Midseason rookie watch: which Patriots rookies have done best?

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots and Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots take to the field before a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - NOVEMBER 06: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots and Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots take to the field before a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images) /

Coming off of a season in which the Patriots hit on a few key rookies (Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and Rhamondre Stevenson), expectations were not quite as high for the 2022 rookie class, but I guess that’s what happens when you pick a right guard in the first round. Fans seem to be more excited for guys at skill positions, not someone drafted to protect Jones and clear running lanes for Stevenson. The Patriots did select wide receiver Tyquan Thornton in the second round, but a broken collarbone during training camp sidelined him early on. The two corners seemingly faced an uphill battle for playing time, as did the two running backs.

Midway through the season, the member of the draft class you’d least expect has had the biggest impact, while others have had their moments. The first-round pick of Cole Strange looked good early but has had a few bumps in the road these last few weeks. Here are my midseason grades for the Patriots rookies.

Bailey Zappe, A

If you were confused by this pick, you’re not alone. Mac Jones was coming off of a rookie season in which he finished second in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, led the Patriots to the playoffs, and was named to the Pro Bowl. Why would they take a quarterback in the fourth round, and who is Bailey Zappe?

After a rough preseason, it was clear that Zappe wasn’t quite ready and would be the third-string quarterback, but things change quickly in the NFL. Jones injured his ankle, Brian Hoyer got concussed, and Zappe found himself making his debut at Lambeau Field. Zappe almost led the Patriots to an upset win and filled in admirably for Jones, going 2-0 as a starter to help keep the season alive.

Fans flooded local radio stations with calls as they came down with “Zappe Fever,” and Sunday afternoons at 1:00 turned into Zappe Hour. In four games, Zappe has completed over 70% of his passes, has thrown five touchdowns to three interceptions, and has a rating of 100.9.

Brenden Schooler, A-

Technically an undrafted free agent, I include Schooler as a member of the rookie class. Although he plays primarily on special teams, Schooler has made an impact after being a surprise addition to the roster. Twice he has recovered muffed punts (Pittsburgh, Cleveland) which directly led to New England touchdowns, and he nearly scored his first career touchdown last week after scooping up a blocked punt. The Patriots have had a key special teamer almost every year of the Belichick era (Larry Izzo, Matthew Slater), is already and Schooler seems to be next in line.

Jack Jones, B+

After not seeing much playing time through the first three weeks of the season, Jones arrived on the scene in Green Bay, intercepting Aaron Rodgers and bringing it back for a score.

Jones also had a forced fumble and fumble recovery in that game and followed it up with an interception the following week in a win over Detroit. With Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones in the fold, it has been challenging for Jones to carve out a starting role, but he continues to play well when called upon. Opposing quarterbacks have only completed 51.9% (14/27) of their passes targeted at Jones, and he has yet to allow a touchdown. His play against the run has also improved week after week.

Marcus Jones, B

Another guy who has come on after sitting the first few weeks, Jones has made his mark primarily on special teams in the return game. Jones came out of college with the reputation of an elite return man and has lived up to the hype so far in his rookie season. Through nine weeks, Jones leads the NFL in average kickoff return yardage (24.3) and is second in yards per punt return (13.4). Defensively, he has only been on the field for 75 snaps, and 34 of those came in the win over the Browns. Albeit in a small sample size, Jones has proven to be a decent corner allowing just two receptions on eight attempts.

Tyquan Thornton, C+

Thornton was probably the rookie fans were most excited to see, and he started preseason by catching a touchdown pass in his first game before breaking a collarbone which caused him to miss the first four games. After a quiet debut, Thornton came alive in Cleveland, catching his first career touchdown and running for another.

However, in the three games since, Thornton has tallied just three receptions (on 11 targets) for 37 yards, and zero touchdowns as the offense has struggled. Although he has moved up the depth chart, the numbers haven’t moved up with him.

Cole Strange, C-

Strange got off to an inauspicious start in Miami, getting benched in the second quarter but rebounded nicely over the next five games. Through the first six weeks of the season, he was the only Patriots lineman not to be called for a penalty and did well in both pass protection and run blocking. In the three games since, Strange has been called for four penalties, given up two sacks, and benched twice. That is not exactly what you want to see from your first-round pick. Hopefully, the bye week gives him a chance to catch his breath.

Pierre Strong, D

A fourth-round pick, Strong was expected to compete for playing time as a third-down back to help spell Stevenson and Damien Harris. However, even after the retirement of James White and an injury to Ty Montgomery, Strong hasn’t been able to crack the lineup. You know the coaches don’t think he’s ready if he can’t even get touches once Harris went down and JJ Taylor was called up off the practice squad. So far, a disappointing start for Strong, who has been primarily used on special teams.

Incompletes: Sam Roberts, DaMarcus Mitchell, Chasen Hines, Kevin Harris