It's been a tough year for rookies this season as Bill Belichick has pointed out, but in recent weeks the youth movement has begun to pick up steam, giving valuable experience to some of the most promising young players on the roster who will be vital in coming seasons.
"They're further behind than any rookie group that I've ever had before based on the offseason situation and that rolled into training camp, too," said Belichick in early November. "So, they've got a lot of ground to make up to be competitive with players that have a lot more experience and have had a lot more training than they have, but they're working hard to be competitive."
Since then the team has leaned more heavily into their younger players, with Kyle Dugger and Chase Winovich being two examples who have started to see their playtime spike in recent weeks.
Dugger has played almost 80 percent of the defensive snaps over the last two games, emerging into a key defensive role that should once again be at the forefront of the gameplan against Arizona and mobile quarterback Kyler Murray this weekend.
He's been thrust into the fire a bit, having never had to take on tight ends in man-to-man coverage like he's been asked to, but he continues to work at everything to improve.
"My approach is really just make sure I take the time on the field and practice when I'm being coached, put a lot of time into it and really focusing on what they're trying to teach me and show me," said Dugger on Wednesday evening. "Whatever I'm learning, whatever I'm seeing on film, just to take it in and move forward and use it in the game."
Against the Ravens, Dugger led the team in total tackles (12) and was an active deterrent against one of the best rushing attacks in the game, earning praise from his head coach.
'[Kyle] was involved in quite a few plays, but I thought he pursued well, tackled well and gave us some perimeter run force, which was a big part of the game," said Belichick the day after the Patriots win. "A lot of the running game was directed toward the perimeter and the outside, so he definitely helped us there and we got some good interior play, as well, on some of the inside plays."
Dugger credited the Patriots veterans for helping his progress, including the McCourty's and Patrick Chung, who has been a resource to the rookie despite opting out of the season.
"I couldn't even tell you how much I've learned, every day I'm learning something new," said Dugger. "It's been really a blessing and really huge just being able to learn from them and watch them and see everything they do, why they do it, how they do it, just kind of pick the brains and being around them. It's been really good."
Quotes of Note
Kliff Kingsbury on his biggest takeaway from his time with the Patriots:
"I'd just say the level of preparation week-in and week-out. Coach Belichick had you prepared for any and every situation that could possibly occur on a football field. At times, it seemed tedious with the walk-throughs and you almost felt like he was overdoing it, but then Week 8 the actual situation would pop up and you'd be prepared for it and the entire team would handle it and find a way to win the game. So, more than anything, I'd just say preparation was at a level that I had never seen before."
Deatrich Wise on pass rushing mobile quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Kyler Murray:
"It's about balance. With anything in life, you must have to balance. So when you play guys as elite as those three when it comes to running and passing and scrambling and breaking tackles, you must have both balance on your feet and also balance in the way of getting vertical but at the same time closing the pocket and making sure the quarterback doesn't leave. Anybody like those three that are very good at running the ball, creating plays on their feet, you must contain them."
Cam Newton on Kyler Murray:
"Kyler is a person who is electric. I've had the opportunity to see Lamar, I've had the opportunity to play against Deshaun [Watson] last week and Kyler this week. It's just fun to play against a guy like that, as well as knowing that the game is kind of turning toward that style of quarterback who cannot only attack you with the legs but his arm as well."