With Tom Brady and Danny Amendola already in midseason form, it’s easy to overlook the potential impact that rookies like Aaron Dobson and Zach Sudfeld can make for the New England Patriots in 2013.
The Pats are relying on a host of rookies to help overhaul their offense and continue the defensive retooling process. Dobson, Sudfeld, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce will all see time with Brady and the offense. New England’s first player selected this year, Jamie Collins, will join an ongoing youth movement on defense.
With no first-round pick this year for the team, the casual observer might think the Patriots don’t have any impact rookies. With all those players, plus the likes of Armond Armstea, and Rutgers defensive backs Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, nothing could be further from the truth.
Of course, they all must survive roster cuts and earn one of 53 spots, but there’s a lot of talent in this year’s rookie class and many of them are poised to make a notable impact on the Patriots this season.
Of the group, here are the five Patriots rookies who will make the biggest impact in 2013.
Armond Armstead isn’t your typical rookie.
After starting at defensive end for USC in 2009 and 2010, he suffered a heart attack and missed all of the 2011 season, eventually going undrafted in April of 2012.
The bizarre end to his USC career culminated in a lawsuit alleging the school was responsible for Armstead’s medical emergency. He faulted the school for irresponsibly using painkillers on him, causing his heart attack and ultimately knocking him off last year’s draft board entirely.
Even though he blamed his alma mater for sidetracking his NFL hopes, Armstead didn’t just sit around waiting for phone calls. He took the proactive approach and signed with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.
He certainly helped his cause by earning league all-star honors as a CFL rookie. Now he finds himself playing his second rookie season in a row, this time in the NFL.
The 6’5”, 305-pound defensive lineman will likely rotate with Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones along the line, serving as a hybrid DT/DE in Bill Belichick’s ever-evolving defense.
With a year of professional football already under his belt, Armstead should be better prepared than most rookies to contribute right away. He won’t start, but he has a chance at significant playing time and a key role as potentially New England’s top flex defensive lineman.
Like Armstead, Ryan won’t start, but could still find himself thrust into significant action. New England’s top cornerback, Aqib Talib, isn’t exactly a picture of good health, having never played a full 16-game season.
Starting opposite Talib is second-year man Alfonzo Dennard, who faces the likelihood of a suspension following his offseason arrest for suspicion of DUI.
One way or another, the Patriots will need their third-round pick on the field this season.
Bill Belichick has never been shy about starting rookie corners so Ryan could make a lasting impression if/when he gets his chance. The third-round pick from Rutgers has already opened a few eyes this preseason.
He did get beat right up the seam last week as well, but safety Duron Harmon was late to provide help over the top, so it’s hard to fault Ryan for that one.
In my eyes, Ryan has passed Marquice Cole on the depth chart and should see regular-season action in sub packages with room for his role to grow from there.
Aaron Dobson was the sexy pick this year. He was the guy fans were hoping for; a big, explosive receiver with highlight-reel ability and freakish upside. Yours truly even nailed the pick precisely in my final draft preview.
If you hadn’t heard of Dobson when the Patriots drafted him in the second round, you likely learned the name very quickly. His arrival in New England was preceded by tales of his ridiculous hands, assertions that he never dropped a pass last season and, of course, videos of this catch.
Suffice it to say, expectations were high heading into training camp.
While Dobson hasn’t exactly set the field on fire during the preseason, he certainly hasn’t done anything to quell those expectations. For the most part, he’s shown reliable hands while working with the second-team offense.
Considered a bit raw coming out of Marshall University, Dobson appears to be working in slowly with the Patriots to develop his talent over the long term.
He does have the ability to add a game-changing downfield presence to the Patriots’ offense, so look for them to find more ways to get him involved as the season progresses, even though he’s not a starter yet. His year-end numbers might not look great, but he should still be able to contribute his fair share of big plays as a rookie.
Heading into training camp, many fans, myself included, expected Aaron Dobson to earn the starting role opposite Danny Amendola.
I didn’t even include Kenbrell Thompkins on my initial projection of the final roster, yet the undrafted receiver out of Cincinnati has not only challenged Dobson through two preseason games, he’s overtaken him.
Thompkins took a wandering path to get this far.
With seven arrests on his record before his 19th birthday, he reformed himself using football as his outlet and escape. Thompkins, a cousin to Steelers’ wideout Antonio Brown, enrolled at Tennessee as a junior college transfer. When Lane Kiffin bailed for USC, Thompkins transferred to Cincinnati and was ruled ineligible to play the 2010 season.
In the two following years, Thompkins totaled 78 catches for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns.
Those numbers weren’t enough to land the 25-year-old rookie a draft spot, but since signing on as a free agent, Thompkins has undoubtedly been the Patriots’ breakout player of the summer. He has started both preseason games and shown an advanced feel for running routes while flashing strong hands to make contested catches.
He doesn’t quite have the same game-changing upside as Dobson and might eventually cede playing time to him, but Thompkins appears to have the starting gig locked up and is one of the more intriguing rookies to follow in the NFL this season.
Who needs Rob Gronkowski?
Anybody watching the Patriots this preseason could be forgiven for forgetting Gronk still isn’t suiting up. Like one of the Tyrells donning the late Lord Renly’s armor for battle, Zach Sudfeld impersonates the injured All-Pro so well that most casual fans wouldn’t be able to discern them without the numbers on their jerseys.
That and Sudfeld’s flowing mane.
Even those who now recognize the 6’7” Sudfeld may have a difficult time remembering the Patriots claimed him off the scrap heap. Nobody drafted him. That doesn’t mean nobody wanted him, but nobody wanted him badly enough to spend a draft pick to secure his services.
He’s performed more like an early-round pick all summer and now, just a few months later, he’s poised to inherit the starting role on a championship caliber team.
Sudfeld has been the Patriots’ most explosive rookie and best tight end on the field throughout the preseason. He’s shown razor-sharp focus by hauling in a remarkable touchdown off of a deflection against the Buccaneers last week. He also flashed impressive agility and footwork snagging a two-point conversion during that same game.
The week before, Sudfield channeled his inner-Gronk against the Eagles, athletically rumbling, churning and spinning his way along the sideline for beaucoup yards after the catch.
All in all, Sudfeld looks like the complete package and should start while Gronk recovers before eventually settling into a complementary role.
With his size, hands and athleticism, Sudfeld will create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses and should play a major role in New England’s offense all season long.
Jamie Collins, LB
Taken in the second round to bolster New England’s pass rush, Collins should see action as an outside linebacker in situational packages. Very talented, still raw.
Duron Harmon, Safety
The most obscure of Bill Belichick’s picks this year, Harmon remains a work in progress. He has plenty of time to learn under fellow Rutgers alum Devin McCourty.
Josh Boyce, WR
The fourth-round receiver has fallen behind Thompkins and Dobson at this point. He is competing with Julian Edelman for the fifth receiver spot.