Despite not winning a single playoff game in 2010, the New England Patriot's season in most people's minds can be considered somewhat successful. Not simply because the team achieved a league best 14-2 record, but because they did so with one of the league's most youthful defenses, where numerous rookies and second year players were expected to perform to a high level. Furthermore, the team did it whilst shifting offensive philosophies mid-season and subsequently trading away their primary wide receiver. To me, this is a great foundation to build on in 2011.
Whilst the upcoming 2011 season will no doubt have its own team successes once more for the Patriots, for the team to truly progress to the next level, it will require a number of players to really step up, not just as leaders for this team, but key contributors in the clutch. Much has been made of Mike Vrabel's recent retirement and one sentiment which was common amongst analysts was Vrabel's ability to step up in the biggest of games. Here, I identify five players on the Patriot roster who I feel are key to the team's upcoming season - how they perform will not necessarily define the Patriot season but I feel it will certainly play a huge role. This is NOT a criticism of how these players have performed, but simply a selection of key players who I want to take their game to the next level because, in doing so, I think they could hugely effect the outcome of the 2011 season for the Patriots. I am hoping these players will step up, perform and lead this team to achieve all it is capable of achieving...
1. Ty Warren
Put simply, Warren has something to prove. He missed the whole of 2010 due to injury and some feel that he has not justified the contract extension he received a few years ago after a breakout 7.5 sack performance in 2006. That is not to say Warren is not effective - he is one of the best run stopping 5-technique defensive ends in the league, someone Vince Wilfork cannot praise enough. However, Warren needs to up his sack and QB pressure numbers as well as stay healthy for s full season. His recent appearance at the unofficial OTA's, where he turned up looking noticeably trimmer, has some questioning whether he may be in for a stint at RDE, leaving someone like Ron Brace to man the LDE spot. I am looking to Ty Warren to a) stay healthy; and b) get after the QB more. Defensive End pressure is key in the 3-4 defense and Warren needs to return to '06 form - he claims he is "fresh," so his return to health coupled with an improvement from our OLBs should see a rise in his performance against the pass.
2. Patrick Chung
Pat Chung is one of my favourite Patriots - he works his tail off at every practice session, studies film as often as he can, never complains about being asked to do something he isn't used to (Vrabel-esque) and as of 2010, makes plays on the field. By all accounts, he is also one of the leaders in the Patriot locker room, a true Belichick player who plays 4 downs (just ask Miami). Furthermore, the guy hits and players rarely get away from him. In 2010, Chung showed himself to be one of the emerging talents at SS in the NFL, with 96 tackles and 3 INTs, with one returned for a TD. He would have finished with more tackles but for being asked to moonlight as a makeshift slot corner - he admittedly struggled at slot CB but never once complained. In his third season and now the Patriots have very strong depth at CB, Chung should be able to return to SS full time, where he knows and understands his role fully. As such, I am looking for Chung to continue to have solid tackle and INT numbers, but would look for him to add a few sacks to his game. Additionally, I am really hoping Chung emerges as the leader in the secondary, and also as the type of hitter opponents fear in the way they did Rodney Harrison (without being called dirty).
Despite only notching one sack in his rookie season, the former Gator produced a QB pressure on 10.66% of all his pass rushes (according to PFF). Just from memory, I can remember countless occasions where he was in the backfield and narrowly allowed the QB out of his grasp. Cunningham has the pass rushing talent to reach double digit sacks in the next year or two and if he can get some additional help from the defensive line, he will see his numbers rise sharply. In 2010, Cunningham displayed a real maturity beyond his experience when playing the run but needs to work on dropping into coverage as he had only 1 pass defended. In 2011, it is vital for the Patriots that Cunningham makes the jump from ‘almost' to ‘playmaker.' Not only will this force teams to game plan for him more, but also it allows the Patriot defense to not rely on scheme for their pass rush. Bill Belichick believes Jermaine Cunningham can make the jump in his second season, and I will certainly be looking to Cunningham to take it to the next level.
To me, this is not so much an expectation of on-field production, but more of off-the-field maturity and leadership. Brandon Spikes is touted as a leader by many, on the field and off - he voluntarily suspended himself in college after an eye gouging incident; but it is off the field where he needs to display more maturity. After being suspended 4 games for failing to report a medication he was using, he then appeared to report back to the Patriots slightly out of shape! What makes this all the more frustrating is that his on-field performance in 2010 was very, very good. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out as the 11th overall best ILB and 8th best against the run, which for a so-called ‘slow' rookie, is outstanding and a tremendous platform to build upon, so much so the the folks at PFF name Spikes their "Secret Superstar". Spikes is an intimidator on the field for the Patriots, a vocal leader and a playmaker. In 2011, I am looking for Spikes to increase his maturity and leadership off the field and be more accountable to his teammates - doing so would immeasurably benefit this team and Spikes could really emerge as one of the best play-stoppers in the league.
5. Dan Connolly
After the 2010 season came to a close, many fans identified the interior of the Patriots offensive line which needed early round attention in the draft - in particular an upgrade for Dan Connolly, who Pro Football Focus rated as one of the top 20 worst Guards in pass protection, an area of concern with recent Patriot playoff losses (Connolly allowed only 2.5 sacks (unofficial) in 2010 but he continually allowed pressure on Brady). However, despite Stephen Neal's retirement, the Patriots instead chose to address Left Tackle with one of their early selections, perhaps indicating they were happy with Connolly's season, which was basically his first year as a starter (no 1st or 2nd year starters made PFF's Top 20 list for pass protection) and they feel he deserves a chance to show if he can address this area of his game in 2011. Perhaps it also has something to do with Connolly's run blocking, which helped the Patriot offensive line finish 2nd in the league according to Football Outsiders ranking of teams running the ball between Center and Guard, and 1st in the league in running to the right side of the line, where Connolly and Sebastien Vollmer finished up the season. Therefore, I am looking for Dan Connolly to improve his pass protection in 2011 and with a 2nd year of starting games under perhaps the best offensive line coach in the game, he has a great opportunity to do so. The line needs him to make the jump, as it will (possibly) be breaking in a left tackle of the future in Nate Solder, so will require all other members to be at their best.
These are players who I think can be vital to any Patriots success in 2011. This is not saying that these players underperformed in 2010, and therefore not a criticism of these players. Cleary, this analysis is defensively biased, but I think we can all agree that the defense needs to progress in 2011 if the Patriots are to seriously contend in the playoffs, particularly in the defensively strong AFC. I strongly though about putting Brandon Tate on this list but I feel with the shortened offseason, the Patriot playbook will be much the same as it was in 2010, and that means more 2 TE sets, and less opportunity for Tate (and indeed Taylor Price). I hope I am wrong about that and the Bill O'Brien can find away to get these young guys involved, but common sense suggests that may not be practical, at least early in the season.
Which players do you think could be vital for success in 2011 and would you like to see step up?