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New England Patriots rookies display challenges of NFL journey

  • By Ali Bhanpuri NFL.com
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Ali Bhanpuri/NFL.com
On a sunny October afternoon, Gillette Stadium provides Patriots rookies with a platform to make their mark.

From the eerily quiet press box on the opposite end of the oval, the resounding collision between the football and the yellow upright early in the third quarter is as clear as the announcer's voice booming through the room a few seconds later.

"The Miami Dolphins' 46-yard field-goal attempt is no good."

And then, just like that, it materializes: the instantly recognizable momentum shift.

During the five years I lived in Boston, I'd seen the Patriots use far less significant plays as catalysts for a comeback. In the next 3 minutes and 32 seconds, New England, outmatched across the board during the first 30 minutes of this Week 8 contest to the tune of a 14-point deficit, turns the boos from halftime into unending, uninterrupted cheers.

How the Patriots do it, though, is less obvious: A bunch of rookies decide this is the game with which they're going to make their mark on the NFL.

Five plays after the Patriots take over, rookie receiver Aaron Dobson runs a dig-and-go route and catches a 14-yard pass from Tom Brady in the end zone to cap a 64-yard drive. The score is Brady's 343rd career touchdown pass, giving him one more than Fran Tarkenton, who's just been ousted from the No. 4 spot all time.

On the ensuing Miami possession, rookie cornerback Logan Ryan speeds off the left edge, blindsiding Ryan Tannehill. The ball bounces away from the Dolphins quarterback and into the hands of New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich. Ryan's strip-sack continues the Patriots' league-leading streak of consecutive games with a forced turnover. Sixty-one seconds later, the score is square at 17.

"When you're young, when you're a rookie, it's just staying at it," defensive back Devin McCourty says about the Patriots' green talent after New England's 27-17 win. "And they're getting better every week."

He might as well have been talking about me. I'm also an NFL rookie.

NFL Media's day begins long before kickoff in Foxborough, prior to sunrise over Gillette Stadium.
NFL Media's day begins long before kickoff in Foxborough, prior to sunrise over Gillette Stadium. (Ali Bhanpuri/NFL.com)

Before Caleb Sturgis' missed kick, Dobson's history-making catch and Ryan's defensive gem, before the sun had even thought about shining over Gillette Stadium, I'd been on the field, learning from our reporting team as it set up to shoot several live TV segments for NFL Network.

In the eight hours leading up to kickoff, we waited, rehearsed and planned. And when our names were called, we followed the lead of the field producer -- our own Bill Belichick -- and executed.

Like Dobson, Ryan, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and a number of other first-year players on the Patriots' roster, I'm still working and preparing and learning how to be an asset to my organization. And as a newcomer to any team, you must be prepared to seize opportunities.

No New England Patriots season in the Tom Brady era began with as much uncertainty as the 2013 campaign.

The focus, fairly or unfairly, fell on their young receivers, as talking heads questioned whether the 36-year-old quarterback could elevate a cast of unknowns. Then a slew of season-ending injuries on both sides of the ball forced Boyce, Dobson, Ryan and Thompkins into sink-or-swim territory.

Our five paths converged at Foxborough on Oct. 27, at the midpoint of the 2013 season -- but that is not where our NFL journey began. That happened eight months earlier, on a brisk February weekend in Indianapolis. At the most widely watched job interview process in the world, our dreams became tangible, and the events of that fall Sunday became possible.

The combine

In 2011, about 22.2 percent of the approximately 67,887 NCAA football players were seniors. With around 255 annual draft selections, just 1.7 percent of seniors have the opportunity to be drafted in any given year -- and that percentage drops even further when you factor in eligible underclassmen. To put that figure in perspective, Harvard's acceptance rate was 6.1 percent in the fall of 2012.

The players fortunate enough to hear their names called at Radio City Music Hall must then compete with free agents, undrafted rookies and current players for one of the 1,696 active NFL roster spots available.

The athletes who descend upon Indy for the NFL Scouting Combine every year might not know the exact numbers, but they're most certainly aware of the unfavorable odds. As I drive the three hours to Indianapolis from my residence in Chicago, I realize I also have a steep mountain to climb.

Similar to Boyce, Dobson, Ryan and Thompkins, I've been invited to the combine. When an NFL Media senior editor proposed that I meet him in Indy for an in-person interview, I didn't have a nagging hamstring injury like Dobson preventing me from showcasing my skills. I did, however, have the 192-mile drive in a questionable 11-year-old Honda Civic to overcome.

