FOXBORO -- None of them could have known. None of them. Not Kenbrell Thompkins. Not Aaron Dobson. Not Josh Boyce. But when they hung out late at night inside a Residence Inn hotel room just a short drive from Gillette Stadium back in May during rookie minicamp, they were laying the foundations for a season in which they would help the Patriots to an AFC East title and a playoff berth.
It was there that they studied together, bounced questions off of one another, and forged friendships that allowed them to handle the good days and the bad as first-year players in the NFL.
"From being roommates in the hotel to just being around each other 24/7, I thought we built a relationship that will develop for years to come," Thompkins said. "I would like to be with those guys for a very long time. I know it's a business and everything like that, but without Josh and without Aaron, I don't think I would be the KT that I am today. We did a great job by just helping each other with studying, staying up late nights, and just lifting each other up. Those are my guys, those are my brothers. I wouldn't want to play with any other rookies than those two."
The Patriots have had a host of rookies contribute in big spots this season on the way to finishing 12-4. Thanks in part to a number of season-ending injuries to key starters -- Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Tommy Kelly have all been placed on season-ending injured reserve -- coach Bill Belichick and his staff have relied on young players to produce this year perhaps as much as any other.
Thompkins and Dobson have chipped in as starters, catching eight touchdowns between them. Defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have done their best to try to fill the void left by Wilfork and Kelly in the middle of the Patriots defense. The rookie defensive backs out of Rutgers, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, have been consistently around the ball and reeled in seven picks combined. Punter Ryan Allen has gone from best at his craft in college to consistent pro in a blink. Undrafted offensive lineman Josh Kline got a start at guard in Week 16. Second-round pick Jamie Collins has played significant snaps late in the season and been effective on special teams all year.
The rookies are everywhere. And they've leaned on each other as they have waded through their first pro season together.
Especially for those at the same positions, they've become close almost out of necessity. While experiencing everything together for the first time, they found comfort in the shared stresses of being expected to help a perennial contender.
Defensive tackles Jones and Vellano have a bond that hasn't required much outward acknowledgement, but both know it exists.
"It's been immensely helpful," Jones said of having Vellano as a teammate. "We never really talked about it, but we have that understanding. We're both rookies. We're both defensive tackles. We're under a lot of pressure a lot of the time. A lot of teams sometimes key for us because we're young, and we're not as big as some of the guys that are in the middle. But we understood that and really just worked together. We room together whenever we travel. We're able to work out with each other, study with each other, do all that sort of stuff, watching film. We have that understanding so we're able to relate a little bit more to each other."
Harmon and Ryan played together in college for four years, but their relationship has only strengthened since joining the pro ranks. They talk football constantly, whether they're at Ryan's home or out to dinner.
Barring one condition.
"We're not allowed to talk about football when we eat out with our girlfriends," Harmon said with a laugh. "They say that's all we talk about. We try to talk about something else, but it's what we love. It's what we do."
All of New England's rookies are at the end of what has been the longest football season of their lives. For those that have been with the Patriots since the team's first preseason exhibition, they've been around for 20 games. Most college teams play a schedule that's only about two thirds as long.
The cliched result of that kind of schedule is a meeting with the Rookie Wall. While some deny its existence -- "I don't think I ran into it yet and I don't plan on running into it," Thompkins said -- injuries have piled up.
Boyce was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier this week with a foot injury, and Thompkins and Dobson have both dealt with different ailments over the course of the year that have cost them games. Dobson re-aggravated a foot injury last week against Buffalo and did not practice this week.
It's difficult to know whether the increased action rookies see going from college to the pros is the cause, but the fatigue that comes along with more games is inevitable.
"It's natural to feel a little bit more tired," Jones admitted. "I feel a little bit more tired now than I have been just because I've never played this long in a season. But really I don't feel too bad. I've been trying to keep up with my body. I think as long as you keep up with your body . . . That's the difference from college to here. We're not used to taking care of our bodies as much, having this much time to prepare for games and work your body and make sure it's in the best shape possible for each game.
"It's getting in the trainer's room, getting in the tubs, doing the right supplements that will help your body to heal. It's a bunch of factors that go into it. In college you had to go to school. You had classes and homework so there was a whole bunch of stuff that went into your life besides football. This is our jobs now. We have this, and after this, we have more time to work for this."
For many, that part is a relief. They appreciate that their real-world job is about giving oneself up entirely for football.
“I just feel like I’m in a rhythm," Ryan offered. "It’s the same routine kind of week-in week-out. This is the first year I can just focus on football solely, don’t have to worry about school, don’t have to worry about other things like that, so I think that helps out a lot.”
Still, it's not easy. But having teammates that are enduring the same challenges helps players lighten the load mentally.
"No question it's definitely a long season and it's a longer camp so you've gotta keep grinding and stay after it," Vellano said. "Each week is its own week and you gotta build up and get ready during the week for the game on the weekend. I don't care how old you are, you gotta do it. So it's not really a rookie thing, it's just a general mindset for everyone on the team."
By the nature of their youth, though, rookies are always a bit behind. They don't have a reserve of veteran knowledge from which they can dip to help them navigate their new careers. Some are still catching up.
Harmon was not a steady contributor from the jump -- he recorded both his first NFL tackle and his first NFL interception in Week 7 against the Dolphins -- and even now he has his moments where he is no more than a spectator, a student: He never got off the bench in Week 15 against the Dolphins.
"This game is so much faster," Harmon said. "You gotta be so much smarter. Coming out of college I didn't realize the amount of work that you have to put in to be a professional football player. Just with the strides that I've made, I'm excited and happy."
Those strides came with plenty of work, and a certain measure of help. Help from coaches. Help from teammates. And help from fellow first-year players. All Patriots rookies have benefited from that bond of shared inexperience.
"To actually have those guys here in my corner, somebody who I can actually talk to," Thompkins said of his young teammates, "it's been great."
The next step in these long rookie-year journeys -- journeys that began with sleepless nights in hotel rooms and countless hours of film study -- is to cast aside the title they've worn together for 16 games and be prepared for the latest phase of their fast-moving NFL careers: the playoffs.
“I don’t think anyone is a rookie anymore once you have that many games under your belt," Ryan said. "Now, it’s a whole other season.”