NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
Patriots rookies officially reported to camp this week, which means it’s time to close the book on the exhilarating roller coaster that was the 2014 Season and focus on what lies ahead. To get readers ready for training camp I’ve crammed all the pre-requisite preview articles into one long piece. In here I breakdown topics such as “camp battles”, the most important players heading into the 2015 Season, what to expect from newcomers and rookies, and of course an early “roster projection”.
10 Most Important Patriots in 2015 (minus Tom Brady)
10. Nate Solder (LT) – For all the heat Solder took early in the season, he put everything together and went on to have a strong run in the playoffs. Solder is one of the most indispensable players on the roster and he’ll have to play like it early in the season with Brady missing games. The Patriots don’t have a true back-up at Left Tackle, so if he were to go down it’d likely effect multiple positions on the offensive line. He’s entering a contract season and has a chance to make himself stupid rich.
9. Chandler Jones (DE) – After walking away from Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, the Patriots decided to bolster their front seven instead of trying to duplicate the production at cornerback. With the CB position weakened the ability to generate consistent pressure becomes even more critical and much of that falls on Chandler Jones. Jones first 3 seasons were very productive, but it’s going to be important for him to elevate his game to the next level. Jones needs to be a little more consistent with his pass rush and begin to develop some more refined pass rush maneuvers. The addition of Jabaal Sheard should really help, as it will allow both Jones and Ninkovich to rotate snaps more frequently.
8. Tre’ Jackson/Shaq Mason (OG) – While this is a little high, it’s important that one of these rookies steps up and wins the Offensive Guard position. The Patriots can not go into the season with any uncertainty on the offensive line, as they did last season. Last season Bryan Stork stepped right in and immediately added stability and continuity to the interior offensive line. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Stork got injured which left the Offensive Line in shambles to begin the season. As training camp begins at least one of the Guard positions is wide open. Whether it’s Jackson or Mason doesn’t matter, one of these guys needs to pull a “Stork” and win that job early.
7. Dont’a Hightower (LB) – Hightower was easily the most improved player on the entire team last season. Despite playing half the season with a torn labrum, he elevated his play to an All-Pro level and the Patriots need a similar performance in 2015. Hightower’s development took a huge step forward in 2014, as he turned himself into a more complete Linebacker and the leader of the defense. If Jerod Mayo returns to health it should free up some of the responsibilities on him to become an even more aggressive, attacking inside linebacker.
6. Malcom Brown/Dominique Easley (DT) – After spending two 1st Round picks on the Interior Defensive Line in consecutive years it’s imperative for the Patriots to get high level production out of their youngsters. Easley’s rookie season was akin to a redshirt and that wasn’t wholly unexpected entering the season. He starts the 2015 season fully healthy and after a full off-season in the Patriots training program. A big leap is expected from the disruptive second year defender. Brown on the other hand is expected to make an immediate impact. The Patriots were incredibly lucky to have such a talented prospect fall into their lap at pick 32 (thanks Colts) and he’ll be tasked with replacing some of the production of Vince Wilfork.
While the two are completely different players, both can be disruptive and get up the field. Brown has drawn comparisons to Vince Wilfork because of his size, but the truth is he’s much more athletic than the Wilfork of the last few seasons, and a lot more versatile. For Easley, I expect the coaching staff to put him into more positions where he can beat defenders 1-on-1 and penetrate upfield. With his relatively slight frame, he’s much more productive when he is 1-Gapping and does not have to worry about holding up blockers or occupying run lanes. The Patriots have other veterans at the position that will ease some of the burden. However if the Patriots want to get back to the Super Bowl they’ll need a lot of production and disruption from these two.
5. Jamie Collins (LB) – Now entering his third season, the buzz and hype surrounding the former Southern Miss product is at an all-time high. Collins offers a tantalizing combination of skills including his range, straight line speed, and coverage skills. He’s a feared blitzer up the middle and can force turnovers in the passing game. He’s the most dynamic player on the Patriots defense and a player that other teams will have to scheme for. There aren’t many players like Jamie Collins in the NFL and if he can make a “3rd year leap” similar to what Dont’a Hightower just accomplished, then we’re looking at one of the best defensive players in the entire league.
4. Jimmy Garoppolo (QB) – Whether it’s 4 Games, 2 Games, or 1 Game it’s important for Jimmy G to get the Patriots off to a respectable start. Regardless of the Deflategate situation, Garoppolo needs to show improvements during his second year and continue his upward development. If he’s ever going to take over for Brady he must continue he must prove to the coaching staff that he has the qualities to be a starter in this league and that he was worth a 2nd Round draft pick. More than anything Jimmy G. needs to show he has the ability to be a leader, can diagnose defensive coverage, and manage the game when he’s under center.
3. Malcolm Butler (CB) – Expectations are high for Butler entering this season and the coaching staff is expecting him to win one of the starting CB spots. During his rookie season Butler showed a number of skills that are uncommon in a rookie, let alone a rookie free agent. His ball skills and ability to read routes were on display from the first day of mini-camp. It was clear early on that he had a skill-set to play in the NFL and the coaching staff showed confidence by playing him over Kyle Arrington in the 2nd half of the Super Bowl. It’s critical to the success of this team that Butler enters the season with the same determination and work ethic despite his Super Bowl heroics. This is why we saw Bill Belichick suspended Butler for essentially all of the OTAs. If Malcolm Butler can develop into one of the top CB on this team and show consistent playmaking ability on the backend, then his defense will be alright. If Butler got a big head this off-season and fails to grab one of the CB spots, then his secondary could be in some trouble.
2. Devin McCourty (FS) – After signing a massive contract extension in the off-season Devin McCourty is now the unquestioned leader of the secondary. Like Nate Solder, McCourty is completely irreplaceable on the roster as there isn’t a true backup with a comparable toolbox. With the loss of key members in the secondary, McCourty’s range, instincts, and closing speed in coverage will all be ultra-important this season. As he’s now fully transitioned to free safety it’d be nice to see him develop into a little bit more of a playmaker and I look for him to force more turnovers in 2015, like many of his fellow elite free safeties often do.
1. Rob Gronkowski (TE) – There are two players on the Patriots roster that make the difference between winning the Super Bowl or losing the Super Bowl. One of them is TB12 and the other one is Rob Gronkowski. Without Gronkowski the Patriots can be a competitive team and often make deep playoff runs, but will never be a serious Super Bowl contender. With Gronkowski on the field they become a Super Bowl favorite and one of the best offenses in the leauge. I remember the devestating feeling in my stomach when I saw him go down to a knee injury in December 2013, just knowing that the Super Bowl was lost right then and there. Keeping Rob Gronkowski healthy and upright for January should be priority #1 for the Patriots because as we’ve seen the last few years, his presence on the field is the difference between a banner or an early playoff exit.