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The Mass Media

Patriots’ rookies are silencing doubters

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Bianca Oppedisano
New England Patriots rookie cornerback Jack Jones. Illustration by Bianca Oppedisano / Mass Media Staff

The 2022 NFL draft was seen as a very key stepping stone for the New England Patriots after an off-season filled with criticism (1). But the draft only added fuel to the fire as the Patriots’ decisions were met with laughs, including those from Sean McVay, the coach of the reigning Super Bowl Champion, the Los Angeles Rams.
However, thus far, it seems that New England is the one laughing now. Several of their rookies have shined throughout the first five weeks of the NFL season, and it’s looking like they could have one of the best draft classes of any team in the league. Players that were assumed to be reaches are making an impact early on, with no signs of slowing down.
When McVay laughed at the Patriots, he was specifically laughing at their first-round pick, a player the Rams hoped to grab in round three. The Patriots traded down from pick 21 to 29, where they selected Chattanooga guard, Cole Strange.
The Patriots unexpectedly dealt away pro bowl guard Shaq Mason to Tampa Bay earlier that off-season, leaving a hole in the offensive line. When it came to offensive linemen, Alabama’s Evan Neal and NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu were the talks of the scouts.
Strange, on the other hand, came from a small program and was both slimmer and older than most other prospects, many seeing him as a Day 2 pick (2). Belichick decided to take a gamble with him early, and so far, Strange looks to potentially be the best interior offensive lineman in the draft.
His most noteworthy performance came in Week 2, against the Steelers, where he was lined up against the All-Pro defensive lineman, Cameron Heyward. Strange did not let Heyward anywhere close to Mac Jones, and played a key factor in the team’s win (3). With the Rams’ recent offensive line struggles, McVay certainly could use a guy like Strange right now.
Joining Strange in this class is the University of Houston’s Marcus Jones. Jones has proven to be a valuable asset to New England’s special teams unit. He was considered to be the best return man in college football going into the draft, leading the NCAA in touchdowns with four (4). With All-Pro Gunner Olszewski’s departure to Pittsburgh in the off-season, the Patriots were in need of a new man to field kicks.
It isn’t often you see players drafted high for their kick-returning ability, but Belichick selected Jones with the 85th pick, and he has impressed so far. Jones has fielded four kickoffs and three punts this season and is averaging over 24 yards per return (5).
After drafting Marcus, Belichick had his eye on another player named Jones in round four. Arguably the best player in New England, cornerback JC Jackson, had left for Los Angeles in the offseason. Cornerback was now a major position of need for New England, and at pick 121, they looked to Arizona State’s Jack Jones to be the next man up.
Jack Jones has easily been the highlight of this Patriots draft class. Jones is playing at an elite level, making his name heard amongst a very deep defensive back class. Jones is currently Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated defensive rookie and cornerback, and has the highest coverage grade in the league. This is an incredible feat for any rookie let alone a fourth-round pick.
After three takeaways in his last two games, including a pick-six against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Jones has etched his name into the defensive rookie of the year conversation. If he continues this level of play throughout the season, there is a very possible chance he could come away with the award. Regardless of if he does or not, the Patriots seem to have found their new franchise corner for years to come.
Possibly the most puzzling draft pick of them all came at the end of the fourth round, when the Patriots selected Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe, just one year after drafting their current quarterback, Mac Jones. Not only was the selection of a quarterback odd, but he was also picked ahead of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, who was at one point thought to be a top five pick.
Zappe was coming off a historical college season, where he broke the record for most passing yards and passing touchdowns in a season, with 5,977 yards and 62 touchdowns (7). Despite this impressive feat and the consensus weak quarterback class, he was not at the top of many draft boards. The Patriots selected Zappe with the 137th pick and he has recently had an opportunity to come to light.
With injuries to both Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer, Zappe has played in the last two games for the Patriots. Zappe has shown some promise so far, throwing a touchdown pass in both games, taking a tough Green Bay Packers team into overtime, and contributing to a Detroit Lions shutout. Although the expectation is that Mac Jones will start again when he is healthy, Patriots fans can be relieved that they have a reliable backup.
The Patriots’ rookie class is starting to blossom, and with a light schedule going into the bye week, they could play major roles in a potential playoff appearance. The second-round pick, speedy wide receiver out of Baylor, Tyquan Thornton, has returned from injury, and with Damien Harris sidelined for multiple weeks (8), opportunities for South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. arise. These two, alongside promising prospects such as Sam Roberts and the injured Andrew Steuber, could very well join the others as significant pieces on a young Patriots team.
New England has had a rough stretch since the end of the Tom Brady era. The failure of the Cam Newton experiment, N’Keal Harry being one of the worst draft picks in recent memory and the embarrassing blowout playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills to end last season have all been very difficult for Patriots fans to deal with. But with the young guys stepping up, the team seems to be trending in the right direction, and a bright future could be ahead.
Sources:

  1. https://www.foxsports.com/stories/nfl/new-england-patriots-made-some-head-scratching-draft-picks
  2. https://www.nfl.com/prospects/cole-strange/32005354-5219-1447-a46e-56c3beaaebab
  3. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/09/20/sports/how-rookie-cole-strange-helped-patriots-control-line-scrimmage-sundays-win-over-steelers/
  4. https://www.patspulpit.com/2022/10/12/23399579/patriots-return-rookie-marcus-jones-cam-achord
  5. https://www.espn.com/nfl/player/stats/_/id/4241720/marcus-jones
  6. https://www.pff.com/nfl/grades/position/cb
  7. https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/32896269/western-kentucky-quarterback-bailey-zappe-breaks-single-season-passing-records-hilltoppers-59-38-boca-bowl-win
  8. https://www.patspulpit.com/2022/10/11/23398660/patriots-running-back-damien-harris-injury-update-hamstring
About the Contributors
Liam Crampton, Sports Writer
Bianca Oppedisano, Illustrator