The 2014 New England Patriots draft class saw varying degrees of action during its collective rookie year. Some have seen little playing-time in 2014 (due to various reasons), while others have played a substantial amount of snaps (*cough* Bryan Stork *cough*).
When it comes to analyzing a potential jump from year one to year two, you have to put the circumstances into consideration. Therefore, we can basically break down the players entering their second year in New England into five categories:
-- Players, who played a lot of snaps in 2014.
-- Players, who appeared every now and then in 2014.
-- Players, who were buried on the depth chart in 2014.
-- Players, who were injured in 2014.
-- Players, who were new to the Patriots in 2014 (i.e. non-rookies).
Let's go through them one-by-one to find out which players belong to which category, how their roles project in 2015 and who might improve this year.
Players, who played a lot of snaps in 2014
There is only one player in this category and it is the Patriots' starting center. Stork looked very good last year, considering that a) he was a rookie and b) he was playing between a so-so Dan Connolly and a first-year right guard Ryan Wendell. A lot of uncertainty surrounds the two guard spots in 2015, with Connolly still a free agent as well as rookies Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason in the fold. Stork improving from years one to two will help the line overcome those uncertainties, no matter who plays at either guard spot. Judging by his 2014 campaign, the former fourth-round pick looks to have all the tools – proper blocking skills, ability to make the line-calls and chemistry with Tom Brady – to make this jump.
Players, who appeared every now and then in 2014
Cameron Fleming saw little playing time among the five-men offensive line due to it remaining mostly healthy in 2014. The experiment at guard in week 4 did not field the desired results, but Fleming still saw some playing time as a tackle eligible in run-sets. He looked good in this role – especially against the Colts in the regular season – but also had to fight with injury. However, when he was on the field, he did not look as if the spotlights were too bright for him. Unless a) he moves to guard and earns a starting spot there, b) Solder or Vollmer get injured or c) he outperforms Solder or Vollmer (doubtful) in training camp, though, we probably won't see much of a jump by Fleming.
The expectations for Butler are probably unrealistic but nobody's to blame for that but him (thankfully so). Overall, he had some up-and-down moments during the regular season but looked excellent in the Super Bowl, allowing only two receptions (he played the second one, the Kearse-catch, perfectly). Butler will get his chance to show that he is not a one-hit wonder and could very well become a regular contributor for the 2015 Patriots: judging by OTAs and minicamp, he is on his way to earn a starting role.
Players, who were buried on the depth chart in 2014
Even though he attmepted only 27 passes, Garoppolo's 2014 season was the most productive a Patriots' back-up quarterback has had since Brian Hoyer's 2009 campaign. Playing mostly against second-stringers, the talent that made Garoppolo a second-round pick was on full display: he was accurate (completing 70% of his passes), made good decisions and displayed a quick release as well as athleticism. Those tools will definitely help him and the Patriots if Brady indeed misses some time in 2015. One thing seems certain: Garoppolo will grow from year one to year two, whether it is behind the scenes or in the spotlight is unknown at this point in time.
What is also unknown is James White. He is in a prime position to make progress from year one to year two, though, as the departure of Shane Vereen – who essentially played the same position – opens the door for another running back to step up; most likely either White or free agent acquisition Travaris Cadet. Like Vereen during his rookie year, White was quasi red-shirted in year one and now has to show the coaches that they can feel confident in him and that he is worth a spot on the 53-man roster. If he gets his chances during training camp, he better uses them.
As of right now, Zach Moore looks like a dark-horse candidate to steal a defensive tackle spot. The top of the depth chart is in the save hands of Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown – behind those three, however, are six players fighting for two to three roster spots. Moore, the former defensive end, has the tools and frame (6'6'', 280+ lbs) to win this fight and be a contributor in 2015. Like White, though, he has to have a very solid training camp to earn a spot on the team's roster over other players like Alan Branch or Chris Jones.
Players, who were injured in 2014
As stated above, Easley is one of three Patriots defensive tackles that are a sure-fire bet to make the team's 53-man roster. While Siliga and Brown project to be primarily run-stoppers in 2015, Easley, due to his quick first step, is more of an inside pass rusher. The second-year player out of Florida displayed some of his potential and versatility last year and looks to build upon an injury-riddled 2014 season. With time to rest and rehab and entering training camp healthy, he is a prime candidate to make a second year jump and show why New England spent a first-round draft pick on him.
Gaffney, on the other hand, is more of an unknown commodity. The running back depth chart is one huge question mark behind LeGarrette Blount and core-special-teamer Brandon Bolden, and Gaffney, who had a year to rehab and study the playbook, might profit from this. Him being back to speed after his knee injury, decides whether or not he gets the chance to show that he belongs on the Patriots' roster over the likes of a player like Jonas Gray.
Just like Gaffney, second-year player James Morris also is an unknown entering training camp. The undrafted Iowa product looked very good last year and was on his way to a earn roster spot before tearing his ACL in the Patriots' final preseason game. Morris had a year to get back to strength and if he continues the path he entered in 2014, and make a jump from year one to year two, he could find himself on the team's roster come week one of the 2015 season.
Players, who were new to the Patriots in 2014
LaFell, after starting slow last year, looked like a great free agency signing. Will he make a jump this year? It remains to be seen, especially since he missed OTAs and minicamp with a foot injury. However, him performing the way he did in 2014 would also not be too shabby. After all, the 28-year old caught 87 passes last year for 1,072 yards and nine touchdowns (including playoffs).
Tyms was signed in late July and had to work his way up the depth chart to land on the team's 53-man roster. He looked good at times in 2014 but disappeared down the stretch (being inactive in both the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl). With LaFell out during OTAs and minicamp as well as him spending an entire offseason in Foxboro, Tyms might make a jump in 2015 – he has to in order to earn a spot on the roster.
The 30-year old Branch was only signed in October but appeared in every game of the second half of the Patriots' season. He was a valuable contributor along the defensive line but still has to fight for a roster spot this year. With three of probably five spots already taken by Siliga, Easley and Brown, Branch has to make a jump from 2014 to 2015 in order to beat out his younger competition.
Jonas Gray signed a future contract with the Patriots during the 2013-2014 playoffs. After spending time on the team's practice squad, he was promoted to the active roster because of Stevan Ridley's season-ending knee injury. Gray looked good when he was on the field last year (especially during his 201-yard performance against the Colts), displaying both vision and power, but took a backseat to LeGarrette Blount after the former Steeler re-joined the team. Gray needs to build on the bright moments of his 2014 season in order to become the feature back he looked like in Indianapolis. If he can make a jump from his first to his second year in Foxboro and become more consistent, he will see the field more often in 2015.
The Patriots' 2014 rookies did not play a big role on an already deep and talented roster, as only one player became a starter last year. In order to have a successful 2015 season, New England needs the rest of last year's draft class to improve this year.
As Bill Belichick often states: a player makes his biggest jump from year one to year two. Hopefully, quite a few Patriots will do just that in 2015.