We say that a player's third year defines his career. There's the rookie busts. There are the sophomore slumps. But the third year disappointments cripple a franchise the most. As a rookie, a player is given more leeway for error. They're learning the faster game. They're transitioning. They're taken care of when they make mistakes because, hey, they're rookies. They're the future. Second year players have to live up to their rookie expectations. If they surpass their level of play as a rookie, they're "promising prospects." They're the cornerstone of the team. If they become worse, it's because opposing teams have a year of game film on them. They're only dealing with the sophomore slump. They'll return next year and be better.
That's what we say about the third year players. These players are towards the end of their rookie contracts. Play well, and they're rewarded with a long term deal. Play poorly, and they're cut. That's the basic story for every young player in the Patriots organization. Play well or get cut.
Find out where I'm going with this after the jump.
In the past, young players have played well for the team and the year 2007 was a prime example. Everything seemed to click and one of the greatest teams of all time took the field. Look at the players who were in their third year and entering their prime, a list of players with three to eight years of experience:
Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Jarvis Green, Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen, Vince Wilfork, Benjamin Watson, Logan Mankins, Ellis Hobbs, Nick Kaczur, James Sanders.
That's 14 players, all of whom contributed to the success of the Patriots run at an undefeated season. These were players who made it past their 3rd year hump and became contributors to the Patriots team. Notice how I put the experience cut off at season 8. That's when the average non-quarterback player hits 30 years of age and begins their decline. So during the 2007 season, 14 players who were drafted by the New England Patriots were in their prime years.
So what does Shawn Crable's groin have to do with all of this?
Crable was a player entering his third season and he never even made it to camp. He was drafted to become one of the foundations of the Patriots' defense for the next decade- but that never came to fruition, thanks to his groin.
Teams that win championships win because they are able to build a strong foundation through the draft. In the past couple of seasons, the foundations appeared to be shaky and that's due to the drafted player who are supposed to be entering their prime.
Let's look at the players who should be in the 3rd to 8th season window right now:
Ty Warren, Dan Koppen, Tully Banta-Cain - 8th
Vince Wilfork - 7th
Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur, James Sanders - 6th
Laurence Maroney, Stephen Gostkowski - 5th
Brandon Meriweather - 4th
Jerod Mayo, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Matthew Slater - 3rd
14 players. That's great, right? Well, of the 14 players in 2007, all but 2 (Eugene Wilson and Jarvis Green) were full time starters- and both Wilson (6 games) and Green (10) started due to injuries.
Compare that with now? There are 9 "starters," if you include the committee back Maroney and the kicker Gostkowski. If you look at the players who are on the field for 50+ snaps a game, that number drops down to 7. Add the fact that Wheatley and Slater might not make the roster and that Tully Banta-Cain left the Patriots for a brief stint, and this foundation through the draft looks much less impressive.
Now back to Crable's groin. Losing Crable means that the team's 3rd year player potential drops. With Matt Light past his prime, the strong core drafted in beginning of the century may begin to start showing signs of their advanced age. Due to a natural process called "aging," the young players are now expected to perform like the experienced players. Losing Crable means one less player to replenish the team's depth.
With only one real starter in each draft since 2005 (Mankins, "Maroney", Meriweather, Mayo...mmmm), there isn't a real link of starting caliber players from the early draftees from 2001 to 2005 to the draftees in 2009 and 2010. I believe this is the reason why the Patriots were unable to match expectations in 2009 and why they missed the playoffs in 2008. Sure, the Tom Brady knee thing definitely played a part, but the Patriots could have and should have done much more in both seasons.
Losing Crable was the last possible chance to create a link between the past and the present. While Crable may not have been a player that all hope should have been bestowed upon, his inability to stay on the field gave him that hope by default. And that's hope's now gone. Thanks a lot, Shawn Crable's groin.
But don't fear- new hope is on the way. And that hope comes with the name of Darius Butler, Pat Chung and Sebastian Vollmer. They showed a lot of potential as rookies and should look to continue that success as sophomores. They are the new foundation that the team desperately needs to succeed.
And if they don't succeed, don't worry. It's just the sophomore slump.