Bill Belichick is being as blunt with the incoming class of New England Patriots rookies as he can. Making it to the NFL is the culmination of a dream for rookies, but the real work begins once they get the call from a club -- be it in the draft or after. The level of difficulty they face in 2020 has been ratcheted up to unprecedented levels by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic though, having not had physical access to their coaches or teammates to now, with the entire offseason having been made virtual prior to training camps firing up in late July.
Additionally, there will be no preseason games to help them acclimate and/or prove themselves worthy of a roster spot. This gives a definitive edge to veterans, but Belichick does like the progress he's seeing in his rookies, particularly given the list of unique challenges they're facing this offseason.
"I think all of our rookies have worked extremely hard," Belichick said, via Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal. "They're in deep water -- turbulent water -- and it's going to get rougher, just in terms of the volume and the level of competition, becoming a professional athlete, and the full day and consecutive days that get strung together with very high demands both physically, mentally and rest and recovery and all that. I think all the guys are adjusting to it. They're all working hard at it.
"It's a really hard working group. There haven't been any problems. They're just doing the best they can, but they're swimming. They're in deep water and their eyes get open every day as we move up in the process, and we're still a long way from anything close to real football."
There will be opportunities for the rookies to make their presence known though, more so for the Patriots than any other organization in the NFL, considering the club had a league-high tally of eight players opt out due to COVID-19 concerns.
That list includes high-profile players like linebacker D'onta Hightower and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, which presumably adds value to Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, the team's 60th- and 87th-overall pick, respectively. And with safety Patrick Chung opting out as well, second-round pick Kyle Dugger could and should see more and more immediate playing time, but none of this changes the handicaps created by lack of a preseason and an abbreviated training camp. Things will soon pick up with padded practices able to begin on Monday, Aug. 17, and Belichick has been closely monitoring his first year guys in preparation for all that comes next.
"We're doing more now than we did before," he said. "Each day is an acclimation day and adjustment day for them. I think they're just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction, knowing that they're not really able to keep up but they're doing the best they can and they're way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. A lot of progress there, but a long way to go.
"But they're really all in the same boat. It's a hard working, conscientious, diligent group. They have a lot that they're going to have to absorb. We'll get a much better evaluation of where they are in the next week to 10 days when things start happening on the football field and we start playing some football."
Belichick is champing at the bit to see what his rookies can do, but he also understands this is a year in which they're truly behind the eight ball. That said, the six-time Super Bowl winner isn't going to settle for less simply because he's short several key veterans.
If anything, he's going to demand more, and everyone involved better be ready.