super Bowl LI. Unfortunately, the latter is the kind of play that fans remember in a game that big.
Two years later, Roberts is back in the Super Bowl again and he's coming off one of the most valuable performances of his career in a limited role. He made three tackles against the Chiefs, including one for a loss, despite only playing 18 snaps.
But sometimes, a player with Roberts' workload only needs to come up with one positive play to make a real impact. He certainly did that when he wrapped up Chiefs running back Damien Williams for a two-yard loss on their first drive of the AFC Championship Game.
Belichick will likely depend on Roberts for a similar role against the Rams' formidable rushing attack. And Roberts can be trusted to treat the matchup like the biggest challenge of his career so far. As a man who knows what it's like to both win and lose the Big Game and give an uncompromising effort on every play, Roberts isn't about to see the Lombardi Trophy as a given.
"I never took it for granted," said Roberts. "They have you in the mindset that each year actually gets harder and harder. It’s just a blessing, especially for our class, being in three [Super Bowls] in a row. But it’s been harder and harder each year."
Roberts doesn't have time to ruminate on last February's loss to the Eagles. He has All-Pro Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson to prepare for in Super Bowl LIII. If he simply takes the same approach that he has over the course of his first three seasons, that's a good sign that he could execute a difference-making play.
"Last year was last year," Roberts said. "That was a whole different team. This is a whole new set of guys. All we can control is what we’ve got in front of us."
"It's definitely been a blessing"
Losing the Super Bowl is hard to endure, but watching your team lose from afar is arguably even harder.
As much as the scrutiny around Super Bowl LII will always focus on the benching of Malcolm Butler, the Patriots felt his absence even harder because of the loss of Jonathan Jones. After allowing the third-lowest catch rate in the slot in 2017 (via Pro Football Focus), the undrafted free agent out of Auburn suffered an ankle injury that knocked him out of the divisional round and the rest of the playoffs.
Lacking an ideal replacement for Jones, the Pats turned to special teams cornerback Johnson Bademosi for 11 defensive snaps. He gave up a handful of damaging plays to the Eagles offense in his limited time on the field. They were moments that may not have happened had Jones been able to play.
"It’s tough," Jones said. "Win, lose, or draw, as a competitor you want to be out there fighting with your boys, with the guys that you fought with all through the season. I think that’s the biggest thing, just being out there and fighting and going out with the guys that you put eight months of work in with."
Jones made it back to the 53-man roster and played in all 16 regular season games for the third time in as many seasons. Despite his share of ups and downs in the slot, Jones came up big in the AFC Championship Game when he helped hold speedy receiver Tyreek Hill to just one catch. He rewarded Belichick for a bold decision that will go down as another Hoodie masterstroke.
Now healthy with a chance to get into the Super Bowl against the Rams' deep group of dynamic receivers, Jones isn't about to overlook the opportunity in front of him. He knows as well as anyone how quickly it can be taken away from you.
"It’s a blessing, just to go to the program and the consistency we’ve been able to have here in this organization," said Jones. "It’s definitely been a blessing, coming here, being able to be out there. I just want to go out there and compete and fight with my teammates. Keeping that mindset helps me."
The 2016 draft class is emblematic of what the Patriots often seek. New players arrive with fresh challenges to overcome, questions to answer, expectations to meet. And they stay humble in the process. Three years and three Super Bowls would exceed any reasonable player's expectations, but the 2016 group has fought too many personal battles to consider the game a birthright. In fact, it's just another test to pass.
And it's that mindset that has helped the Patriots play three consecutive Super Bowls in the first place.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].