FOXBORO -- The Patriots drafted a pair of offensive linemen from power conferences in the spring when they chose Joe Thuney out of North Carolina State in the third round and Ted Karras out of Illinois in the sixth. Both started in last week's season-opener and held their own at left and right guard, respectively, helping new starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo stay upright against a tough Cardinals defense.
The pair has never faced a challenge like the one it will face on Sunday, though.
The best defensive lineman Thuney faced in his final collegiate season? Louisville's Sheldon Rankins, Thuney said, a first-round pick of the Saints. The No. 1 player in the trenches that Karras competed against? That would be Nebraska's Maliek Collins, according to Karras, a third-rounder for the Cowboys.
Both Rankins and Collins are talented. Both could end up having long careers in the NFL. But neither has a skill set that approaches that of Ndamukong Suh, who Thuney and Karras could be tasked with slowing down at Gillette Stadium.
Karras in particular, who was spelled by second-year guard Shaq Mason at times in Arizona, may find himself across from Suh since Suh likes to align himself on the defensive left. Mason continued to be limited in practice this week with a hand injury he suffered before the season.
"You just gotta be ready to go play some ball," Karras said of facing Suh. "He's a tough guy. He's gonna bring it every play. It's gonna be a big test."
Until fourth-year guard Jonathan Cooper works his way back onto the field -- he has been dealing with a foot injury that has held him out of game action since the start of the preseason -- the Patriots have been rolling with only first- and second-year players at guard and center, but their coaching staff has been encouraged by what it has seen from its young core up front.
In Thuney, Karras, Mason and center David Andrews, they have a group that is intelligent, communicates well, and is eager to learn. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week that even if they plateaued as individual players, they would improve as a group simply by seeing more and more live-action snaps together as a unit.
"You know, maybe in a way [they are wise beyond their years], but I’d say the issue is just experience together, so you know the more that those guys play together, the more that David and Joe play together, the better that will get," Belichick explained. "Even if neither one of them ever gets any better, them playing together will just . . . they will get better. And they should get better because they’re both young players, but you know what I’m saying.
"Even at their cap, there’s a level of execution between the two of them, with Nate [Solder], with Shaq [Mason], with Ted [Karras], however it goes, that those guys just haven’t played a lot of football together. They haven’t seen some of the things or some of the players, their opponents, second, third, fourth time around like a real experienced group would do that you could really gain some advantages on that. We’re just not there yet. We’re getting there but we’re just not there."
That they're moving in the right direction is a credit to Andrews, who has quickly gone from undrafted rookie, to starting-caliber player for the first half of last season, to backup, and then back to starter now that the team has moved on from Bryan Stork. Andrews handles the protection calls at the line of scrimmage, and when sandwiched between two rookies, he's the sage 24-year-old veteran.
"All the calls stem from him. He's been great," Thuney said of Andrews. "We watch a bunch of film with each other and it's been good. He's been in my shoes before. He's been a rookie who has had some playing time. He knows the experience. It's been good to hear his tidbits of wisdom. It's been a lot of fun and I think we've gelled pretty well together."
Karras and Thuney actually graduated high school in the same year so they are roughly the same age, but Karras has leaned on Andrews as he's made the transition to life as a pro.
"Dave has been great," Karras said. "He's a guy who has been around here and done it. We showed up, and he's been very helpful. He knows what he's doing, he communicates with us . . . He's a great player -- smart and tough. And he's been able to help younger players, guys like me, and I think that goes a long way. He's a great guy, and right now he calls the shots for the protections and puts us in the right place."
For his part, Andrews says he's simply doing what veteran players have done for him over the course of his young career.
"I don't know if I'd say I'm a veteran guy," Andrews said this week. "But anything that I've learned or that's helped me, experiences from last year, things I've seen, you just try to pass that along. Guys like [Ryan Wendell] and [Josh Kline] and Stork did that for me. Having one year of experience is definitely a little bit of help, but those [rookies] have worked really hard and they're doing a great job. And I'm still working to improve. There's things that Nate and Marcus [Cannon] and Cam [Fleming] have seen, being here longer than me, have seen that have helped. It's a collaborative effort."
It will need to be a collaborative effort again on Sunday as New England's young players on the interior go up against the one of the best they will see all year, and in some cases, one of the best they have ever seen.