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Rookies making an impact

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Some teams can assess their draft class faster than others. Usually teams picking near the top play rookies right off the bat. Their rosters aren't loaded with a lot of talent and they need their younger players to get on the field as soon as possible in order to have success. Defending Super Bowl Champions don't usually fall into this category but because of injuries at virtually every position, the 2005 Patriots aren't your typical defending champions.

Five rookies: Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur, Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders and Mike Wright have been thrown into the mix and asked to make large contributions for a team who is trying to be the first in NFL history to win three straight Super Bowls.

The Patriots selected Mankins with the final pick in the first round. An Outland Trophy candidate from Fresno State, Mankins was rated the best offensive guard prospect in college football by The NFL Draft Report, despite playing his entire career at tackle for the Bulldogs. Mankins has come in and started every game at left guard for the Patriots during his rookie season.

Mankins was expected to come in right away and compete for a starting job but Kaczur, a third-round selection out of Toledo, was originally drafted to provide depth on the offensive line. However, after Matt Light went down with a knee injury in Pittsburgh, Kaczur went from a player with future potential to the Patriots starting left tackle, whose main job is protecting Tom Brady's blind side.

Having two new starters on the left side of the offensive line may not be a team's ideal situation but both Mankins and Kaczur have played well this season. Kaczur, especially, has been a pleasant surprise. The rookie has held his own against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL like the Falcons Patrick Kerney and the Colts Dwight Freeney.

Head coach Bill Belichick likes what he sees out of his two rookie linemen.

"I think they're both coming along and making progress," Belichick said.

"Logan has played inside the whole year so he is locked in there. Nick has spent time at both tackles but now more at left tackle since Matt is injured, so he has kind of settled in there. They have both done well for us.

"Both those guys work hard and are well prepared. They have seen some things and situations they may not be familiar with but overall they have managed it well with minimal mental errors."

Hobbs, the speedy cornerback out of Iowa State, was the Patriots first of two third round selections. New England drafted Hobbs with the 84th pick, 16 spots ahead of Kaczur.

Hobbs is a player who has seen his role expand in recent weeks. During the first half of the season, Hobbs has seen time in some of the Patriots nickel defenses and has been a big contributor on special teams. With Duane Starks becoming the fifth defensive back to be lost for the season, Hobbs will see a lot more time at cornerback. The young corner is ready to take on the challenge.

"It was one of the things I prepared myself for day in and day out during training camp," he said. "I just kept telling myself to always be ready and if my time comes, be prepared to take advantage of my opportunity."

Belichick called Hobbs a tough, smart player. The rookie defensive back said he is working on his technique and trying not to rely on his speed all the time like he did in college. He is thankful to be getting playing time as a rookie. Something Hobbs believes will help him in the future.

"Just getting your feet wet in the NFL is helpful," Hobbs said. "So many guys in their third and fourth year haven't seen the field much and when they finally get out there, it's like starting all over again. I feel like I have a jump in that sense and I'll take what I learn this season and move forward next year."

Sanders was Mankins teammate at Fresno State. The hard-hitting safety hasn't been on the field much because of an ankle injury. When he is fully recovered, Sanders can expect to see a lot of playing time at safety, given the Patriots lack of healthy bodies in the secondary.

Sanders hasn't done enough yet to really make an impression on the field but he has made an impression with defensive captain Rodney Harrison. The injured safety said Sanders was one of those players who is smart and well beyond his years. Harrison believes Sanders will do well in the Patriots defensive system.

The surprise of training camp was Wright, an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati. The rookie defensive tackle beat out veteran Rodney Bailey for a roster spot and has seen quality playing time in recent weeks because of the injury to Richard Seymour.

"When I get in there, its great," Wright said. "It's under the circumstances to give the other guys a rest and that's fine with me. As long as I can help the team in that way, it's fine. Every little bit counts."

The Patriots are off to a rocky start in 2005 but with a strong crop of rookies, the future looks bright in New England.

To read the full story on the 2005 Patriots rookie class, check out the next edition of Patriots Football Weekly that will be on newsstands this Tuesday. To subscribe to Patriots Football Weekly, go to *www.pfwonline.com.*

Brady says offense needs to carry the teamFor years, Patriots fans have enjoyed watching Peyton Manning come up short in the playoffs. While Manning hasn't always played well in big games, the Colts never had a good defense in the past to support him, so winning and losing constantly came down to how many points Manning and the offense could put up. After eight games this season, Tom Brady knows what it feels like to be standing in Manning's shoes.

Going into the Dolphins game, the Patriots defense ranks 31st in total defense and 30th in points allowed. Brady knows if the team wants to be successful, the offense will have to lead the way.

"Our offense has to be better than it has ever been," Brady said at his weekly press conference. "It really does. That's the reality of it. Our defense is making changes and trying hard to improve. In the meantime, we have to do everything we can to pick it up and try to be better than we have ever been to help our defense out."

Brady made it clear that he was not placing blame on the defense, but pointing out he needs to play better personally to help the team win.

"I would like to be performing better," he said. "Our expectations are very high. You can't let losses discourage you…It was a tough loss. We have had tough losses throughout the year and we have figured out ways to rebound."

Notes
The Monday night game between the Patriots and Colts was the highest rated Monday Night Football game in the last five years…The Patriots have played 41 games without suffering back-to-back losses. The longest current streak in the NFL…The Patriots have averaged scoring 29.6 points per game in their seven games following a loss since 2003…The 1994 Cleveland Browns led the NFL, giving up only 12.8 points per game. Belichick was the head coach of that team and current Dolphins head coach Nick Saban served as his defensive coordinator…Starks became the fifth Patriots defensive back to be lost for the season when he was placed on the reserve/injured list Thursday. The much-maligned cornerback will miss the rest of the year along with Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole, Guss Scott and Chad Scott, who were all placed on injured reserve. The team now has an open roster spot and Belichick said at his Thursday press conference, "I imagine we will fill it before the Miami game but how I'm not sure."

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