Earlier this offseason, I highlighted players from the 2015 draft class that could take a 2nd year leap. The 2nd year leap not only applies to last year's rookies, but also veteran players in their 2nd year in the Patriots system. That includes players they acquired last year and retained going into 2016.
Jabaal Sheard: With Chandler Jones now an Arizona Cardinal, the natural change will be Sheard assuming a bigger role in the defense although the team added 9-year veteran Chris Long in the offseason as well. Sheard is coming off arguably his best season where he recorded 51 pressures and 8 sacks while playing 557/1092 (51.0%) of the team's defensive snaps. Chandler Jones played 861 snaps for the Patriots last year, so that means more opportunities for Sheard. The Patriots did not make any other significant additions to the defensive line, although Shea McClellin is a former edge rusher that transitioned to linebacker.
The question becomes whether or not Sheard can sustain his production with him playing 200 more snaps, or an extra 10-15 snaps a game. The Patriots will most likely have Rob Ninkovich lining up on the other side of the defensive line in 2016. A reasonable expectation for Sheard is that he will jump from 51% to 75-80% of the snaps in 2016 while Long and the two 2015 draft picks Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom battle it out for the #3 edge rusher role. If Sheard can sustain his production with the extra workload, the Patriots defense shouldn't experience too much of a dropoff in production at all even with the subtraction of Jones.
Keshawn Martin: The Patriots traded for Martin at the end of training camp and performed well in spurts in 2015. The team liked him enough to offer a 2-year contract extension of about $3M with a decent chunk of guarantees. Martin has a nice combination of speed and quickness plus can return kicks and punts. The versatility to play inside and outside in addition to his ability as a return man makes him a very solid backup in the offense. His best spots are in a Z or slot role.
The Patriots added Chris Hogan in free agency while picking Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien on the 3rd day of the draft. Hogan and Mitchell are locks to make the team as well as Edelman and Amendola, so Martin has the inside track for winning what could be the last WR spot on the roster. Martin should be a lot more comfortable with what the Patriots like to run offensively with an offseason to prepare instead of just getting notes on the game plan each week.