New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a theory about second-year players.
Like anyone else, Belichick hopes the rookies he brings in can immediately contribute and work their way into the rotation, if not the starting lineup. But he’s realistic about these situations. Some players need more time to become acclimated to a new playbook, way of living, and level of competition.
Because of this, he believes players make the most growth during the offseason between their first and second years. At that point, he believes, the player has had enough coaching and familiarity with the program that he can simply focus on what he’s supposed to do instead of how to do those things.
That’s why he doesn’t get too high or low on rookie players. It helps that his teams are typically ripe with talent and depth, which affords young players time to develop behind the scenes, away from scrutiny, but he often cautions not to place too much stock in a player’s rookie season.
In other words, one season is not enough for a player to be considered a bust. And he has the evidence to prove it, as two such players will be taking the field this weekend for the Patriots when they host the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game.
One of those players, linebacker Jamie Collins, was drafted as a project in the second round of the 2013 draft and never gained his bearings until around Week 12 of his rookie season. He’s now one of New England’s best playmakers on defense and appears to be on the verge of emerging as a star.
At running back, Shane Vereen, a second-round pick in 2011, struggled to get on the field as a rookie and played only 26 snaps. In his second season, Vereen gained 400 yards from scrimmage. He tallied 838 this season.
These stories are not unique. There are late bloomers littered throughout the league who emerged in later stages of their career. Locally, the Saints are currently hoping cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, fits the same mold as Vereen and Collins.
It’s hard to overlook the number eight which resides next to Jean-Baptiste’s name, indicating the number of snaps he played on defense as a rookie. That number, to many, is representative of a wasted draft pick. It screams bust. And it also did not help public perception when the rookie told The Advocate that he was unsure of his role or place on the team late in the season.
But even if he isn’t completely sure of how or where he fits in, the Saints have a plan for Jean-Baptiste and believe it is too early to write him off as a bust.
“Part of the time when a draft pick comes in, he is just looking for the right room to go to, much less to understand what it take to play at a high level in the NFL,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said at his last news conference. “We knew going in that Stanley was going to take some time and need some development, but he has some unique traits for his position and I think we are all excited about the traits that he has to play corner in the National Football League.”
In making a case for patience, Loomis pointed to former second-round picks Jon Stinchcomb and Devery Henderson as cautionary tales, before adding Robert Meachem, a former first-round pick, to the mix.
Stinchcomb, a tackle, spent his first two seasons as a reserve for the Saints before taking over the starting role in his third season. Henderson did not play much as a rookie, catching 22 passes for 343 yards, and Meachem finished his second year with 12 catches and 289 yards after spending his rookie season on injured reserve.
The difference between Meachem and Henderson is that they got on the field as rookies and displayed their talents. Jean-Baptiste couldn’t get on the field at a position that often operated in a state of disarray. Those early glimpses of the wide receivers also gave reason to believe they could eventually blossom into playmakers.
All we really know about Jean-Baptiste at this point is that he’s 6-foot-3 and plays cornerback — which is all we knew about him entering the season. What we still don’t know is what he’s capable of at this level. To believe he can do something more requires faith.
Back in New England, lining up across from Darrelle Revis this weekend will be another oversized cornerback, Brandon Browner. The 6-foot-4 cornerback quickly washed out of the league after hooking on with the Denver Broncos in 2005 and was cut a year later. He then spent the next four seasons in the Canadian Football League before hooking on with the Seattle Seahawks in 2011.
Browner made the Pro Bowl in his first season and then signed a three-year, $16.8 million deal with the Patriots last offseason.
The Saints do not have the luxury to wait that long for Jean-Baptiste to blossom, but they certainly can afford a season if they believe the rookie can become a contributor in his second season.