When Patriots rookie Rhamondre Stevenson was a kid, he would hold on to trading cards of athletes he liked. At 23 years old, he has a sports card of his own.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” Stevenson said Friday afternoon via telephone. “It makes me happy. It makes my family happy. I’m definitely going to keep a couple for the long haul.”
Joining a group of fellow NFL rookies, Stevenson spent his morning in Los Angeles signing stacks of his cards. The milestone capped the end of a successful rookie season for Stevenson, who’s come a long way since the Patriots drafted him in the fourth round last year.
“I matured a lot this season, just in all aspects — on the field, off the field,” Stevenson said. “I try to do everything exactly as they want it to be done.”
Things initially got off to a rocky start for the Las Vegas native.
According to running backs coach Ivan Fears, Stevenson didn’t even pass his conditioning test at the start of training camp. Then, against Miami in Week 1, he fumbled in the first quarter and didn’t earn another touch.
Stevenson’s rookie campaign initially seemed destined for a redshirt year, a path that Damien Harris, James White, and Shane Vereen all followed their first year in New England. He was one of the team’s inactive players for three straight weeks after the season opener.
“My teammates kept telling me to keep my head up, keep pushing,” Stevenson said. “I knew what I wanted for myself. Whatever happened in the season, I would never give up on myself. It’s just having that relentless mindset and going to get what I want.”
White’s season-ending hip injury in Week 3 reshuffled the running back room, paving the way for Stevenson to earn a critical role in the offense. Starting in Week 9, he emerged as a regular in the rotation, splitting time with Harris and veteran Brandon Bolden.
The highlights were aplenty. In Week 10 against Cleveland, with Harris sidelined because of a concussion, Stevenson got his first career start and ran for 100 yards with two touchdowns. The next week in Atlanta, he delivered a nasty stiff arm on his first carry of the game for a 21-yard gain. In Week 13 against Buffalo, Stevenson once again proved to be difficult to bring down, as he forced nine missed tackles and generated 74 of his 78 rushing yards after contact.
The powerful, big-bodied back finished the year with 606 rushing yards and five touchdowns, both second to Harris. He also logged 14 receptions on 18 targets for 123 yards.
“The kid’s done a great job of listening, learning, and watching,” Fears said. “He’s learned from other guys being on the field. His attitude and the way the kid handles himself has grown tremendously. You got to love the way the kid has sort of adapted to who we are and what we need from him. He’s taken all the criticism in the world and has gotten better — a lot better. I think if he continues that, he’s going to be something special.”
Throughout the year, Stevenson said he learned the importance of treating each day as an individual challenge and focusing solely on the task at hand.
“You have to be focused and dialed in on that day, at that task, or it’s not going to go well,” he said. “It’s not just waking up the next day and saying, ‘I’m going to be focused on just today. I’m not going to focus on the next day.’ It’s a task. You have to really apply yourself, just focusing on what is at hand. It’s very hard. You just have to be disciplined.”
When reflecting on memorable moments from his rookie season, Stevenson also mentioned the closeness of the locker room — something that coach Bill Belichick and multiple players highlighted, too.
“I can talk to anybody on the team — defense, defensive coaches,” Stevenson said. “Just the camaraderie, just the brotherly love that was in the building. That was probably one of the best and exhaling moments I could have had. I thought it was going to be a lot different. But being a young guy with a lot of vets, they make it real easy.”
Within his position, the relationships sound even stronger.
“Outside of the building, inside the building, we all get along,” Stevenson said. “There’s competition, you know, we’re all very good backs, so it’s a friendly competition. Iron sharpens iron. I think we all just bring that to the table. You’re going to get our best at all times.”
Stevenson’s role is likely going to expand. He plans to spend most of the offseason training in Dallas, with a focus on improving his route-running and achieving more consistency when catching passes out of the backfield. That skill set would certainly be welcomed.
The personnel could be changing inside New England’s running back room, as Bolden and White are both set to become unrestricted free agents, while the 67-year-old Fears could be headed for retirement. But one thing’s for certain: The Patriots should feel confident about Stevenson moving forward.
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.