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These Patriots Rookies Are 'Popping' in Early Stages of Training Camp 

The Patriots rookie class is coming along nicely in the very early stages of training camp.

Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas (60) and cornerback Christian Gonzalez (50).
Patriots wide receiver Demario Douglas (60) and cornerback Christian Gonzalez (50).

The Patriots are now through the five-day acclimation period as the team makes the turn toward padded practices, and New England's rookie class is moving in a positive direction.

Starting with first-rounder Christian Gonzalez, several first-year players are 'popping' in the early training camp sessions (pun intended, more on that later). Gonzalez, who has immediately stepped in with other frontline players at outside corner, has looked the part through four practices. On Sunday, Gonzalez jumped a Mac Jones pass intended for JuJu Smith-Schuster and nearly had a pick-six, one of his many notable pass breakups in camp.

Although the 17th overall selection is leading the pack, Gonzalez isn't the only Patriots rookie beginning to catch on this summer. Going in order of when they were drafted, second-round pick Keion White's inside-outside versatility and pocket-pushing power as an end-of-the-line defender has caught the eye, and the 6-5, 285-pound rookie should only fare better in fully padded practices.

Third-rounder Marte Mapu, who has repped at both linebacker and safety since the spring, took snaps with other frontline defenders at linebacker in a passing downs role during full-team drills in Sunday's session, while sixth-round pick Demario 'Pop' Douglas has emerged as the top candidate to make the team's initial 53-man roster as the fifth wide receiver.

"The rookie class in general has been good. They're really very attentive, good work ethic, they have been a pleasure to work with," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters on Friday.

Donning a number 51 practice jersey for the time being, as is tradition for Patriots rookies to wear numbers in the 50s and 60s until they receive their real numbers in the first preseason game, White's been noticeably disruptive in the two light-contact practices with shells and shorts. The Pats rookie can play anywhere from three-technique out of a three-point stance to outside the tackle as a stand-up edge rusher, but he has mostly repped at outside linebacker.

"I'm taking a step back and observing and just trying to find my place on the team," White told reporters after Sunday's practice. "The goal is to get better every day. I'm just trying to improve my techniques, whether it be standing up or hand in the dirt, wherever I'm at, day by day, for sure."

Along with his size/power and versatility, which should translate to setting a sturdy edge, an important role in Belichick's defense, White flashed a little quickness in Friday's session when he jumped inside veteran tackle Riley Reiff for a would-be sack. The 24-year-old said, as appeared to be the case in that instance, that block anticipation is one thing he feels he's improving on as he gets himself acclimated to professional football.

"Knowledge of the game, for sure," White said was his biggest improvement. "Just being able to read offenses a little bit better and know what blocking combinations are going to come. That's one thing I've improved on a lot."

White's size and body composition certainly fill out that no. 51 jersey, which makes you look forward to Monday's padded practice when it comes to viewing the rookie edge defender at Pats camp.

"We don't play 7-on-7 ball. I never really had that growing up. So you're excited to get to play football and see what it's like physically because I've been in OTAs for so long. We haven't been in pads. So it's just an opportunity to see how physical the NFL is," White added.

New England's top three draft selections are coming along nicely, but this scribe is most excited about Douglas emerging as a real possibility to make the roster at wide receiver. Although it's important to temper expectations until all these rookies perform well in padded practices and beyond, there's a lot to like about Douglas's game.

With the 5-foot-8, 192-pound slot receiver surrounded by bigger teammates in the wide receiver room, Douglas stands out as the lone jitterbug of the group. The Liberty product is a slick route-runner with good separation quickness to lose defenders at the top of routes.

For instance, Douglas's first competitive rep in team drills during Sunday's practice saw him turn Myles Bryant around on a five-yard out, but the ball didn't come in his direction. Later in practice, it did, mainly when Douglas came in short motion into a two-receiver stack. Douglas broke inside, hit Marcus Jones with a sudden hesitation move, and adjusted to a slightly off-target throw by Bailey Zappe for six. Next, he wisely recognized a slot blitz and broke on an out route to get open against safety Adrian Phillips. Then, Douglas ran a filthy 'whip' route to shake fellow rookie Isaiah Bolden, broke Bolden's 'tackle' by ducking underneath him, and got some love from head coach Bill Belichick for his efforts.

"It's a blessing. It's a blessing to be out here and be out here with my brothers," Douglas told reporters on Sunday. "I just come here and do what I can. I take every play, play-by-play, so I just keep going."

Douglas was a late bloomer mainly due to his size and didn't receive any power-five offers as a High School prospect. At Liberty, he got on the Patriots radar when he broke out for 52 catches, 701 yards, and six touchdowns as Titans quarterback Malik Willis's top target in the 2021 season. Douglas followed up his breakout campaign with over 1,000 scrimmage yards in his final season for the Flames, and the Pats then requested to have the rookie wideout on their roster while coaching the East-West Shrine Bowl back in January.

During his time at Liberty, Douglas played with four different quarterbacks under head coach Hugh Freeze. In Freeze's offense last season, he was mainly a deep threat who ran devastating double moves deep downfield, averaging 12.3 air yards per target during his final collegiate season.

With the Pats, Douglas has run the traditional quick-twitch slot receiver route tree that we've seen for years in Foxboro. The Pats rookie told that adjusting to different playing styles at quarterback forced him to learn how to win in multiple ways.

"At Liberty, going through four different quarterbacks, we had to do quick stuff. I feel like I started to adapt to it, so I feel like I just added it to my game," Douglas said, joking with reporters that he has watched some Troy Brown highlights with the Pats wide receivers coach.

It's way, way too early to project Douglas as a contributor in his rookie season. As a cautionary tale, in my experience covering the Patriots, there are several examples of small, quick, fast receivers showing out in non-padded practices just to disappear when real football begins.

Although he was complimentary of Douglas, head coach Bill Belichick echoed that point during his press conference on Sunday morning.

"Douglas had a good spring, and he's followed it up with a few couple good practices here. Again, training camp is a marathon, it's not a 100-yard dash. So, just keep grinding them together day after day. We've been in the red area. We'll move out into the field, and then we'll get into third downs, start putting it all together. Pads haven't been on yet, so that's part of the evaluation for everybody," Belichick said of the rookie wideout.

Still, the Patriots projected top four wideouts are all listed at over 6-foot-1, meaning this team is missing the shifty, quick slot receiver who can create instant separation. As a complementary piece to DeVante Parker, Tyquan Thornton, Kendrick Bourne, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Douglas fits the mold of the traditional Pats slot wideout with a skillset that typically thrives in offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's offense.

For all the Patriots rookies highlighted here, it's exciting to see this group heading in the right direction to potentially make a year-one impact, or make the roster, even if it's early in the summer.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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