The Patriots’ promising rookie class is trending up for the stretch run
November 17th, 2022
One of the biggest parts of the bye week for NFL teams is making adjustments. Not only do teams adjust what they’ve been doing to that point in the season to be more efficient, they also may add entire new elements to their offense or defense.
Sometimes, that means incorporating new concepts into the playbook – like we discussed earlier this week with RPOs. At the same time, these adjustments can come at a player-specific level as well.
One group to look to in that regard is rookies. It’s a bit of an NFL cliché that ‘there are no rookies once you get late enough in the year,’ but that idea does hold some weight. First-year players should be much more comfortable now than they were in September and October, and their teams should have a better idea of how best to get them involved.
As hesitant as they’ve been with rookies in the past – especially with offensive skill position players – the Patriots haven’t been an exception to that rule. They haven’t had many skill position rookies in impact roles in recent years, but the ones they have had have becomes much more involved as Thanksgiving approaches.
Take Rhamondre Stevenson last year. Over the first nine games of the season, Stevenson was active for just five of those games. In those five, he was on the field for 22.4 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps. That number increased significantly at and after Week 10, as he played 43.3 percent of the team’s offensive snaps down the stretch. During that time, he also made the first two starts of his career.
The increase in reps didn’t come with empty snaps either. Stevenson’s average per-game production just about doubled from Week 10 on compared to the first half of the season.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Rhamondre Stevenson #38 of the New England Patriots avoids a tackle by Duron Harmon #21 of the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The same trend can be seen with Jakobi Meyers in his rookie year in 2019. Meyers had a usage rate of 35.9 percent after Week 9, which increased to 42 percent from Week 10 and on. During that later stretch, his targets per game doubled from the start of the season, and he made his first start as well.
Will this trend come into play again in 2022? As the Patriots look to jump-start their offense coming out of the bye week, rookie second-round pick wide receiver Tyquan Thornton is a player who could definitely become more of a factor.
Thornton spent the first four weeks of the season on IR, but has jumped right into an involved role since, at least in terms of snap counts. Despite the Patriots’ depth at the wide receiver position, Thornton’s usage rate to begin his career is at 66 percent in the games he’s played in. That’s significantly higher than where Stevenson and Meyers were at this point (with Meyers probably being a better comp, since they play the same position.
While he’s been on the field quite a bit, Thornton’s involvement in the offensive game plan has fluctuated. His first game back – against the Lions in Week 5 – seemed like a reasonable feeling out process. It was the next week when things got exciting. Thornton caught four of his five targets for 37 yards and a score, and was handed the ball on multiple designed runs – one of which resulted in his second touchdown of the day.
Since that game Thornton has been targeted just 11 times total, with one catch each in three games. While in the Browns game he was targeted either on screens or go balls, he’s since been seeing the ball come his way more on short and intermediate routes, especially over the middle. The team also hasn’t called a designed run for him in that time.
With the bye week, the Patriots may have had a chance to take a closer look at Thornton’s place in the offense, as it appears they’ve done with other rookies in recent years. Whether it’s adjustments to his route tree, more/new designed runs, or something else, it will be interesting to see if and how his role changes in coming weeks.
Thornton is probably the only rookie this trend applies to on the offensive side of the ball. When it comes to running backs Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris. The historical precedent leans much stronger towards the team redshirting rookie running backs. Since 2010, only four non-first-round rookie running backs have had more than 25 touches in a season for the Patriots. Stevenson was an exception last year with 147 touches. It’s a pretty steep drop-off after him, with Stevan Ridley (90 touches, 2011), Brandon Bolden (58, 2012), and Jonas Gray (90, 2014) being the only other players that qualify.
This rookie trend doesn’t just apply to offense though. Let’s take a look in the secondary, and start with Kyle Dugger. As a rookie in 2019, Dugger was on the field for 42 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps in games he played from Weeks 1-9 and made one start in that span. From then on, his usage rate expanded to 70 percent, including six starts.
Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) in the backfield during the first half of a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots are hardly struggling in the secondary this year. In fact, cornerback has arguably been their best position through nine weeks. But as they get ready to face some of the league’s top passing offenses and wide receivers over the next two months, having more options available will be key.
Fourth-round pick Jack Jones has actually played the most of the Patriots’ two rookie corners, and played well. His usage rate right now is at 59 percent, making him the third-most involved corner on the team behind Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills. He’s made the most of those snaps too, with his 90.4 PFF coverage grade the highest of any cornerback in the NFL. While the veterans have also played well (Jones ranks seventh for his coverage grade), Jones being able to be on the field more would allow the Patriots to get more creative with their defensive packages and coverage schemes.
Then there’s third-round pick Marcus Jones, who is playing just 14 percent of the defensive snaps in the games he’s active (his special teams usage rate is 35 percent, as the team’s punt returner). As a slot corner, Jones has been the backup to Myles Bryant this season. After a rough start to the season Bryant was playing well heading into the bye. Still, it was clear last year that Bryant struggles in coverage against receivers with elite straight-line speed.
Meanwhile, straight-line speed is one of Jones’ best traits – he ran a 4.38 second 40-yard dash at his pro day in the spring. If the Patriots are comfortable putting him on the field more, he’d make sense as a coverage matchup alternative to Bryant.
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 09: Jack Jones #13 of the New England Patriots intercepts a pass intended for T.J. Hockenson #88 of the Detroit Lions while Jahlani Tavai #48 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
“They come in day after day, they buy in. They work. They work hard,” Jonathan Jones said of Jack and Marcus on Wednesday. “They’re definitely developing.
Although this had been the time of year things have ramped up for Patriots’ rookies, it also represents a sort of unknown territory for them, as Jonathan Jones pointed out. “This is when it gets hard, because college football is about to wrap up,” he recalled from his rookie season, referencing the 12-game NCAA regular season. “It’s kind of all you really know, and we’re just getting started. It’s that big adjustment to – where college has got one or two games left, we’ve got eight-plus hopefully.”
For his part, Bill Belichick seems happy with the progress the rookie class as a whole has made. “I think our rookie class has been attentive. They’ve tried to, I think, really learn, be coachable and take the information and instruction that they’ve gotten from their coaches and also from their teammates,” Belichick told reporters last week. “We’re kind of around the halfway point of the regular season. When you take a look and compile the preseason, training camp and all that on to it, we’re well past that. These guys have played a lot of football. They have improved.”
“But of course, the biggest games are yet to come. There’ll be more challenges, and more difficult challenges going forward than what they’ve had already. So how good they are or aren’t, or how well they respond or don’t respond…will be a big question mark,” he continued. “It’ll be a big question to be answered for each of them individually – how they perform in the second half of the year. If they hit the proverbial rookie wall, or level off, or do they build on the experience and the things that they’ve learned already this year to grow and become better and contribute more in the latter part of the year. I think we’ve seen plenty examples of both. So, we’ll see how all that plays out.”
The thing about trends is, they only exist until they’re broken. Recent history tells us the Patriots’ rookie class, specifically the three players focused on above, will play bigger roles as the team looks to make a playoff push. Whether or not that ends up being the case will be something to watch over the next two months.
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.