In my opinion, the most important year for a player's development typically happens between the first and second year in the NFL. The reason for that is that the player now has film and established strengths and weaknesses at the NFL level. The player then can spend the offseason training to improve his game and then apply it to the gridiron when their second season starts.
Malcom Brown, DT, #90
The Patriots valued Brown so much that they nixed a trade to the Houston Texans to select him 32nd overall. Brown started off the season slow, earning a -5.9 preseason grade on Pro Football Focus. Brown came out of the draft as an athletic defensive tackle that was a handle to deal with on single blocks but could get pushed by double teams. We saw him struggle early on the season against the run, which led to the team struggling in that phase through the first two games. Brown got better with each game in the season and wound up with the 3rd best PFF grade amongst the rookie class and interior defensive linemen overall. Brown was 4th in the NFL in Run Stop % and by the end of the season contribute one play where he'd discard his blocker and stuff a running play for no gain or a loss per game.
Brown will continue to play in the same role the Patriots had envisioned for him in 2016, as the starting 3-technique and lined up next to Terrance Knighton. The combination of Brown, Knighton, and Branch will be tough for teams to double team and run the ball between the tackles. You hope to see some of his pass rush game improve in 2016 because he has very solid quickness inside although it hasn't translated much into pressures in 2015. With the Patriots releasing Dominique Easley, Brown will get more opportunities on passing downs.
Shaq Mason, G, #69
The Patriots drafted Mason out of Georgia Tech and the triple option offense, where it was predominately run blocking. In the draft process, Mason showed an affinity to learn the technique and his excellent Pro Day and Senior Bowl showing led to the Patriots drafting him in the 4th round. Mason looked exactly like the player we all expected in 2016, a terrific run blocker who can pull and re-direct, but struggle to hold up in pass protection. Strength and athleticism are not a problem with Mason, which is why I believe he'll continue to get better at guard or center should they move him there.
I have Mason as one of the starting guards going into the offseason workouts because he was the Patriots best guard in 2015. It would have to take a historically bad preseason by him and a historically great preseason from the competition to get him out of the lineup. The Patriots drafted two guards in the 2016 Draft, although I believe that as more of an indictment on Josh Kline's performance than Shaq Mason's. Hopefully we continue to see the progression on the field and his game improves with hopefully as much continuity on the offensive line as possible.
Trey Flowers, DE, #98
Given the Patriots depth chart in 2015, Trey Flowers didn't have much of a chance to see the field before he was placed on Injured Reserve with a shoulder and knee injury he suffered in the preseason. Flowers is not a player that will run the arc very well and bend around the corner, but he is very effective at his position. Flowers is very hard to move off the spot in the run game and has an explosive first step as a rusher. Flowers plays with very violent hands and can walk offensive lineman back into the quarterback.
Flowers had an excellent preseason game against the New York Giants and 9th overall pick Ereck Flowers, which is the reason for optimism moving forward. The Patriots signed Chris Long in the offseason to replace Chandler Jones' spot in the rotation, but don't be surprised if Flowers forces his way into action. The Patriots may potentially suffer an injury at the position and having solid depth is important. If Flowers can back up last year's preseason performance, he might force his way into the main DE rotation. Otherwise, he doesn't have much to offer on the 46-man Game Day Rosters on a weekly basis barring injuries.
Darryl Roberts, CB, #28
The Patriots drafted Darryl Roberts as an athletic CB out of a non-Power 5 school that dominated the competition there. Roberts was having a strong training camp that earned him a start against the Green Bay Packers in the first preseason game. However, his season was cut short that day when he dislocated his wrist trying to make a tackle on Eddie Lacy. Even though his injury only would have cost 8 weeks, the Patriots felt that he'd be wasting a roster spot in 2015 and placed him on injured reserve instead. Roberts gives the Patriots their tallest and lankiest corner and the athleticism to stick with receivers of all kind.
Roberts is more suited to play on the boundary and even though the Patriots have Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan returning, there is a need for depth. The Patriots drafted Cyrus Jones with the 60th pick of the 2016 Draft, but I get the feeling he's competing more for the nickel job in Year 1 than on the boundary since the Patriots don't want to put too much responsibility on him. If Roberts can repeat his play from the last camp, he should be well on his way towards capturing the final CB spot on the roster. His speed should be an asset on Special Teams and you never know when a CB is going to go down.