Patriots rookie WR Ja'Lynn Polk has the tools to make immediate impact

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Polk’s toughness: The Patriots had attempted to trade into the end of the first round of April’s NFL draft, according to multiple NFL sources, when a run of receivers started to come off the board. Texas’ Xavier Worthy went to the Chiefs at 28. Florida’s Ricky Pearsall went to the 49ers at No. 31. South Carolina’s Xavier Legette, quite possibly the Patriots’ top target, was scooped up by the Panthers in a trade up to 32. Then Florida State’s Keon Coleman went to the Bills at 33 and Georgia’s Ladd McConkey to the Chargers at 34, with the Patriots trading out of that spot to 37, where they took Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk.

That’s six receivers in a 10-pick span, and how Polk measures up against his pass-catching peers will be among the top factors that determines the success of the franchise’s first draft under the new regime of executive vice president of player personnel Eliot Wolf and head coach Jerod Mayo.

It is too early to know which direction it will head, but as the Patriots are currently on break before their first training camp practice July 24, one thing can be decisively stated about Polk’s initial work: His toughness and relentless mentality reflected well on the culture Wolf and Mayo hope to create.

Perhaps no better example was the final play of mandatory minicamp: Fellow rookie quarterback Drake Maye lofted a back-shoulder fade to the right corner of the end zone, and the 6-foot-1, 203-pound Polk snatched it despite tight coverage from undrafted rookie cornerback Mikey Victor and maintained possession as he crashed to the ground, with officials ruling him in bounds.

It was a big-time effort in one of the highest-stakes situations of spring practice, with the vocal reaction from the defense reflecting it. Polk’s play came as little surprise to those who have watched him going back to his time at Lufkin High School in Texas.

“One of the things I first saw in Ja’Lynn was how tough he was for a wideout — physical at the top of breaks, physical at the line of scrimmage, and he made competitive catches,” said Matt Wells, an associate head coach at Kansas State and a former Texas Tech head coach who landed Polk as a recruit for his first college season before transferring to Washington. “I just thought the competitive spirit in him — for a high school player as a junior — was A-plus.”

Wells noted “toughness, discipline and accountability” was part of the DNA of many players from head coach Todd Quick’s program at Lufkin — Polk included. Lufkin is also former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant’s alma mater.

Polk transferred from Texas Tech after one season, in part due to changes on the offensive coaching staff, and brought the same approach to Washington. Last season was his most productive — totaling 69 catches for 1,159 yards and nine touchdowns — and first-year Patriots receivers coach Tyler Hughes saw it first-hand as he was serving as an assistant coach on the Huskies’ staff. That has given Hughes a unique window into Polk’s transition to the NFL.

“He has a really great work ethic and a process that he sticks to every single day. He’s been good about that. I think his improvement has come from learning our system and playbook and how his skill set fits into that,” Hughes said.

“Like any new player coming in, you have some things you’ve done in your past that have been really good for you — you have to use those — but also have an open-minded approach and say, ‘What else can I do to improve?’ because obviously players are a little bit better and a little bit faster. He’s done a good job of saying, ‘This is what I know, this is what I need to work on,’ and he’s worked at it every day.”

Polk has a chance to carve out an immediate niche in the Patriots’ receiving corps. His extra work with Maye after practice, among other things, had Mayo referring to him as a “self-starter.”

Former Viking K.J. Osborn, in his fifth NFL season, has positioned himself as an early leader among Patriots receivers (one example: he was usually first through drills). Second-year slot receiver DeMario Douglas appears as quick as ever. Add in Polk, and that could be the team’s top three targets if everyone is healthy.

Fourth-round pick Javon Baker (Central Florida) should also have a roster spot, while 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton, 2023 sixth-rounder Kayshon Boutte and veterans JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jalen Reagor all made plays at times this spring that served as a reminder they can’t be counted out yet.

And Kendrick Bourne is expected to be healthy as he returns from a torn ACL, and should be part of the mix, too.

Polk, wearing the No. 1 jersey last worn by Cam Newton, practices with an edge. In one drill, he nearly put himself into a reporter’s camera by running after a catch through the back of the end zone. Why stop one’s momentum when it’s full tilt all the time?

“Just competing every day,” Polk said. “I feel like everything is always in your preparation — how you’re taking all the information we’re getting, being a pro, and putting it on the field on a consistent basis. That’s what they’re looking for.”

2. Hoyer’s take: Former Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer was a guest on ESPN’s “NFL Live” on Wednesday, and his presence sparked a discussion on the two hot topics surrounding New England: quarterback and head coach.

On when to start QB Maye: “Jacoby [Brissett] is like a little brother to me. We were teammates. We’re friends. The Patriots signed Jacoby to be the starter right away, knowing they were drafting a quarterback with that pick, because he’s capable and played a lot of football. He’s very endearing to his teammates; they love him. He’s the perfect guy to mentor Drake Maye.”

On Mayo: “I played with Jerod. I came in a year after he did and he was a leader already as a second-year player. He ended his career and went into the corporate world, so he’s somebody that can relate to this younger generation. Jerod coming right after Bill [Belichick] — he learned from Bill, but he’s also bridging that gap to the youth. He has his own flavor and personality. Talking to some of the guys [with the team now], they love the way he’s approaching it. You just have to carry that over to wins during the season.”

3. Mayo twist: One example of how Mayo is putting his own stamp on the Patriots is what time they plan to practice in training camp — 11 a.m. ET. Under Belichick in his final stretch of seasons, the team practiced at 9:30 a.m. Perhaps now there is a little more time for meetings before practice, and temperatures will rise a bit and test the team’s conditioning.

4. Bolden’s return: One of the scariest moments of the Patriots’ 2023 preseason came when then-rookie cornerback Isaiah Bolden was immobilized and stretchered off the field in a game against the Packers, prompting the teams to end the game early. Bolden, a seventh-round draft pick out of Jackson State, had been diagnosed with a concussion and spent the season on injured reserve.

Fully healthy again after having been cleared near the end of last season, Bolden participated fully in spring practices, and Mayo noted: “He’s one of our fastest guys on the team. He should be a demon on special teams.”

As for possible contributions on defense, Mayo said it is harder to assess bigger corners like the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Bolden until the pads come on in training camp. Ditto for the offensive line, which remains one of the team’s biggest question marks.

5. Did you know? Polk was one of seven University of Washington players selected within the first three rounds of the draft, which tied Michigan for the most. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it marked the first time a Pac-12 school had at least a share of the most picks through three rounds since USC did in 2009 (with six).

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