Rich Hill reached out to Doug Kyed in his weekly mailbag and asked a simple question:
Which player on the roster do you think makes the biggest jump next year?
With the departure of several key players, like Vince Wilfork, Darrelle Revis, and Shane Vereen, the question is a good one. If the Patriots are going to fill those holes early in 2015, they are likely to do so with players already on the roster.
The big name free agents have come and gone, and expecting too much from a draftee early in the season is unreasonable. Not only do they need to learn the playbook, they need to learn the game at the NFL level. That's like looking for an immediate gain on your investment. These things take time. Now is the time to look for past investments to mature a bit. So who does Doug Kyed feel is primed for a big gain?
Taking a second- or third-year jump usually is all about opportunities. I think Dominique Easley, Malcolm Butler or James White are the obvious choices because they’re second-year players who could have big roles in 2015.
The obvious place to look is where a gaping hole exists due to the departure of a starting veteran. Easley was a 1st round draft pick (29th overall) and is expected to become a starter sooner rather than later. Obviously his two injured ACLs limited his immediate upswing as his participation last year was modest at best, ending in a trip to the injured reserve. He finished the year with 7 tackles, 3 assists, 1 sack, 1 int, 1 PD, and 1 stuff. He flashed some play making ability at times, but hardly looked the role of starting NFL lineman, especially as the season progressed.
With Wilfork gone to Houston, a hole opened up in the D-line rotation. While Wilfork's role is better suited to a body like Sealver Siliga, the Patriots could use a disruptive presence in the middle of the line. A healthy Easley could fill that role. Doug Kyed also mentioned a longer shot for the position, Zach Moore:
A slightly more under-the-radar guy could be defensive lineman Zach Moore. He barely played as a rookie last year, which made sense, because he was jumping from Division-II Concordia to the NFL. Based on his appearance at the White House, it appears that he bulked up over the offseason. The 6-foot-6 defensive end was listed at 275 pounds last season, but if he gets up to 290 or 300 pounds, then he could be a highly explosive interior player, either at five-technique defensive end or three-technique defensive tackle. Moore definitely has a big frame, and he showed off great explosion during the pre-draft period last offseason.
The competition along the defensive line could be an interesting one this pre-season, as preparation finally meets opportunity for some player looking for an expanded role. That's not the only roster opening however.
James White was drafted in the 4th round (130th overall) with the expectation that he would provide some insurance should Shane Vereen leave in free agency. Vereen left as expected, but White did little in his limited snaps to show that he could fill in for the dynamic third down back. He has 9 career carries for 38 yds (average 4.2 yds, long of 11) and one 1st down. He's 5 for 5 on catches (one more catch than Stevan Ridley or LeGarrette Blount) for 23 yds (average 4.6 yds, long of 11) and one 1st down.
With departures by Vereen, Ridley, and an opening game suspension for Blount, there are huge opportunities available in a once crowded backfield, for any horse that wants to separate himself from the rest of the stable. With the strength of our AFC East opponents along their defensive lines, our running back, and in particular our third down back may be crucial in not only winning games, but keeping Tom Brady upright in the pocket.
The Patriots rely heavily on their third down back, and just as the absence of starter Kevin Faulk from the field in the first game of 2008, potentially changed the entire course of that season, the Patriots can't really afford to take a "learn as you go" approach to the position. Right now the heir apparent is James White, but the Patriots won't simply hand the job to him. He'll need to earn it. Expect plenty of camp bodies at the running back position.
The last man Kyed mentioned probably has the least external pressure to prove himself. Sure Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner have left to pursue green
er pastures, but no one would reasonably expect undrafted Malcolm Butler to fill in for one of best cornerbacks of his generation or his hard hitting sidekick. That is no one except Malcolm Butler:
I have a chance to lock down my spot on the roster. And when I do, I’m guarding it with my life. - Malcom Butler
There's an opening at cornerback? Not according to Malcom. That's his job, and he's intent on keeping it. Sure he's gone from zero to hero, even within the same Super Bowl, but he's looking for a longer term role with the team. With the departures at cornerback, he may be a starter by default, but of all the guys Doug Kyed mentioned, I'm betting on the one guy who is openly putting the pressure on himself. We've seen that kind of fire before when a 4th string quarterback worked his way into the starting role; preparation meeting opportunity.
Which player on the roster do you think will make the biggest jump this year?