Boyce, Ryan and Thompkins, like me, have spent the past month preparing their portfolios and fine-tuning their talking points. My interview consists mainly of a one-on-one with a senior staff member. Theirs also includes one-on-one meetings -- along with a group-based evaluation process that will be televised and streamed online. I don't have to bench press 225 pounds, but I do have to discuss search engine optimization. My résumé doesn't include highlight reels, and my cover letter lacks sub-4.5 40-yard-dash times.

But our goal this weekend is the same. Work hard. Prepare. Get noticed. Hope for the phone call.

Ryan turns heads with his quickness in the three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle. His top-end speed comes into question, however, as his 4.56 40 time doesn't crack the top 15 within his position group.

Boyce's performance is the most impressive of the receiving trio (Dobson's marks would come from his Marshall Pro Day in March). But upper-body strength and speed don't make you taller. Dobson's 6-foot-3 frame makes the wideout a more versatile and appealing option to the Patriots than Boyce, who would project as another sub-6-foot slot receiver. By April, New England will already have a surplus of those, with Julian Edelman (5-10) and offseason signee Danny Amendola (5-11) on the roster.

Thompkins has the least impressive showing during the weekend. If that isn't enough, his application also includes off-the-field baggage from his teenage years in Miami; the receiver compiled seven arrests before turning 19.

I also feel like I have a lot to prove. At 24, my work experience is limited and my employer (at the time) is a small fish compared with the blue whale of the professional sports world. As I wander behind the scenes Saturday night at the combine, I worry my football acumen and news background is insufficient for the position. I fear a veteran will beat me out for the job.

I drive northwest from Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday morning, knowing the decision is out of my hands -- as it is for Boyce, who will not participate at TCU's Pro Day because of a broken foot bone. Thompkins, Ryan and Dobson, meanwhile, still have their pro days ahead of them -- which is particularly important to the latter. By March 14, the five of us have shown everything we can to the powers that be. And so we keep working and preparing and waiting for that phone call.

My phone is the first to ring. I'm offered a digital content editor position with NFL Media on March 20. By April 19, I've said goodbye to family and friends in Chicago and landed at LAX. And by April 23, I've begun my first day at 10950 W. Washington Blvd.

I have my foot in the door. In two days, I learn which other rookies will join me.

The draft

NFL Network analysts discuss draft predictions at Radio City Music Hall in New York in the waning minutes before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell officially puts the Kansas City Chiefs on the clock to make the first overall pick. Sitting at a shared desk in the newsroom back in Culver City, Calif., I focus on the list of possible first-round picks -- a list that does not include Boyce, Dobson, Ryan or Thompkins.

As Goodell's voice booms from the numerous TVs mounted on the newsroom walls, my pulse quickens. In minutes, I'll be assigned a player about whom I'm to write two to three sentences, which will appear on the NFL.com home page within 25 seconds of clicking publish.

Like Aaron, Josh, Logan and Kenbrell, I'm waiting for my name to be called.

The first few picks are announced and the short write-ups are assigned to our Around The League writers or more seasoned content producers. But the selections start rolling in faster than we can handle them.

And then it happens.

A phone rings. "Got it," says an assignment editor, who then promptly hangs up.

"Jonathan Cooper to Arizona," the editor says aloud to the newsroom.

Goodell has yet to reappear on stage since announcing the sixth pick, and the TV graphic still shows seconds ticking down for the Cardinals, but we already know who they'll take seventh overall, thanks to one of our field producers in New York.

"Ali, can you work up a shortie on Cooper?" one of the news editors asks.

I nod, my eyes fixed to the computer screen as I string together a few declarative sentences. About 20 seconds go by before the commissioner returns to the podium.

Goodell's official announcement is the green light to publish my 70-something words. By the time the ninth pick of the first round is made, what I've typed has been replaced by a more complete post from one of our writers.

My heart continues to race, but I become better at hiding it as the night progresses.

The following night, Dobson is the first of the four to be selected, at No. 59 overall in Round 2. In the next round, the Pats pick Ryan No. 83 overall. Boyce comes off the board 19 spots -- and one day -- later. Seven rounds come and go, and Thompkins' name is never called. New England, however, signs the 6-1 pass-catcher less than one week after the draft.

Training camp and preseason

When the receiving trio arrives for training camp in July, they are among a long list of strangers on the Patriots' offense. Wes Welker has decamped for Denver, Aaron Hernandez has been released and stunningly charged with murder, Danny Woodhead is in the Chargers' backfield, Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd have been cut loose and Rob Gronkowski is still recovering from forearm and back issues. Only one of the greatest quarterbacks in the league could adjust to such drastic changes and meet the Super Bowl-level expectations that have become commonplace in New England.

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The situation and goals within the NFL Media Group are eerily similar. A new managing editor and deputy news editor are still unpacking memorabilia in their offices as the draft concludes. By the time minicamps begin in June, I'm teaching a group of new producers how to use our content management system.

