The Patriots have welcomed some key contributions from their rookies this season, but are still in need of more as the playoffs approach. While Jarrett Stidham, Damien Harris and JoeJuan Williams have been developing behind the scenes, and Gunner Olszewski has been recovering on Injured Reserve, the foursome of N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Chase Winovich and Jake Bailey have emerged as key players the team could have to rely on in the coming month of football.
Bailey has had the best season of the lot, setting the Patriots single-season record for most punts inside the 20-yard-line with 33, a stat he's also tied for the league lead in. After beating out veteran Ryan Allen in training camp, Bailey has proven the coaches made the right choice.
"Jake's a very talented player, I think we can all see that," said coach Bill Belichick. "He's got good mechanics, good athleticism, good leg speed. He's got a good, high level of maturity for his age and his experience.
"He's handled everything as well or better than I could imagine anybody at his age and his experience level handling it, from the punts to the field goals to the holding to the kickoffs. He's done a great job for us."
Bailey has not only handled kickoffs since Stephen Gostkowski was lost for the year, but also had a near-perfect onside kick against the Texans that was close to being recovered and has had to hold for four different field goal kickers. The Patriots have had to rely on their punter more than expected this season, they're 28th in the league in punts-per-drive, and Bailey has delivered.
On offense, the two rookie receivers haven't quite hit their stride for an offense that is still looking for their identity with three games to go until the playoffs. Harry, a first-round pick, and Meyers, an undrafted rookie, were in the middle of some of the biggest plays in the biggest game of the year, last Sunday's loss to the Chiefs, and could be x-factors for the stretch run and playoffs.
Harry was injured in the summer and spent the first eight weeks of the season on Injured Reserve. In four games since his return he has five catches for 40 yards and one touchdown. He should've had another TD but the referees incorrectly ruled he stepped out of bounds against the Chiefs. It was one of only two snaps in the game for Harry and Josh McDaniels admitted he needs to get the talented rookie more involved.
"[Harry] definitely had a great individual effort," McDaniels said about his should've-been-a-touchdown. "We know he's big and not easy to tackle, and like I said, I need to do a better job of finding ways to get him in space, get him the ball and letting him have an opportunity to do those things."
Harry's progress has been slow, but McDaniels still likes what he's seen and the dedication the rookie has shown.
"N'Keal, number one, his ability to understand our system, our offense and how the roles we ask him to play in is different than it was three months ago because now he has a much broader foundation of it," sad McDaniels. "The communication is much easier. He works his butt off every day in practice. He's here early, he's here late and he's trying to close the ground on being able to go out there and understand who he's playing against and what he needs to do to be successful."
Meyers has been the one constant for the Patriots receiving corps this season, staying healthy from the start of training camp. It's a remarkable rise for an undrafted rookie but expectations are still higher. After sitting out just one game, the Week 2 contest in Miami, Meyers has recorded 23 catches for 334 yards. He had one catch off a halfback pass against the Chiefs for 35 yards, but two costly drops, one on third down and another in the end zone.
"Jakobi's a smart guy," said Bill Belichick. "It's not a question of learning. It's experience, and each week for young players is a learning experience – match up against different guys, see different coverages, see different situations come up. But, he works hard at it."
Both rookie receivers continue to add experience, fighting a difficult uphill climb that is earning the trust and confidence of Tom Brady.
"They both have worked really hard at trying to do the things we're asking them to do," said McDaniels. "There's nobody that comes from college and has been doing things the way that we're asking them to do them right away, I don't really care what position it is. And so, that position is really no different than the others. You want to train them to create good habits both in releasing, alignment, route running, catching the football, how to finish different routes versus different techniques in coverage."
The lone rookie defender to contribute this year has been linebacker Chase Winovich. After getting his feet wet with some designated pass rusher snaps early in the year, Winovich has added to his repertoire as the season progressed, playing 30 percent of the total defensive snaps and 55 percent of the special teams snaps. He's recorded an impressive 5.5 sacks and even recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Giants.
"Chase has done multiple things for us," said Belichick. "He's a smart kid and he's got a good skillset. He can run, he's got good power and strength, he's got a good motor. He's done a nice job for us in the kicking game. He's played the run well, has pass-rushed well and he's pursued and made plays down the line of scrimmage, as well.
"He's tried really hard to do whatever we've asked him to do. Gives a tremendous effort, on and off the field, to do things right and to help the team in any way he can."
The Patriots will look to the four rookies to take their games to another level in the final three games and into the playoffs. If they make a jump, New England might just have another Super Bowl run in them.
|Offensive Third Down
|Offensive Passing DVOA
|Offensive Rushing DVOA
|Offensive Red Zone
|48.1 percent (27th)
|36.8 percent (31st)
|Defensive Third Down
|Defensive Passing DVOA
|Defensive Rushing DVOA
|Defensive Red Zone
|44.2 percent (3rd)
|Special Teams DVOA