The NBA Sixth Man of the Year award is given to the best-performing player that comes off the bench. There are five starters in basketball, which is why the “sixth man” is the top substitute. The current holder of the award is Jamal Crawford, who has won the award a record three times.
I want to apply this award to the NFL and to the New England Patriots.
I should note that “off the bench” is as loose of a term in the NBA as it is in the NFL. Crawford averaged 27 minutes per game this past season, which is over half of the games. In other words, just because someone plays the most, doesn’t mean that they’re the “starter”.
Offensive Sixth Man
When we look at the Patriots offense, we have a fairly simple breakdown of the starting 11. We have the offensive line, the quarterback, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and wide receiver Julian Edelman. These players preferably don’t rotate (looking at you, offensive line) and they make up eight of the starting 11.
I’ll fill out the remainder of the starting line-up with running back Dion Lewis, wide receiver Chris Hogan, and tight end Martellus Bennett. Lewis played in 64% of the snaps and was the starter prior to his injury. I expect Hogan to take over for Brandon LaFell, who was the starting outside receiver over the past two seasons.
I then choose Bennett because a non-Gronkowski tight end was named the starter in 14 of the Patriots 18 games last season and in 14 of the Patriots 19 games in 2014. Following basketball guidelines, the 2nd tight end is regarded as the starter.
Here are my top five candidates for Patriots Offensive Sixth Man:
5. WR Malcolm Mitchell: The Patriots rookie probably won’t play more than 20% of the snaps, but an injury to free agent signing Chris Hogan would thrust Mitchell into the spotlight.
4. TE Clay Harbor: Harbor is expected to be the team’s fullback and would be the #2 tight end if either Bennett or Gronkowski suffered an injury. He’s a great athlete and Bill Belichick thinks he’ll be a fun addition to the offense.
3. WR Keshawn Martin: Martin actually started the 2nd most games for a Patriots wide receiver in 2015. He’s a top back-up for Edelman and there’s a chance the Patriots will manage Edelman’s snaps until he’s fully healthy, opening up time for Martin in the offense.
2. RB LeGarrette Blount: Blount is firmly behind Lewis in the rushing attack, but he’s a great closer in the 4th quarter and the Patriots will likely rely on him to control the clock if Brady is suspended for the start of the season.
1. WR Danny Amendola: It’s crazy that Amendola only played 52% of the offensive snaps last season, but he’s become one of Brady’s more reliable targets. He is a pure slot receiver, which means that he’ll likely be the first substitute on the field for the offense.
Defensive Sixth Man
The Patriots pretend that they’re not a 4-2-5 defense when they account for the starters, but 19 of the past 37 games have featured five defensive backs over a 3rd linebacker in the starting lineup.
The starting 11 on defense was a lot more consistent last season, if we look past the injuries. The defensive line featured Rob Ninkovich, Malcom Brown, and Alan Branch. We assume that Jabaal Sheard will take the spot vacated by Chandler Jones. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are the linebackers. Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung make up four of the starting five defensive backs.
I will award that 5th defensive back to rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones because the Patriots defense played with 3 cornerbacks (677 snaps) more than with 3 safeties (443 snaps) and I project Jones to be the starting nickel cornerback in week 1.
5. CB Justin Coleman: Coleman could very well beat out Jones for the starting nickel spot in the defense.
4. DT Terrance Knighton: Knighton will play roughly 40% of the snaps next season and will be a crucial run stuffer on the line.
3. ED Chris Long: There’s an off-chance that Long will be the starter if Ninkovich moves to linebacker, but regardless of Ninkovich’s status, the 3rd edge defender is a crucial part of the Patriots defense.
2. FS Duron Harmon: I almost put Harmon as the final starter in the offense because the Patriots love using three safeties against teams with multiple tight ends. Harmon is a starting-caliber player.
1. Shea McClellin: McClellin could be the 3rd linebacker and the 3rd edge defender, which increases his value. I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a major impact on the defense in 2016.
Who is your 6th man for the Patriots?