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Patriots rookies first-class so far

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 28, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots' 2007 rookies certainly left their mark, but it was a black mark.

Maybe they sensed that on a near-perfect team, their shot of making the roster was about as good as Hillary Clinton walking out of Denver with the Democratic presidential nomination. But for whatever reason, the Class of '07 was a failure. Fourth-round pick Kareem Brown was suspended for the start of training camp for an unspecified violation of team rules, setting the tone for a group that proved to be both incorrigible and horrible.

Just two of the nine players the Patriots selected in the '07 draft are still on the roster - safety Brandon Meriweather, the first-round pick, and cornerback Mike Richardson, a sixth-rounder who is fighting for a roster spot after missing all of last season because of a thumb injury. The only other holdover is quarterback Matt Gutierrez, who was signed as an undrafted free agent.

However, the mistakes of '07 have given way to the promise and potential of the Class of 2008. Led by first-round pick Jerod Mayo, who figures to open the season as a starter at inside linebacker, New England's newest neophytes have proven to be both quick learners and hard workers, impressing coach Bill Belichick.

"They have worked hard. They have probably been as good a working group as we have had," said Belichick. "They have worked hard off the field in the classroom, learning their assignments, watching film, spending extra time with the coaches, learning how to work the Avid [video] equipment - doing some of their own cut-ups and stuff like that. They've worked hard on the field.

"They make mistakes just like all rookies do, and we will see how they perform over the long haul, not just based on a couple of weeks. But they have put a lot into it. They have been accountable. [We] haven't had any problems with them in terms of discipline things or [being] late. They are there early, they are eager, they are ready to go, and they have consistently tried to do their best and learn from their mistakes."

Tonight marks the rookies' last chance to make those first-year faux pas in the preseason, as the Patriots close exhibition play on the road against the New York Giants. For some of the rookies, it might be the last time they wear a Patriots uniform, but it won't be for lack of effort or talent.

Of the team's seven draft picks, only sixth-rounder Bo Ruud is a long shot to make the 53-man roster. Cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley (second round) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round) are being counted on to contribute to a secondary that lost Asante Samuel and Randall Gay to free agency. Quarterback Kevin O'Connell, a third-rounder, has led the Patriots to touchdowns in each of the two exhibition games in which he has played, impressing with his mobility.

Outside linebacker Shawn Crable, another third-rounder, leads the team in sacks with 1 1/2 and has the team's lone interception. Fifth-round pick Matthew Slater has been a poor man's Troy Brown, practicing on both offense and defense and displaying game-breaking ability as a kick returner. Undrafted rookies Vince Redd and Gary Guyton are among the most athletic linebackers the Patriots have, and both could make the team.

The early success of the first-year players is tied to the camaraderie they've built. It started in rookie minicamp in May, extended through trips to the NFL's rookie symposium and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and has been cemented through their first training camp, an experience that has tested their mental and physical mettle.

Ask any of the rookies what has been the hardest part and they'll respond, "The playbook." The Patriots are renowned for the complexity of their schemes, particularly on defense. To cut down on the learning curve, the rookies have turned to each other.

"You got to cling to what you got," said Wheatley. "When you first show up, it's kind of just you and the rest of the other [veteran] guys, and they're already established. You want to join their ranks and establish yourself. You got to use people to help you get there, so why not use your teammates that are in the same boat as you to get there?"

Late-night study sessions at the stadium are not unusual for this group. Neither is passing out with the playbook in their lap at home. On some teams, maybe a rookie could get away with not knowing the playbook inside and out, but not with the Patriots, for whom there are adjustments to the adjustments for the adjustments.

"We do it a lot because you kind of have to, coming to this team and the type of expectations that you have. This is obviously a very complex system, so you don't really have much of a choice but to do that," Wheatley said.

"We kind of have expectations for each other. We always hold each other accountable. With me and Jonathan, we'll sit there and study a little bit, and I'll ask him some questions and he'll ask me some questions, whatever it may be. Even on the field, we'll ask each other what the call is, and you can hear us talking about the call on the field. That's what we normally do out there."

Belichick said it's not unusual for someone to emerge as the leader of the rookie class, but it's not always the highest selection. He pointed to Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick, taking the reins of his fellow rookies in 2000, even though he was an unheralded backup.

If the '08 rookies have a leader, it is Mayo, whom Belichick has praised for his single-minded focus and attention to detail. Mayo is coming to a team that desperately needs his services, but he has remained humble and hard-working, setting the tone for the rest of the group, which he said pushes each other on and off the field.

"It's been great," said Mayo of the rookies' relationship. "We've definitely built a camaraderie among this group. We're all trying to make the team, and we're all starting from square one."

Still, rookies will be rookies, which means they still have a lot to learn. Mistakes that earned a lecture during the preseason could saddle the team with a loss during the regular season.

Plus, as Belichick always cautions, you can't judge rookies by first impression.

But so far, they earn an A for approach.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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