The 2015 New England Patriots were decimated by injury, there is no denying that. Only one team in the league – the Baltimore Ravens – have had more players end their season on injured reserve than the Patriots, who had to send 19 players to the season-ending reserve list.
Some of those players were starters, whereas others would have been nothing more than role players. This projection doesn't change when we look forward to the 2016 season in order to find out who could return and help the Patriots re-climb the NFL throne.
But first, let's take a look at New England's 2015 injured reserve list:
RB LeGarrette Blount
CB Tarell Brown
TE A.J. Darby
FB James Develin
WR Aaron Dobson
DT Dominique Easley
LB Dane Fletcher
DE Trey Flowers
RB Tyler Gaffney
WR Brandon Gibson
LB Rufus Johnson
DT Chris Jones
RB Dion Lewis
LB Eric Martin
LB Jerod Mayo
CB Darryl Roberts
OT Nate Solder
WR Brian Tyms
OG Ryan Wendell
Five of those 19 players are scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in March: Blount, Brown, Fletcher, Gibson and Wendell. The Patriots won't break the bank for either of them but would probably still be open to retaining them if the price is right. Given the positional make-up of their respective positions, all five could help the team from the perspective of depth and veteran presence.
Veteran presence is also offered by Jerod Mayo, who ended his third consecutive season on injured reserve. While he was not the player he once used to be, Mayo still was New England's third best linebacker. However, the combination of his health-issues and a massive $11.4 million cap hit will probably lead to Mayo leaving the team unless both sides can work out a restructure in the upcoming weeks.
New England also had a lot of young offensive skill position players end 2015 on the sidelines. While former second-round pick Aaron Dobson has been a disappointment, he has had a few good moments before suffering a high-ankle sprain in November. He and fellow wideout Brian Tyms offer a size and straight-line speed element that could potentially help the team next season.
Tight end A.J. Derby and running back Tyler Gaffney could also help the Patriots in 2016, simply because of the positions they play. New England is light at both positions which could lead to Derby and Gaffney seeing lots of reps during the offseason. It has to be seen whether they can take advantage but they should at least be given the opportunities to show their worth.
The same goes for the young defenders, whose 2015 ended prematurely due to injury. Defensive end Trey Flowers, linebacker/defensive end Rufus Johnson and cornerback Darryl Roberts, for example, have shown some potential and playmaking ability in training camp and the preseason and could very well compete for playing time on the defense. Linebacker Eric Martin could too but the three-year veteran has yet to make a lasting impression on the coaching staff. It remains to be seen if he can do just that this offseason.
Those who have already established themselves as known commodities include fullback James Develin and defensive tackle Chris Jones. Both are valuable role-players and could potentially have an impact on the 2016 Patriots – especially restricted free agent Develin, whose vacant role was never effectively filled after he broke his foot in the preseason and who should be back next year. Jones, on the other hand, could be anything between cap casualty or contributor moving forward.
If their rehab goes well, offensive tackle Nate Solder, running back Dion Lewis and defensive tackle Dominique Easley will be impact players in 2016. Solder's return should help solidify an inconsistent Patriots' offensive line, whereas Lewis should add another dimension to New England's offensive attack as he is both a capable runner and pass catcher. On the defensive side, Easley projects to boost the Patriots's interior pass rush. He has been the team's best defensive tackle prior to injuring his quad in December.
Of course, not all 19 players returning from injured reserve will a) be on the team next season and b) be impact players. But still, the Patriots will get some valuable players back and hopefully be able to take advantage of their returns.