NEPD Contributor: Dan Hope
Every rookie goes into their first NFL training camp with an opportunity to prove himself, and a necessity to prove himself should he want to earn immediate playing time with his team. Many rookies are already taking advantage of that opportunity for New England Patriots, and look ready to take on immediate on-field roles for one of the NFL’s premier teams.
The rookie acclimation process is an important one for the Patriots this season, as they are relying at least somewhat on rookies to step up in a number of areas where their veteran presence is thin. While it may be too early yet to draw conclusions on the Patriots rookie class after just eight training camp practices, numerous Patriots rookies are already turning heads and outshining veteran counterparts.
In the three training camp practices I have attended thus far, the rookie standouts have ranged from second-round picks Jamie Collins and Aaron Dobson to undrafted free-agent signings Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins, all of whom who are expected to make an impact for the Patriots this season.
Youth movement among pass-catchers
In 2009, the Patriots enacted their defensive youth movement when they parted ways with Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison and replaced those key veterans with young talent. Four years later, the youth movement is taking place among the team’s pass-catchers. None of the Patriots’ top five in receiving yards from last season are participating in training camp, and only one of them (injured tight end Rob Gronkowski) is still on the roster.
The Patriots came into training camp needing their rookie pass-catchers to step up. Fortunately for the Patriots, four rookies are already doing so and looking like viable receiving options for Tom Brady to go to this season.
The Patriots drafted two receivers, Aaron Dobson (Round 2, No. 59 overall) and Josh Boyce (Round 4, No. 102 overall). Dobson has missed some practice due to injury, but showed in early practices that he can bring both size and athleticism as an outside downfield playmaker at wide receiver. Boyce has progressively improved in each practice I have attended, and stood out on Saturday morning by getting open with crisp routes and consistently catching the ball in his hands.
Both players have arguably been overshadowed, however, by undrafted wideout Kenbrell Thompkins. Thompkins has a relative unknown coming out of Cincinnati, but he has quickly made a name for himself in Patriots training camp. He has been impressive as both an intermediate and deep receiver, and displays a strong combination of speed, quickness and size. Just nine days into training camp, Thompkins already looks like a lock to make the roster.
All three of those rookie receivers have received a good amount of work with the first-team offense already, but for what it’s worth, Thompkins worked with the first-team offense during the Patriots’ scrimmage on Saturday morning, while Dobson and Boyce were with the second-team offense. All three receivers are expected to see immediate playing time this season, nonetheless, should each of them perform well in the preseason.
That said, the biggest impression of all of the team’s rookie pass-catchers, especially on Saturday, may be coming from undrafted tight end Zach Sudfeld. Sudfeld likely went undrafted due to a history of injuries at Nevada, but he has been healthy and standing out thus far in training camp.
Sudfeld has terrific size for a tight end (6’7” and 260 pounds) but is also a very good athlete who not only has good downfield speed but also the quickness to make defenders miss. In the three practices I have attended, Sudfeld has shown a consistent ability to get open by running crisp routes and creating mismatches against linebackers and defensive backs. He has displayed soft, natural hands and caught a strong majority of passes that have been thrown his way.
I admittedly slept on Sudfeld as a draft prospect, but I’m not sleeping on him anymore. With Jake Ballard not involved in the scrimmage and both Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells working with the second-team offense, Sudfeld received nearly all tight end repetitions with the first-team offense on Saturday morning. He has the most ability of all the team’s healthy tight ends, especially as a receiving threat, and looks like the favorite to start at tight end should Gronkowski not return in time for Week 1.