2021 was one of the most promising season for Patriots rookies in quite a few years. The team got key contributions from quarterback Mac Jones, running back Rhamondre Stevenson, and defensive tackle Christian Barmore.
Will this year’s rookie class continue that momentum. They’ll be a big part of what the Patriots do this year – the team has nine first-year players on the roster, plus Tyquan Thornton on IR. There are another six rookies on the 16-man practice squad. That’s a significant contingent.
Of course, some of these rookies are in a spot to contribute more than others. Which players in the group have the best chance to pick up where Jones, Stevenson, and Barmore left off last year? Let’s take a look at each rookie, and what their projected role is (pending injuries) in 2022.
G Cole Strange
Aug 26, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; New England Patriots guard Cole Strange (69) defends against Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Kyle Peko (92) at Allegiant Stadium. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Outside of a handful of rare exceptions (mostly quarterbacks), players drafted in the first round are expected to be immediate contributors. Strange isn’t one of those exceptions. The 29th-overall pick this year, Strange has been the starter at left guard throughout the summer, and there’s no reason that should change this season. If the Patriots are going to run a significant amount of outside zone this season, he’s a player they should be able to lean on, both because of his athleticism and his experience in the system from his time in college.
Sports Hub Patriots Season Preview w/ Alex Barth and Matt Dolloff
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New York Giants cornerback Aaron Robinson (33) interferes with New England Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (11) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Thornton built up plenty of momentum this summer, but unfortunately won’t be able to build on it immediately due to a broken collarbone that landed him on IR. Thornton will miss at least four games, although current projects have him returning in mid-to-late October.
Between missing a month of time, needing to ramp up, and having four experienced receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, Thornton could end up being a more situational when he returns. That’s not to say he won’t play, but he may not be featured regularly and see the ball come his way on scheme-touch kind of plays early on. How he performs in that role will likely dictate whether or not he sees his usage increase later in the year.
CB Marcus Jones
Jul 30, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive back Marcus Jones (52) walks to the practice field at the Patriots training camp at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Jones should be one of the Patriots’ more visible rookies this season. It looks like Jonathan Jones will be playing on the boundary more, which opens up snaps to be had in the slot. The rookie Jones is one of two players to figures to see time in that role, along with Myles Bryant. But as the faster player, Jones could end up the better matchup often based on the Patriots’ schedule.
That’s not all Jones will offer the Patriots. An All-American returner last season, Jones should get looks as both a kick and punt returner this season. An explosive return game – something the Patriots didn’t have at times last year – could help take some pressure off or even spark the offense, and Jones represents one of the best option for big returns, perhaps only matched by Jabrill Peppers.
CB Jack Jones
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 19: Jack Jones #34 of the New England Patriots lines up during the preseason game between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium on August 19, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
In releasing Terrance Mitchell during final roster cuts, the Patriots showed a lot of faith in Jones to contribute this year. Jones is one of only two true boundary cornerbacks on the roster, along with Jalen Mills. Even if Jonathan Jones is going to be the second boundary corner in the starting lineup, the Patriots in recent years have like rotating in a third boundary corner to keep players fresh. Right now, that projects to be Jones [pending Mitchell being promoted from the practice squad, which can happen a maximum of three times during the season].
While Jonathan Jones and Shaun Wade may see snaps at that spot, Jones has experience in that role, something Bill Belichick highlighted on Sunday telling reporters “he really has a lot of experience playing perimeter corner at USC and then at Arizona State for good DB coaches too, like Marvin [Lewis] and Herm [Edwards], guys who have coached in this league. I know other players have college experience, but I’d say his college experience relates more to pro experience than some other players.”
RB Pierre Strong
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots running back Pierre Strong Jr. (35) runs with the ball during the second half of a preseason game against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Strong was limited for the first few weeks of training camp for unknown reasons. He didn’t start taking part in team drills until just before the first week of joint practices, and even after that wasn’t heavily involved.
In the past, it hasn’t been uncommon for the Patriots to effectively redshirt rookie running backs, especially those drafted after the first round. However, Rhamondre Stevenson broke that trend last year – his 147 touches were the most by a non-first round rookie back for the Patriots since J.R. Redmond in 2000, and he and Redmond are the only such rookie backs to surpass 100 touches with the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era.
The question is, what Stevenson’s 2021 season a trend-breaker or a sign of things to come? With just three other backs on the roster – including an injured Ty Montgomery – there are snaps to be had for Strong if the team feels he’s ready. But as a rookie who missed time it camp, history tells us that may be unlikely.
