Myron Pryor, DT/DE
Pryor has missed the majority of the past two seasons with injuries, but when he’s been healthy, he’s been the Patriots best interior rusher. He has some competition this season with the Patriots bringing in Jonathan Fanene who will likely play a similar role to Pryor.
Last year in week one against the Dolphins, Pryor brought the pressure with one sack, three QB hits and two QB hurries, but was lost for the season due to a week two shoulder injury against the Chargers.
If Pryor can stay healthy, he could compete with Fanene, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love and the Patriots DEs for a starting role on the defense. He’s played both tackle positions and outside at DE for the Pats over the last three years.
Interior rush was one of the weakest areas for the Patriots last season after Pryor was injured and Albert Haynesworth was released. Pryor has tons of injury concerns, but if he can stay healthy he could be a dominant force in the middle of the Patriots defense.
Ras-I Dowling, CB
Dowling is another player who just can’t seem to stay healthy. He may be the most anticipated player on this Patriots roster due to his impressive first two games against the Dolphins and Chargers as a rookie. Dowling hurt his hip in week 2 and was finally put on injured reserve in late October.
Dowling has impressive size at 6-1 198, and flashed no. 1 CB skills especially against the Dolphins allowing just two receptions on six targets for 51 yards according to Pro Football Focus. It looked like the team had all the confidence in the world in him as he was a week 1 starter after missing time in preseason.
It’s nearly impossible to predict the Patriots starting secondary until we know whether Devin McCourty is playing corner or safety, but if Dowling is healthy, he should be penciled in as a starter.
As we all know, the secondary was probably the Patriots weakest unit in 2011, and Dowling could play a huge role in shoring it up. Having a player with his size and speed will go a long way in defending opposing teams’ big, physical, no. 1 receivers as he did against Brandon Marshall in week 1.
Sterling Moore, CB/S
Moore is the other break out candidate in the Patriots secondary. He had an odd rookie season to say the least signing onto the Patriots practice squad October 5th, starting his NFL debut on November 13th at safety, a position he had never played before, starting his next two games against the Chiefs and Eagles, then getting released on December 10th after having a tough game at corner against Indy.
After resigning to the Practice Squad, Moore got another boost in playing time when he was signed to the active roster, playing the majority of the team’s snaps in week 17 and in their three playoff games at his natural position, CB.
Moore looked especially impressive during his last four games of the season playing cornerback especially when making a season saving deflection against Baltimore. When McCourty was playing safety, Moore was getting starter snaps opposite Kyle Arrington.
If Moore has an impressive training camp, we could possibly see a starting secondary of Moore and Dowling at CB, McCourty at FS and Patrick Chung at SS. It’s also entirely possible that Belichick will be trying Moore out at safety during training camp since that’s the initial position that Moore was tried at in New England. He looked more comfortable at CB, but that was because he had never played back deep before.
Moore will have a lot of competition this offseason after the Patriots brought in an influx of talent in the secondary. He’ll be competing for time at corner with newcomers Will Allen and Alfonzo Dennard and at safety with Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson.
To add to my top five break out candidates, here are four more players that could break out:
Nick McDonald, C
As I said earlier, the Patriots should have an old fashioned positional battle at center this summer. All the big names are back in Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen and Ryan Wendell, but Nick McDonald is another interesting candidate. McDonald started two games for the Patriots last season in weeks 13 and 14 and played surprisingly well. Coach Dante Scarnecchia is the premier offensive line coach in the league and last year proved he could coach up anyone that came along.
With McDonald’s youth and potential, he may be able to beat out the elder Connolly, Koppen or Wendell for a reserve spot, or even be a longshot for the starting spot.
Kyle Love, DT
Kyle Love might have been the Patriots most improved player last year as the team’s starting nose tackle. If Love can keep up his pace, he could turn last year’s good season into a great one this year. Love doesn’t contribute much getting after the passer, but with some improvement, he could turn into a premier run defender in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Love was the 11th best run defending DT in the NFL last season.
Playing next to big Vince Wilfork certainly helps Love, but we could be looking at two Pro Bowlers in the middle of the Pats defense next season.
Dane Fletcher, LB
Competition breeds success, and if that holds true, we could be looking at a big season for Fletcher. Perhaps one of the most underrated players on the Patriots defense, Fletcher was limited by a thumb injury that kept him out much longer than any thumb injury should. Fletcher’s a versatile player like rookie Dont’a Hightower who can play ILB, OLB and line up with his hand down every once in a while. If Fletcher can fend off veterans Bobby Carpenter and Niko Koutouvides and second year players like Jeff Tarpinian and Aaron Lavarias, he could be in line for a solid chunk of snaps again.
Patrick Chung, S
Chung is obviously a more proven player than the rest of the guys on this list, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a break out candidate though. Chung has to stay healthy for a full season to reach his full potential, and to get the contract that he thinks he deserves going into 2013 and beyond. If the Patriots find a solid FS option, it will also help him immensely. Not only will he be helped by having a better player next to him, but it will also limit the snaps he’s forced to play out of his natural position.