It's been a challenging year for the Patriots rookies, who were thrown into the fire without much of any offseason preparation at all, not taking the field as professional football players for the very first time until August.
Captain Matthew Slater was impressed with how the group handled the adversity.
"This rookie class has faced challenges unlike any other," said Slater on Wednesday. "For them to come in without any off-season, without really any understanding of what they were getting themselves into, I'm sure it was quite challenging for them. They were a resilient crew. I think they grew a ton over the course of the season they worked really hard to try to improve and they worked hard to buy into what we do here culturally."
Michael Onwenu and J.J. Taylor represent two ends of the spectrum as rookies who have shown development. Onwenu essentially stepped right into the starting lineup as a sixth-round pick, while Taylor made the team despite being an undrafted rookie at a position with very good depth.
Most surprising about Onwenu was not only tackling the challenges of the season but doing it at a high level at a position he wasn't really drafted to play.
"This year, putting [Onwenu] at tackle was kind of our way to try to get our best players on the field with Isaiah [Wynn] and so forth," said Bill Belichick on Wednesday morning. "Anytime you get into that, you can say, 'OK, try get your best players on the field,' but sometimes that's playing somebody out of position, and is that the best way to go? So, I think he's shown, maybe a little bit surprisingly to us and him, his ability to play tackle."
"Probably the most adjustment I had to deal with was probably just the space aspect," said Onwenu of the position change. "Playing guard, obviously the guys right across from you and you kind of got a little booth to be in."
As to which position Onwenu ends up at will be something for Belichick and his coaching staff to determine this offseason, but the rookie out of Michigan is ready to do whatever is asked.
"I'm an offensive lineman at the end of the day, whatever position I'm needed to play, I'm able to play," said Onwenu.
Taylor hasn't quite had the same immediate impact, but he's shown up with some explosive plays in the limited opportunities he's received, highlighted this past Monday against the Bills with a 28-yard run that sparked New England's only touchdown of the last three games.
"J.J. earned a spot on the roster through his play in practice," said Belichick of the rookie running back. "Again, no preseason games this year, so it's a little hard to evaluate and that's a tough position for a running back, when you don't see him get contact or get tackled. You see the run skills, but you don't see the rest of the play very often until you get into the game situation, and that's really the defining part of the job."
Taylor has made the most of his chances and could find himself in an expanded role if he continues to improve on things like pass blocking, one of the biggest challenges for a young back entering the league, especially one with his diminutive size.
For his part, Taylor has the right attitude for the difficult task of standing up to oncoming rushers.
"That is something that I have been working on and I've got much more to work on," said Taylor of pass blocking. "I'm gonna keep working on it. I've come far away from where I started to now.
"Having that physical mentality, just being able to step in there no matter how big the opponent is or how big you are, you just gotta be willing to step in and put a body in there."
Both Onwenu and Taylor will be a big part of Sunday's finale against the Jets, while it's Slater who is setting the tone, which continues to be finishing strong with a great effort.
"Let's finish what we started," said Slater again on Wednesday. "We started a race and, obviously, we're not going to win that race but if we have the ability to do so, let's finish that race and let's finish it the right way. Let's go out and represent ourselves in the best way possible and not just ourselves, all the people that made the season possible for us."
Webex Quotes of Note
J.J. Taylor on how he ended up signing with New England:
"I had a college coach, DeMarco Murray, who spoke with me after my final season at the University of Arizona and he was just telling me that he thinks that the Patriots would be a great fit for me. They know how to utilize the players that they get and things like that. I've always wanted just an opportunity, someone who would give me a chance. This is the perfect team to look at people and give them opportunities."
Michael Onwenu on the impact of Joe Thuney and David Andrews on him this season:
"Those guys are instrumental. Those guys have been big in my process. I give credit to them, the guys around me. They are the reason I'm here right now or in this position, at least."
Myles Bryant on some advice he received from Julian Edelman:
"It's just trying to put an impression on everybody every time you step in the building. For me, that's just come in early, working hard in the film room, working hard in the meeting room and then going out there and working hard in practice. Personally, I've been taking every day I step into this building as a day to audition, a day to go out there and show what I can and the game is really just a celebration of how hard we work."