COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots head into the bye week at the 7-2 mark, sitting atop the AFC East division, second in the conference and fourth in the NFL. And while head coach Bill Belichick's team has encountered its share of adversity leading up to the mid-season break, that adversity has led to contributions from an unexpected source: the rookies.
New England's 53-man roster presently consists of 13 rookies -- eight of which were drafted last April and five of which signed on as free agents. Through nine games, several of whom have forged roles in Foxborough, Mass., while others have taken a back seat.
Here is a look at their progress:
Jamie Collins, Linebacker
New England's 52nd overall selection in last spring's draft, Jamie Collins has played in all nine contests, starting two, integrating on special teams as well as weak-side and strong-side linebacker. In the process, he has totaled 15 tackles along with a fumble recovery. A 6'3", 250-pound athletic edge-rusher out of Southern Mississippi, Collins has been asked to drop back in coverage far more than rush the passer. And despite the season-ending injury to captain Jerod Mayo, Collins' snaps have remained inconsistent. The 24-year-old didn't fare well during his season-high 25 snaps against the Miami Dolphins in Week 8, and that gave way to just two snaps in Week 9. He's tallied 94 defensive snaps to this point, according to Pro Football Focus.
Aaron Dobson, Wide Receiver
Since the Patriots drafted him with the 59th overall pick, Marshall wideout Aaron Dobson has played in eight games, racking up 31 catches for 434 yards and four touchdowns. After some bumps along the way -- particularly a league-leading nine drops -- the long 6'3", 200-pounder's growing pains have waned. In turn, he is now in position to move forward as New England's "X" target on the outside. The bye week comes just days after the 22-year-old reeled in five passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns - including an 81-yard score - in 69 snaps versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Per Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald, Dobson needs more 13 receptions and 36 yards to have the most prolific rookie season for a wide receiver in the era of quarterback Tom Brady.
Logan Ryan, Cornerback
New England's first of two third-round choices in 2013, cornerback Logan Ryan has seen his opportunities grow with the season. The 5'11", 195-pound Rutgers product has worked in all nine games, making two starts, 15 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two pass deflections, a forced fumble and an interception returned for a score. Ryan has lined up as a nickelback, dimeback, on the outskirts and on special teams. The 22-year-old has played 188 downs in his last four appearances.
Duron Harmon, Safety
From the Rutgers-to-Patriots pipeline, safety Duron Harmon was described "who's that" pick at 91st overall. But the 6'1", 205-pound 22-year-old enigma has displayed enough to eclipse 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson. Harmon has played eight games, notching eight tackles, three pass deflections and two interceptions -- both coming in his last two tilts. Harmon has amassed more snaps in the last three weeks than he did through the first six. And with veteran starting strong safety Steve Gregory sidelined with a broken thumb, he is in line for even more responsibilities.
Josh Boyce, Wide Receiver
New England's fourth-round pick at 102 overall, wide receiver Josh Boyce has been quiet to this juncture. The quick 5'11", 205-pound Texas Christian Horned Frog has managed 56 snaps in five games, catching one pass for 24 yards. Boyce, 22, has been a healthy inactive since Week 5.
Michael Buchanan, Defensive End
Illinois pass-rusher Michael Buchanan, whom the Patriots took a flier on in Round 7 at pick 226 overall, has been able to leapfrog 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette. And since then, the explosive 6'6", 255-pounder has made five tackles and two sacks in nine games. Not revered for containment, particularly versus the run, Buchanan has been used as a situational rusher in sub packages and has accumulated 107 total snaps. Yet with Andre Carter re-signed after a one-year hiatus, Buchanan is now in a platoon as the No. 4 defensive end on the depth chart.
Steve Beauharnais, Linebacker
Pick 235 out of Rutgers, inside linebacker Steve Beauharnais made the final roster out of preseason for his efforts on special teams. But with six linebackers on the active squad, the 6'2", 230-pound 23-year-old has been subject to the 46-man gameday roster. Beauharnais has suited up for three games, getting on the field for one.
Ryan Allen, Punter
Undrafted two-time Ray Guy Award winner Ryan Allen beat out Zoltan Mesko this summer, and his in-season punting and holding performance has lived up to the coaching decision. The 6'2", 215-pound Louisiana Tech Bulldog places 10th in the league with a 46-yard average, and he has also landed 16 boots inside the 20. For all intents and purposes, Allen is meeting the demands as the holder as well; placekicker Stephen Gostkowski is 22-for-23 on field goals.
Chris Barker, Offensive Guard
Undrafted Nevada offensive guard Chris Barker was claimed off waivers from the Miami Dolphins during final cuts. Since that time, the 6'2", 310-pound 23-year-old has been active for three games, filtering in for one.
Chris Jones, Defensive Tackle
A twice-waived Houston Texans sixth-round pick, Chris Jones was claimed off waivers by the Patriots in early September. The defensive tackle's 12.5 sacks finished third in the country as a Bowling Green senior, and that prowess has translated to New England. The 6'1", 309-pound three-technique has been able to break off the snap for a rookie-best five sacks. The 23-year-old Jones has played 361 snaps in six games for the Patriots -- starting four in wake of Vince Wilfork's and Tommy Kelly's season-ending injuries -- also making 30 tackles.
Joe Vellano, Defensive Tackle
Undrafted Maryland All-American Joe Vellano hung on to a job following cut-down days, and that job has parlayed to a starting one. The 6'2", 300-pound 25-year-old has participated in all nine games, earning five starts, 33 tackles, a sack, a batted pass and a fumble recovery. Vellano isn't the largest or the fastest interior defensive lineman, but he's a well-versed rookie who's making the most of his chances at the one- and three-techniques.
Kenbrell Thompkins, Wide Receiver
Kenbrell Thompkins' triumphs in overcoming a difficult past to emerge as an undrafted wideout was well documented. And his story reached another chapter as the 6'0", 195-pound Cincinnati and El Camino College product caught the game-winning touchdown in New England's comeback battle against the New Orleans Saints in Week 6. The 25-year-old recorded 23 receptions for 334 yards and four touchdowns through his first seven games. Although in Week 8, he was held without a catch for the first time in his young career. And in Week 9, he was a healthy inactive as Dobson took the reins of the "X."
Josh Kline, Offensive Guard
Undrafted Kent State offensive lineman Josh Kline made New England's initial 53-man roster two months ago, only to be waived and signed to the practice squad as waiver claims filed in. From there, the 6'3", 295-pound guard has been called up and sent down twice. But most recently, the 23-year-old was called up to face Pittsburgh. It marked the regular-season action of his career.
Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for NEPatriotsDraft.com. His work has been featured on BleacherReport.com, TheFootballEducator.com, USAToday.com, Patriots.com, Boston.com and NESN.com.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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