As I'm using the preseason to absorb tips from my peers and begin to understand their tendencies, the unfamiliar faces in the Pats' huddle are becoming more recognizable to Brady and the media. Thompkins, specifically, is now a name quick off the tongues of fantasy gurus and football writers. While Boyce and Dobson struggle to live up to their respective draft billings in the preseason, the passed-over Cincinnati product compiles 15 catches during the four-game rookie screening process, including an eight-reception, 116-yard performance in Week 3 -- the preseason's most important week -- against the Detroit Lions.

With Week 1 of the regular season days away, the consensus around the country is that Brady and Co. will be good but not great. Miami is the sleeper pick to make waves in the AFC East, and positive whispers surround the Bills and rookie QB EJ Manuel.

The outlook for NFL Media also is a bit ... unclear. With another large media group launching a sports network in Los Angeles, new leadership at the helm and concerns that Web visitors have peaked, there is plenty of excitement -- but also a need for sustained focus throughout our Culver City offices.

The season

The rush experienced while playing for a professional sports franchise or editing for a major media group is addictive, the benefits unequivocal, but neither opportunity is all glory and awards and Super Bowls.

When things go wrong, the Pats' first-year players and I all answer to a Tom Brady (as it so happens, NFL Media Group's vice president of content and New England's starting quarterback share the same name). Dobson and Thompkins learn this the hard way -- in front of a national audience. Dropped passes, miscommunication and bad route running by the duo draw the ire of one of the league's best signal-callers during the team's Week 2 win over the Jets on "Thursday Night Football." When I make mistakes, they also have the potential to be seen by millions of people, though the feedback I receive is generally delivered behind closed doors.

If the receivers are rattled by having Brady publicly chew them out, they don't show it. Dobson catches seven passes from Brady against Tampa Bay in Week 3, while two of Thompkins' three receptions against the Buccaneers go for touchdowns.

Thompkins follows that performance with 127 yards on six catches and one score against the Atlanta Falcons. His last-second touchdown reception two weeks later against the New Orleans Saints seals New England's comeback win and cements the undrafted receiver's place in Patriots lore.

But the honeymoon period for the two rookie receivers fades in the second half of the season, and both miss significant time during the final five games due to injury.

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While Thompkins and Dobson had opportunities out of the gate to flash their potential, Boyce has to wait 13 weeks -- and witness his teammates dropping like flies -- before he's able to make an impact. Seven of his nine receptions on the season come in Weeks 14 and 15, when Thompkins, Dobson and Gronkowski are sidelined. Of course, just as Boyce is making his mark as a legitimate weapon for a depleted Patriots arsenal, the wideout injures his ankle and eventually joins Gronk on injured reserve.

Of the four rookies, Ryan has arguably enjoyed the most successful -- or at least the healthiest -- debut campaign, playing in all 16 regular-season games. Although he started just two of his first 10 contests, the rookie defender took the field with the first team in five of their last seven, finishing with 35 tackles and five interceptions, including a 79-yard pick-six. And, of course, he had the game-changing strip-sack that helped keep Tannehill winless at Gillette.

Playoffs

The Patriots -- young and old -- find themselves in a familiar place heading into this week's divisional-round matchup against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough.

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More than two months ago, shortly after seeing Dobson, Ryan and Co. lead the Pats to victory, McCourty said the rookies had to turn the corner.

"At this point, guys have played a full preseason, a full training camp -- we've played a good amount of games now," the veteran told reporters. "They're still rookies on paper, but they can't still play like rookies and act like rookies.

"Especially with things that have happened with our team. I think those guys are ready for that role."

And they've shown it -- in spurts.

But consistency is key when you're trying to prove yourself. So is poise. The countless reps I received over the summer -- writing and editing our content and managing breaking news situations -- have afforded me a confidence I worried I'd never obtain after that nerve-racking draft day in April.

Nearly seven months since that late-night shift, I began a new position, working with a small team to develop NFL Media's digital original content. I still deal with breaking news, but now focus more on the analysis of what has transpired and its long-term impact. That is to say, I'm concerned less with the fact that the Patriots are playing the Colts on Saturday and more with what it will take for New England to prevail.

We've come a long way, and the expectations and stakes have quickly risen -- for all of us rookies. Their first playoff game is one day away; I'll be following four games this weekend and two more on Championship Sunday before Super Bowl XLVIII.

Whether our five paths will cross again, in New York, remains to be seen. In the meantime, we'll keep working and preparing -- and waiting for our names to be called.

We've walked through the door at the NFL. Now it's about creating our legacies.

Follow Ali Bhanpuri on Twitter @AliBhanpuri.

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