Patriots’ youthful turn includes NFL-high 14 rookies

Zach Sudfeld likely will be the No. 1 tight end until Rob Gronkowski returns.
Zach Sudfeld likely will be the No. 1 tight end until Rob Gronkowski returns.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick might want to include a daily nap as part of his team’s itinerary. Or perhaps bring in someone to teach his players how to shave.

The Patriots’ roster definitely has a baby-faced feel to it this year, as the team has gone decidedly younger.

Like most NFL teams, the Patriots will continue to shuffle the bottom of the roster this week and throughout the season, but as of Monday afternoon, they were carrying 14 rookies (including seven undrafted free agents) on their 53-man roster, both the highest numbers in the NFL.

The Patriots were one of just eight teams across the league to not cut a draft pick, and they also have six second-year players. But Belichick said that getting younger wasn’t necessarily the goal.


“No, we want to win. That’s what we’re here for,” the coach said. “We kept the players that we feel give us the best chance to be competitive this year. That’s what our job is.”

The 14 rookies are the most the Patriots have kept in more than a decade, and while most will be part-time contributors and special teams players, a few will have significant roles, including a couple of the undrafted guys.

Kenbrell Thompkins is likely the No. 2 receiver after outplaying drafted rookies Aaron Dobson (second round) and Josh Boyce (fourth round). And Zach Sudfeld likely will be the No. 1 tight end until Rob Gronkowski returns.

Second-round linebacker Jamie Collins likely will play a lot in the nickel and dime packages early on, while Dobson and Boyce should both get opportunities with the offense.

The other undrafted free agents are center Braxston Cave, guard Chris Baker, defensive tackle A.J. Francis, defensive tackle Joe Vellano, and punter Ryan Allen, who beat out Zoltan Mesko for the job.

“They do a great job of finding guys,” cornerback Devin McCourty said of the personnel department. “We have undrafted guys and you wouldn’t even know it. Kenbrell was an undrafted guy, and he’s come in here, he’s worked hard and played well throughout camp. That doesn’t matter once you’re here.”


Belichick has emphasized that mantra since coming to New England in 2000.

Certainly, the Patriots have plenty of examples of undrafted free agents who succeeded once they got to the NFL: receiver Danny Amendola, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, guard Dan Connolly, cornerback Kyle Arrington.

“Right when I got here, Coach Belichick made it clear that he doesn’t care how you got here, where you came from,” said Vellano, who was undrafted out of Maryland. “I thought that was inspiring, really. He doesn’t care about all that other stuff. He cares about football, and what you can do today and in the future, not what you did in the past.”

St. Louis and Atlanta are second behind the Patriots with 12 rookies on their Monday rosters, while the Saints have six undrafted rookies. Five teams — the Dolphins, Giants, Steelers, Redskins, and Titans — didn’t keep any undrafted rookies.

As of Monday, 264 rookies were on NFL rosters, an average of 8.25 per team, and there were 69 undrafted rookies, or 2.2 per team.

The Patriots’ rookies are certain to have butterflies before and perhaps during Sunday’s season opener at Buffalo. Running back LeGarrette Blount, who was an undrafted rookie for Tampa Bay in 2010, recalled his nerve-racking experience.


“You just go out there and are playing against guys you watched growing up,” he said. “My first carry was against the Steelers, and it went for 8 or 9 yards and the guy that tackled me was [Troy] Polamalu.

“That was pretty exciting at the time. Not exciting to get tackled, but I got tackled by Polamalu, someone I watched growing up. It was cool.”

McCourty said he’s not too concerned about having so many young faces on the roster.

“The key thing is, since I’ve been here, guys that stay on the team deserve to be here and they usually play a role,” McCourty said. “So I’m excited for those guys to make the team and have the opportunity out here. And I’m confident in them. I think they’ll be ready to go.”

“If you can come out and make the team through Coach Belichick’s training camp, you’ll be ready to go in the game.”

But it does put a bit of an onus on the veterans to make sure the rookies are learning the game plans and treating their bodies right during the week.

“With 14 rookies, they’re always going to be broken out in groups across the team, so I always look at the rookies we have in the secondary and help them out as much as we can,” McCourty said. “If a guy is in my group, I have to try to keep an eye him, make sure he’s ready to go.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.