Recent draft picks take leading roles in Patriots’ win over Browns
October 16th, 2022
The Patriots have been a veteran team for quite some time. In fact, with an average age of 26.98 years old, their Week 1 roster was the second-oldest in the league. That number, skewed by some long-term veterans, may have hid just to what extent the Patriots had worked to add youth to their roster in the offseason.
Since Week 1, one of the leading storylines of this team has been recent draft picks and other young players stepping into and even succeeding in key roles. It’s felt a bit unusual seeing so many first and second year players make an impact. Over the past few years, the Patriots have seemingly been hesitant to put such players in those pivotal spots. But with injuries mounting they’ve had no other choice – and the results have trended in their favor.
That came to a head in Sunday’s 38-15 win over the Cleveland Browns, when it felt like just about every other snap saw a first or second-year player making a play. Who stood out the most of the Patriots’ young core’? Here’s a quick run through of who popped at first glance without diving into the film…
QB Bailey Zappe
Oct 16, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) lines up for the snap against the Cleveland Browns during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
Zappe’s first impression in New England was as a much-maligned draft pick when the Patriots took him 137th overall in this past NFL Draft. Granted, some of that was due to the selection of a quarterback in general – just a year after the team invested the 15th overall pick in Mac Jones – but fans weren’t sure what to make of the gunslinger from Western Kentucky by way of FCS-level Houston Baptist.
That reaction now feels like a long, long time ago. Zappe Feverhas taken over the region, as he’s stepped in in place of an injured Jones and backup Brian Hoyer. After what felt like a feeling-out process in his first career start last week against the Lions, the Patriots let Zappe open up the offense a bit more in Cleveland and he rewarded that decision completing 24 of his 34 pass attempts for 309 yards and two turnovers with no touchdowns. He’s only the second Patriots quarterback ever to hit all of those benchmarks in a single game, with Tom Brady having done so on 15 occasions.
Although Zappe threw two touchdowns and had a handful of other deep passes, the play from the game that’s probably the most worth getting excited about long-term is this throw to Tyquan Thornton, which came on a 1st & 15 early in the fourth quarter. A lot of what Zappe does here he does at an advanced level including the way he senses pressure and manipulates the pocket, finds the mismatch downfield, and places the ball away from the defender and leads Tyquan Thornton for the 21-yard completion and a first down.
CLEVELAND, OHIO – OCTOBER 16: Rhamondre Stevenson #38 of the New England Patriots runs past Greg Newsome II #20 of the Cleveland Browns while scoring a touchdown during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 16, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Sunday’s game didn’t quite see Stevenson hit the volume from his career-high 161-yard performance last week, but he was just as impactful. His 31-yard touchdown run on 3rd & 10 late in the second quarter was a major momentum-shifting play for the Patriots, and he also made some significant blocks in pass protection to help open things up for Zappe.
In total, Stevenson finished with 76 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns, while adding four catches for another 15 yards. With 23 total touches, he was once again the focal point of the offense, showing just how much the Patriots trust him in his second year of the league. The question now is, will he be able to hold up over the course of the full season if this significant workload continues?
WR Tyquan Thornton
CLEVELAND, OHIO – OCTOBER 16: Tyquan Thornton #11 of the New England Patriots catches a pass during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 16, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
One of the biggest disappointments of the early part of this Patriots season was that Thornton wasn’t able to be involved due to a broken collarbone he suffered in the preseason. After putting together a great training camp, we’ve had to wait to see how that development would translate to real NFL game action.
After a relatively limited role in his first game back last week, Thornton had a chance to shine against Cleveland – especially with Nelson Agholor out. He tied for the team lead with four catches, picking up 37 yards and a touchdown. He also had another three carries, 16 yards, and a touchdown on the ground.
While Thornton’s speed – he ran a near-record 4.28 second 40-yard dash at the Combine this spring – has been at the center of his hype since before the draft, but he really put his full toolbox on display on Sunday. On his receiving touchdown, he got off the line clean with strong footwork on his release, then had the awareness to slightly adjust his route to open up the throwing window for Zappe. His touchdown run paired his speed with his quickness, as demonstrated by how little speed he lost on the cut going from running east-west to north-south, getting up the field before blowing by defenders on his way to the end zone.
CLEVELAND, OHIO – OCTOBER 16: Jack Jones #13 of the New England Patriots celebrates after an incomplete pass during the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 16, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)
Jones didn’t have a statement play on Sunday like he did in the previous two games with two interceptions, but he showed up well in coverage when he was on the field. His big play came late in the first half, when he broke up a pass to the end zone intended for Browns top receiver Amari Cooper. The play kept it a 10-3 game at the time, and Cleveland was limited to just a field goal heading into the half.
CB Marcus Jones
Hold up... That might've been a Marcus Jones INT 👀👀👀 Looked like his knee came down in bounds. If the Pats would've challenged it, they might've won. Insane play by the rookie! #Patriotspic.twitter.com/5rjtHpXf5k
It felt like Jones was on the field more defensively for the Patriots in this game than he had been for any other to this point in the season. That may have been due to the absence of Jonathan Jones, who missed the game with an ankle injury. The y ounger Jones made the most of his opportunities, highlighted by a pass breakup (and possible INT) on 3rd & 9 late in the third quarter.
Jones also continues to show up in the kicking game as well. He returned three punts in this one for 35 yards, including a 16-yard return following that pass breakup that jump-started what ended up being the put-away drive for the Patriots.
Dugger is somehow the veteran of this group, in his third year in the league, but he deserves to be included as he was arguably the Patriots’ best defender in this game. He was all over the field, and played a big part in helping the Patriots’ shut down Nick Chubb and the Browns’ high-powered rushing attack. Tackles can be a flawed stat in an exact sense, but they do give a general idea of how involved a player was. Dugger led the team with eight tackles – double the next closest Patriots player.
In the passing game, his quick recognition of an underthrown ball led to an interception on the Patriots’ first defensive drive. He would record two more pass breakups throughout the game.
For the second time this season, Schooler was Johnny-on-the-spot to help clinch a game late. With the Patriots up 9, he out-raced Browns returner Chester Rogers to a muffed punt, falling on the ball to maintain the possession. He also created a viral moment right after, as he tried to give the ball to Bill Belichick.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.