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Patriots rookies rise to the challenge

Bailey Zappe wasn’t the only rookie from the 2022 class that helped the Patriots take down the Browns on Sunday.

While Zappe was the most notable at quarterback, he had plenty of company. The Patriots got contributions in every phase from their rookies. Up and down the list, from drafted players, as well as one who went undrafted, the kids got the job done in the 38-15 win over the Browns.

“They are playing great football for this team and we need them to,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said of the rookies. “There is a reason we kept so many of them. They continue to show up for us and get better.”

First-round pick Cole Strange doesn’t get much notoriety unless he gets the quarterback hit, but he has started at left guard all season, and seems to improve with every game. As always, the Patriots ran to his side with Trent Brown quite a bit.

Second-round pick Tyquan Thornton, meanwhile, playing in his second game since coming off IR with a broken clavicle, had a rushing and receiving touchdown.

Both Jack Jones and Marcus Jones, taken in the third round, started at corner given injuries to Jonathan Jones, who didn’t play, and Jalen Mills, who was limited given a hamstring injury. Both rookies broke up passes, while Marcus Jones also returned kicks.

“It is exciting to see those young guys out there and make plays and execute,” said Mills, who said the rookies continue to grow and give the team a boost.

Between Jack Jones, Marcus Jones and Jalen Mills, Amari Cooper was held to 4 catches for 44 yards and a touchdown. Jack Jones, who jawed with some fans who were looking for a penalty on a pass break-up on Cooper in the end zone, was once again up for the challenge.

“He’s one of the best receivers in the league,” said Jones. “When you go up against a guy like that, you gotta lock in every play, and can’t take a play off.”

Rookie running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris, meanwhile, gave Rhamondre Stevenson a bit of a breather, while undrafted special-teamer Brenden Schooler recovered his second fumble on the season.

Zappe, of course, threw for over 300 yards with a pair of touchdowns to lead the class. So all in all, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who hasn’t always been fond of starting his rookies, is seeing some dividends going with the kids, partly out of necessity.

Thornton had to pick up some of the slack with Nelson Agholor out with a hamstring injury, and Kendrick Bourne suffering a toe injury early in the game.

The former Baylor standout got open in the back of the endzone to give the Patriots their first red zone score of the game, as Zappe found Thornton cutting across the middle for a two-yard touchdown pass. That put the Pats up 17-6 in the third quarter.

“When you’re in the red zone, you gotta have it,” said Thornton, who finished with 4 catches for 37 yards. “You gotta execute … just win, you gotta get open. There’s nothing too crazy to it.”

Thornton did get open, and Bailey zipped a pass through traffic to hit him for the receiver’s first NFL touchdown.

The rookie wideout also scored on a jet sweep, running around the end and into daylight for a 19-yard score.

Thornton, who said he felt good from a conditioning standpoint after missing the first four weeks, revealed that one of the coaches told him during the week that particular play would have success against the Browns on the left side.

“I wasn’t surprised (the jet sweep worked). One of the coaches was telling me about it throughout the week,” said Thornton, who wouldn’t identify the coach. “It was a good call by the coach who drew it up.”

As for his connection with Zappe, Thornton didn’t want to distinguish the rookie from any other quarterback the Patriots have.

“It’s the same with all the QBs,” he said. “You go out there, work every day and put a good amount of time in, so I feel comfortable with whoever’s out there.”

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