GLENDALE, Ariz. — After New England’s critical win over the Arizona Cardinals, Patriots running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri stopped by the stalls of rookies Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong on his way out of the visiting locker room at State Farm Stadium. Sunseri, sporting a big smile, fist-bumped the players, congratulating them on their memorable evening.
Headed into Monday night’s game, Harris and Strong had combined for just 23 offensive snaps this season. But with Rhamondre Stevenson downgraded to out with an ankle injury and Damien Harris already inactive because of a thigh injury, the Patriots had no choice but to turn to the rookie tandem.
The pair delivered. Harris and Strong each scored a touchdown, combining for 96 rushing yards on 13 carries in the 27-13 victory. Strong also caught two passes for 20 yards. The impressive stat line reflects a promising showing for the duo, who will likely be called upon again if Stevenson and/or Harris are unable to go play Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“It was great,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They got an opportunity and made some big plays. We’ll see if they can sustain it and show up week after week once people start looking for them.”
As the Patriots continue to fight for a playoff spot — and work through their offensive woes — the contributions from a growing number of youngsters have emerged as a bright spot.
Look at this year’s rookie class alone.
First-round draft pick Cole Strange has started every game at left guard, logging 91.5 percent of the offense’s snaps. Second-rounder Tyquan Thornton notched receiving and rushing touchdowns against Cleveland in Week 6. Third-rounder Marcus Jones returned a punt 84 yards for the winning touchdown against the Jets in Week 11. Fourth-rounder Jack Jones became the fourth player ever to record a pick-6 against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Fellow fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe captivated New England in his two starts at quarterback while an ankle injury sidelined starter Mac Jones.
Now add Strong, also taken in the fourth round, and Harris, taken in the sixth round, to that list. Director of player personnel Matt Groh must feel encouraged. Seven of the team’s 10 picks have registered a positive impact.
“Everybody’s got a role, and when their number is called, hopefully they’ll come through for us,” Belichick said. “These guys work hard. They all do. But certainly it’s good to see some of the young guys, and even [undrafted rookies Brenden] Schooler and [DaMarcus] Mitchell in the kicking game. Obviously, the guys that scored the touchdowns or intercepted passes, they’re easy to spot. Zappe had some contributions a little bit earlier in the year when he played. It takes everybody.”
The highlights only tell part of the story. The Patriots benched Strange at points because he was struggling to hold his ground. Thornton’s production hasn’t sustained. Two weeks ago, Strong committed a costly running-into-the-kicker penalty against Minnesota.
But the Patriots have reasons for optimism, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted as they continue to find their identity following the departure of Tom Brady.
Look at the key members of the 2021 and 2020 draft classes, too.
Stevenson, taken in the fourth round last year, is the team’s most productive offensive player, with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. A knee injury has kept 2021 second-rounder Christian Barmore off the field for much of this season, but the 23-year-old defensive tackle proved to be a menace for opposing quarterbacks last season.
New England’s first two picks of the 2020 draft, safety Kyle Dugger and linebacker Josh Uche, have established themselves as top performers. On Monday night, Dugger forced a fumble while tackling Cardinals top receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and Uche logged three sacks. Uche has 10 sacks on the season, with all 10 coming since Week 8.
Don’t forget about starting right guard Michael Onwenu, the only player to log 100 percent of the offense’s snaps this season, and linebacker Anfernee Jennings, who has begun to carve out a role after sitting out last season.
The Patriots’ recent draft history has been far from perfect. It doesn’t take long to come up with a list of players that didn’t pan out (tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, kicker Justin Rohrwasser, and wide receiver N’Keal Harry, to name a few). But it appears the team has also discovered at least a few building blocks.
With four regular-season games remaining, the season seems as though it’s on the road to nowhere. The 7-6 Patriots are not contenders. Even if they sneak in as the AFC’s seventh seed, the chances that they advance beyond the wild-card round are slim.
Harris, Strong, and Monday night’s game served as a reminder, however, that the team is still building toward something amid a mediocre year.
It’s too early to make any grand declarations about this year’s rookie class. Consistency and availability will be essential moving forward. For now, though, the flashes of potential provide reasons to be hopeful for the future.