FOXBOROUGH - Once the season starts, Patriots rookies are forced to make statements with their play. They are to be seen on the field and not heard from in the media.
So you can't blame rookie inside linebacker Jerod Mayo for being a little nervous yesterday as he was fielding inquiries and his boss, coach Bill Belichick, strolled by in mid-answer. Mayo apologetically turned to him and said, "It's Friday." Belichick kept walking out of the locker room, but hollered back, "You're good."
The coach was giving his imprimatur for Mayo's interview, but he just as easily could have been describing the rookie's play.
Mayo, the 10th overall pick and first linebacker drafted higher than the fifth round by Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli since they came to power in 2000, has been an instant starter and an immediate mainstay in the Patriots' 3-4 defense. The 6-foot-1-inch, 242-pound newcomer has been on the field for every defensive snap in the first two games, from base defense to five- and six-defensive back sets, drawing praise for his preparation, work ethic, and aptitude.
Against the Jets last Sunday, Mayo played 50 snaps, including a holding call against Jets offensive tackle Damien Woody and a Brett Favre 2-yard rush that resulted in an illegal forward pass penalty, finishing with seven tackles. In a 17-10 victory over the Chiefs Sept. 7, Mayo played 63 snaps, including a Kansas City holding penalty, and collected six tackles.
"I'm impressed with his work ethic and his level of commitment toward really just being a professional," said safety Rodney Harrison. "The one good thing about Jerod is that he's willing to learn, and he has a lot of help, a lot of mentorship in the back end with Tedy [Bruschi] and [Mike] Vrabel and those guys. To come in here and start as a rookie is tough enough. To play linebacker in a 3-4, middle linebacker in a 3-4, with all the different calls, adjustments, checks, looks is totally different. He's worked hard at it."
Even the unassuming Mayo - who is second on the team in tackles behind Harrison - admitted that if he had been told on draft day he would be the only defensive player to have played every snap two games in, he wouldn't have believed it.
"To be honest, probably not," said Mayo, 22. "This team won 18 games last year. There is not really too much you can do to improve on that, but at the same time, I'm just trying to learn as much as I can and get on the field any way I can."
Mayo said the toughest part about playing every defensive snap has been the mental strain, not the physical one. He's constantly calculating where to go, what his keys are, and what checks need to be made.
What makes Mayo's ability to assimilate Belichick's defense so impressive is that veteran players like Monty Beisel, a famed free agent bust in 2005, and Chad Brown struggled to learn the inside linebacker position for the Patriots. Few could have expected a rookie, even one as athletic as Mayo, who said he had some 3-4 experience at Tennessee, to contribute so quickly.
"I'm sure they had a different system at Tennessee," said Harrison. "For him to be able to come in and make the calls, learn the signals, make the adjustments just showed he worked extremely hard at it. Physically, we know that he's got all the tools. It's just mentally for rookies, it's always tough to learn at a fast rate or a fast pace because each and every week is so different, and he's done a good job of that."
"He's been very consistent," said Belichick. "He's learning something every time he walks out onto the field, both in practice and in the games. I think he's shown in both of the regular-season games his speed, his range, his toughness, and his playmaking ability. He's made big plays in both of those games. There are things that Jerod hasn't seen before, that every rookie hasn't, things that are a little bit different than the situation in practice. He learns from those, improves on them the next time, and they're usually not problems. I think he's gaining a little more experience and reacting a little bit quicker each time he goes out on the field. He works awfully hard at it. He is a very attentive and detailed young man."
Mayo said he's had a lot of help from his fellow linebackers, especially Bruschi, the doyen of the defense who lines up beside him at inside linebacker.
"He's really helped me in the film room, in the playbook, and things like that, so he's really taken me under his wing and showed me the ropes," said Mayo, who added that outside linebackers Adalius Thomas and Vrabel, both of whom have played inside, have helped him out as well.
The fact the Patriots needed to start planning for the future at inside linebacker was well-documented in the offseason. Mayo is a big part of that future, but he's also proven he can contribute in the present.
But don't worry, the Patriots are not letting him forget he's a rookie. He's still carrying pads and in charge of the morning doughnuts. All rookies have to learn their place in the NFL.
"I feel a little more comfortable, but I feel like at the same time I have a lot to learn," Mayo said. "I have a lot more to give to the team. It just takes time. It takes games. It takes plays. I want to learn as much as I can."
Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.