There were quite a few firsts in the last game of the Patriots' regular season.
Linebacker Rob Ninkovichrecorded his first-ever two-sack effort. Rookie defensive lineman Kyle Lovemade his first NFL start – the big man even covered kickoffs! And on-again-off-again running back Thomas Claytongot some carries for the first time in a regular season affair ... to name a few.
Perhaps no first, though, was more eagerly anticipated – by fans, at least, if not the player himself – than that of rookie Taylor Price. An intriguing prospect from a small program (Ohio University), Price was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft last April by New England. However, an arcane league rule regarding graduating classes and final exams precluded Price from taking part in spring practices with his new team until very late in the process.
That delay stunted Price's development somewhat, and he never quite seemed to recover. In training camp, Price fell behind other young receivers, but showed enough promise to make the 53-man roster. His status as a high-round draft pick also helped in that regard.
Yet, it wasn't enough to make Price active on game days. He sat out the first 15 games of the year.
His moment finally came Sunday versus the Dolphins.
With starting receivers Wes Welkerand Deion Branchinactive, along with rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, Price was given the green light.
"I knew pretty early on. I started taking more reps with the ones. Started getting more comfortable," Price revealed at his locker post-game. He also admitted to having had some butterflies at the thought of stepping onto the NFL stage in earnest for the first time.
"A little bit. I was anxious early on in the week. But I had to calm myself down and let the game come to me. It all worked out."
The first pass that came Price's way was a second-quarter, 2nd-and-10 play from the New England 38. Backup QB Brian Hoyer'serrant throw fluttered far over Price's head and out of bounds. The two would connect in the third quarter, however, on a 1st-and-10 play from the Patriots' 15. Price gained 17 yards on the reception. Then, in the fourth, Hoyer found Price two more times – once for 18 yards on a quick slant, and six more on a nice, leaping grab by Price on the same drive.
Knowing he'd have at least limited opportunities going into this game, Price sought help from every source he could find this week. Much of it came from veterans like Branch, whose locker is just two down from Price's.
"'Just go out there and relax. Play ball the way you've always been playing. It's still just football. Just go out there, play, react, and have fun,'" Price told reporters.
The rookie added, "[Deion's] been in my ear all week saying, 'You need to do this, you need to do that. Stay focused, stay focused, play in, play out. Don't let your mind get off each and every play.' And that's what I tried to do today. I wanted to get out there early, run good routes, be precise."
"I thought he did some good things – caught the ball inside, caught it in traffic. Some other things, he could've done better," head coach Bill Belichickremarked in a media conference call on Monday, "but I thought he showed up and made some positive plays for us."
Save the overthrown ball by Hoyer in the first half, Price caught every pass thrown to him on Sunday. He finished with three receptions for 41 yards. More important than the numbers, though, was the mere fact that Price was able to contribute. It didn't matter to him that the game was meaningless as far as the standings and playoff seedings were concerned.
To him, this game was full of meaning.
"Obviously, they drafted me here for a reason. They thought that I had some ability to play," Price explained. "This was my day to go out and show my ability to the fans, that I can play at this level. I think I did that."
And once those butterflies fluttered by, it just felt like a normal day at the office for Price. Like he'd been doing it all season long.
"Yeah," he matter-of-factly agreed, "it kind of did. I felt good. Obviously, my body's rested. I just went out there, made some plays."
It was the first time Price did so as a Patriot. And he did his best to ensure it won't be the last.