The New England Patriots, like all successful franchises, have always had a “next man up” mentality. They don’t panic when losing players like Welker or Hernandez because there are many younger players waiting for their shot to make it. Just remember when Drew Bledsoe went down and the next man up was a scrawny second-year quarterback named Tom Brady! There are a few players on the Patriots’ roster that I am really excited about seeing in action this season. These players could have break out years (barring injury, of course), and could help lead the Patriots to win that elusive fourth ring.
ILB, Dane Fletcher
For those that aren’t familiar with Dane Fletcher, he is a product of Bill Belichick’s skill of evolving players. He started as an undrafted free agent in 2010 when he signed with the Patriots and moved from a defensive lineman to an inside linebacker, something that is extremely difficult to do. Fletcher made significant contributions in the kicking game and eventually earned a role as a serve defenseman. If you recall the 2010, Week 15 game against the Packers in which Matt Flynn nearly rallied to beat the Patriots late in the fourth quarter, that potential come-back drive was thwarted by Dane Fletcher’s first career sack. In 2011 his regular season stats weren’t incredible, mostly due to his limited playing time, but the real splash he made was in preseason. I remember watching him make plays all over the field and being amazed at the talent he showed. I was excited to see him have significant playing time in the 2012 preseason, but Fletcher tore his ACL on a meaningless play during the 7-6 victory over the New Orleans Saints. The play was meaningless because there was a flag on the play, and it didn’t even count. After being placed on IR, Fletcher’s defensive production was replaced by Niko Koutouvides, Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian, and Mike Rivera, but none came near the level of play that Fletcher displayed prior to his injury. This offseason Fletcher spent some time working with the starting linebacker group in OTAs with the absence of Brandon Spikes. He is determined to make an impact in his return this season and I am excited to see him play.
WR, Julian Edelman
It’s no secret that the Patriots are scrapped for experienced receivers right now, especially now that they released ex-Bills receiver Donald Jones. Edelman is the only receiver that Brady is familiar with this season and I expect him to have a huge role in the offensive attack if he can stay healthy. While he is not a slot receiver, a common misconception, he has significant speed and can be an asset on the outside of the field. In fact, all of his touchdowns in 2012 came from when he was lined up on the outside. Fans may remember him absolutely torching the Jets’ secondary for his second TD on Thanksgiving last year (video). At the beginning of 2012 it actually appeared as if the Patriots were phasing out Welker because Edelman was starting ahead of him. If he can avoid injuries this season, something he hasn’t done in the past, this could be the year he turns into one of Brady’s favorite weapons. Regardless of his use in the passing game, he is a lock to make the final roster because of his skill as a punt returner. His average of 13.2 yards-per-return is fourth all-time in NFL history.
CB, Ras-I Dowling
Patriots fans have learned not to hold their breath when it comes to Dowling making an impact. He has been sidelined injuries for most of his two seasons with the Patriots and will likely be cut from the team if he suffers yet another season-ending injury. Coming in at 6′ 1″ with a 40-time of 4.4 seconds, Dowling is talented enough that the Patriots drafted him with the first pick in the second round of the 2011 draft; the only concern is his health. If he remains healthy enough to play in Alfonzo Dennard’s place during his likely-forthcoming suspension, I will be satisfied. If he can stay healthy beyond those few games, however, he could have a huge impact on the Patriots’ secondary. Dowling turned heads at OTAs and had people actually mistaking him for Aqib Talib during some plays because of how quickly he was able to turn on a receiver (players don’t wear numbers at OTAs).
TE, Jake Ballard
Belichick’s claim of the ex-Giants’ tight end off of waivers as he was headed to IR bothered some, but in hindsight it was a brilliant move. With Hernandez likely behind bars for the rest of his life and Gronkowski’s uncertain return from the many surgeries this offseason, the Patriots will be looking at their deep tight end pool to pick up the slack. Ballard is easily the best pass-catching tight end on the roster behind Gronkowski and will likely fill the void left by Hernandez. Patriot fans will never forget Ballard burning through New England’s secondary in the regular season loss against the Giants in 2011. He’s no Hernandez, but he should be able to forge a connection with Brady in no time. Ballard along with rookie Zach Sudfeld are two tight ends to keep an eye on this season.
RB, Shane Vereen
Vereen didn’t have his breakout performance until the Patriots squared off against the Texans in the playoffs, despite being drafted ahead of starting running back Stevan Ridley. Vereen was sidelined by injuries his first season but seized his opportunity and made the NFL know his name after his 3 TD playoff performance. Now that Danny Woodhead departed for San Diego, Vereen will likely become the new ace on third-downs. He has shown he can play very well as a receiver, so I can just imagine the deceptive plays Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels cooked up for him this season. Vereen already lined up as a wide receiver in spring practice sessions this offseason, so expect him to become a factor in the running game, screen game, and even as a potential down-field receiver like we saw against the Texans. With the lack of experienced and familiar wide receivers at Brady’s disposal this season, Vereen has a legitimate chance of becoming a routine receiver if the rookies don’t perform as expected. With all the running backs at the Patriots’ disposal they could afford to use him in alternate and perhaps unconventional roles.
Jones started his rookie campaign with an impressive 6 sacks in 8 games before an ankle injury that hampered him the rest of the season. Even with the injury, he finished the season with 45 combined tackles, 5 pass deflections, and 3 forced fumbles. This offseason, Jones was hard at work adding weight to make himself an even more formidable defensive player.
” I feel like I really haven’t missed a step with the 10 pounds added. The weight was good. It’s muscle mass.” – Chandler Jones
Jones is so confident that 2013 is his year that he told fans to expect 19 sacks from him. While this is a lofty goal and more of a show of confidence from the sophomore player than an actual promise, it is a goal that is definitely attainable barring injuries. The defensive line as a whole on the Patriots should be dominant this season with the addition of veteran Tommy Kelly to play alongside Vince Wilfork. This line could punish opposing quarterbacks and help lead the Patriots to victories, particularly if the offense suffers a setback due to the subtractions of Welker, Lloyd and Hernandez.