QB Bailey Zappe
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) signals during the second half of a preseason game against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
The most telling thing about Zappe this year will be whether or not the team dresses him as the backup quarterback on gamedays, or if they go with Brian Hoyer. Beyond that, his 2022 projection is negligible. If he’s getting significant playing time this year, things probably aren’t going well.
DL Sam Roberts
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 11: Oshane Ximines #53 of the New York Giants defends Sam Roberts #96 of the New England Patriots during the preseason game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on August 11, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
During the final weeks of camp, it seemed like Sam Roberts and LaBryan Ray were battling for the final spot on the defensive line. In the end, the Patriots ended up going with Roberts, a sixth-round pick out of Division-II Northwest Missouri State.
The Patriots come into the season deep at defensive tackle, with Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, and Carl Davis all head of Roberts on the depth chart. His defensive snaps project to be limited this year, although he did show some explosiveness as a pass rusher in the preseason games against the Giants and Panthers.
That being said, Roberts’ potential on special teams may be just as exciting as his potential on defense. In college, he blocked five kicks in four years. He already flashed that ability in New England, blocking a field goal try during training camp. He’ll be a player to watch on the field goal block unit.
IOL Chasen Hines
Aug 11, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots guard Chasen Hines (63) warms up before a preseason game against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots’ initial roster featured three extra offensive linemen in addition to the starters. Of that group, two are tackles in Yodny Cajuste and Justin Herron, leaving Hines as the only backup interior offensive lineman on the 53. Veteran James Ferentz being signed to the active roster could result in fewer snaps for Hines, and rookie UDFA Kody Russey is a candidate to be be elevated off the practice squad throughout the year. Still, Hines getting the lone initial spot is notable and shows what the team thinks of him in the long term.
DE DaMarcus Mitchell
Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots defensive end DaMarcus Mitchell (97) comes from behind Carolina Panthers quarterback PJ Walker (11) for a strip sack during the second half of a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
It was clear from the start of training camp the Patriots had a plan for Mitchell. On multiple occasions, he was seen getting one-on-one coaching from special teams coordinator Cam Achord. Expect Mitchell to be a big contributor in the kicking game this year. He also showed some flashes of pass rush ability, but the current depth ahead of him may limit those opportunities this season.
S Brenden Schooler
Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Brenden Schooler (41) keeps the punt out of the end zone and stops it on the 3 yard line during the second half of a preseason against the Carolina Panthers game at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Schooler is another player that projects primarily as a coverage specialist. He made a number of big plays in kickoff and punt coverage in particular this summer. With the departures of players like Brandon Bolden and Justin Bethel over the last few months, there are spots to be won on those units, and he figures to be featured.
Practice squad rookies
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 26: Running back Kevin Harris #36 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second half of a preseason game at Allegiant Stadium on August 26, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
Because teams can now elevate players off the practice squad, the rookies that are a part of that group could end up contributing this year as well. Here’s a quick outlook at each of the six rookies on the practice squad…
RB KevinHarris: As mentioned above, the Patriots generally don’t throw rookie running backs into the fire. Harris ran hard during the preseason but put the ball on the turf a few times, which is something the team will pay attention to. With J.J. Taylor also on the practice squad as an elevation option, Harris may have to wait until 2023 to see significant game action.
TE Jalen Wydermyer: Wydermyer signed with the Patriots late in the preseason, but the team was impressed with how quickly he picked up the offense. The fact they kept him around despite his limited exposure should be seen as a sign of confidence. With only two tight ends on the active roster, there could be a spot for a third tight end to get elevated on game days or in the case of injury. The question is, has Wydermyer picked up enough to pass veteran Matt Sokol, who was with the team in the spring.
IOL Kody Russey: Russey had an encouraging summer, but is still probably behind Ferentz as the team’s backup center.
DL LaBryan Ray: Ray being left off the roster was one of the bigger surprises of cutdown day. The UDFA out of Alabama played at a competitive level throughout the summer, but just seemed to be on the wrong end of a number crunch due to veteran depth at the position. Still, given his versatility he could have multiple paths to getting playing time this year.
DL Jeremiah Pharms Jr.: Pharms is another player who signed late in the offseason process, joining the Patriots just before training camp after spending his spring in the USFL. At 6-foot-3, 301 pounds Pharms is a run-defending interior defensive lineman, although the Patriots are relatively deep when it comes to early down defensive tackles. He projects as more of a project player.
S Brad Hawkins: Given the Patriots’ talent and depth at safety, its tough to see Hawkins getting any elevation chances early on. If he does play, it will likely be in the kicking game where he shined at times this summer.
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.