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Youthquake: Patriots will rely heavily on rookies this postseason

by: Christopher Price on Thu, 01/02/2014 - 1:17am

FOXBORO -- No team in the AFC will rely more on its rookies to get it through the postseason than the Patriots.

Of the 53 players on the New England roster at the dawn of the postseason, 22 have not participated in the playoffs, and of that group, 15 of those players are rookies. And those aren’t back-end-of-the-roster filler, as is mostly the case for No. 1 seed Denver. Instead, these are important fixtures, a group that includes receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, as well as defensive linemen Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, linebacker Jamie Collins, defensive backs Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon and punter Ryan Allen. It’s a group that has played a sizable role in New England’s success this season.

That 15 trumps the rest of the field, at least when it comes to the rest of the AFC.

• The Bengals have seven rookies on their 53-man roster entering the postseason and have gotten good first seasons out of running back Gio Bernard (170 carries, 695 yards, 5 TDs, as well as 56 catches, 514 yards, 3 TDs) and tight end Tyler Eifert (39 catches, 445 yards, 2 TDs).

• The Chargers have nine rookies on their roster and, like the Bengals, have gotten impactful seasons on the offensive side of the ball as a result. Wide receiver Keenan Allen (71 catches, 1,046 yards, 8 TDs) and tackle D.J. Fluker (15 starts) have been the best of the bunch.

• The Colts have nine rookies on their current roster. Wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers, a first-year player out of Tennessee Tech, has 14 catches for 192 yards and two TDs for Indy.

• The Chiefs have seven rookies on their 53-man roster and have managed to get pretty impactful performances out of a handful of players, including running back Knile Davis (70 carries, 242 yards, four TDs) and offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who has started 13 games in his first year in the league. 

• The Broncos have four rookies on their current 53-man roster, with running back Montee Ball being the only rookie of any real impact -- he has 120 carries for 559 yards and four TDs this season.

For a variety of reasons, the Patriots have gone all-in with their rookies in 2013. While there’s no singular elite player who might be in the running for Rookie of the Year honors, there’s a series of players that has stepped in and made immediate contributions, allowing the Patriots to have relatively little drop-off when faced with the prospect of pressing them into service.

On the offensive side of the ball, rookies have accounted for 21 percent of Tom Brady’s completed passes (78 of the 380 passes), with Dobson (37 catches) and Thompkins (32 catches) leading the way. In addition, rookie offensive lineman Josh Kline stepped in and started at left guard in a key road win over the Ravens.

Meanwhile, on defense, rookies have picked up 24 percent of all sacks -- 11.5 of the 48 sacks have been registered by first-year players, including six from Jones. And seven of the 17 picks (41 percent) have come from this year’s rookie class, with a team-high five coming from Ryan and two from Harmon.

For what it’s worth, the last five Super Bowl champs haven’t leaned all that heavily on first-year players. The last five NFL champions had an average of 7.4 rookies on their 53-man roster, with the high coming with the 2011 Giants (11) and lows with the 2009 Saints and 2008 Steelers (four each).

Regardless, no Patriots playoff team of the last seven years has featured more rookies. Here’s a postseason-by-postseason look at the playoff inexperience on the New England roster since 2007.

• 2012: nine rookies (18 of the 53 had not participated in the playoffs).

• 2011: eight rookies (14 of the 53 had not participated in the playoffs).

• 2010: 11 rookies (22 of the 53 had not participated in the playoffs).

• 2009: nine rookies (25 of the 53 had not participated in the playoffs).

• 2008: no playoffs.

• 2007: two rookies (11 of the 53 had not participated in the playoffs).

Over the last few days, veterans have hammered home the point that the game changes when the playoffs roll around. There’s a heightened sense of urgency that’s not always present during the regular season.

”I think that’s really it – urgency,” said safety Devin McCourty. “Each week could be your last week of playing for the season.”

”It’s a one-game season,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who said the speed and intensity changes in much the same fashion as the transition that takes place between the preseason and regular season. “It’s all or nothing, so you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to play well.”

Of course, you could make an argument that the rookies aren’t really “rookies” anymore, at least in the literal sense of the term. The group has been relied upon for key snaps throughout the regular season, playing a significant role in getting New England to 12-4 and the No. 2 seed this year.

”They can’t have the mentality that, ‘Oh, I’m just a young guy and the team isn’t going to be depending on me to make plays,’ ” special teams captain Matthew Slater said of New England’s rookie class. “The most unlikely of guys have stepped up when you look at the history of the playoffs and the history of the NFL. It’s the no-name guys that make plays in the big games that help their team win games.”

In the end, the regular season serves as a learning process for rookies. This year’s group has endured some difficult tests, and managed to rise to almost every challenge. If the Patriots want to play deep into January, those first-year players will be counted upon to keep that level of consistency going forward. For a New England team that has often been criticized in recent years for its inability to build its roster through the draft, this year will offer a striking contrast that can suffer no such claim.