The success of a team’s rookie class cannot be determined after just one season. Evaluating after year two, on the other hand, gives a better indication as to who has successfully been integrated into a franchise. Not only can a bigger sample size of performance be evaluated but the players themselves also have more experience in the system and a whole offseason to prepare for an upcoming season.
With that in mind, the New England Patriots'‘ 2015 rookies have had a successful collective second year with the club. While not all of them have been able to become major contributors, some key players on the team that has just won Super Bowl LI have been drafted or signed as undrafted free agents in 2015. With that in mind, let's take a look at how the Patriots’ 2015 rookie class fared in 2016 to find out who has made the famed second-year jump.
Overall, New England had 18 rookies on its final 2015 payroll, be it the active roster, the practice squad, or an inactive list. Of those, the following are no longer with the team:
TE A.J. Derby, WR Chris Harper, FB Joey Iosefa, CB Darryl Roberts, LB Kevin Snyder, SS Cedric Thompson, WR DeAndre White, WR J.J. Worton
The most notable of those seven players is A.J. Derby. The Patriots traded the 2015 sixth-round pick to the Denver Broncos in October and received a fifth-round selection in return. The other players no longer with the team were let go by New England at some point prior to the 2016 season.
This leaves 10 2015 rookies, who are still employed by the Patriots.
OC David Andrews
The former undrafted free agent began his rookie campaign as New England’s starting center. When incumbent starter Bryan Stork returned from injury, though, Andrews was relegated to backup. Over the course of the 2016 offseason he was able to re-earn his starting position and went on to start all 19 of the Patriots' games in 2016.
While the 24-year old had some struggles against speedier interior defenders, he has significantly improved his overall game in year two and under the tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia. Andrews displayed better strength at the point of attack, especially in run blocking, continued to grow as a pass protector, and developed a good chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady.
All in all, if his growth continues and Andrews can improve from a strength and technique standpoint against speed rushers, he should stay New England's starting center for years to come.
DT Malcom Brown
Selected with the 32nd pick of the 2015 draft, Brown quickly showed why the Patriots made him a first rounder. He earned a starting role his rookie season and played well against the pass and especially the run. Overall, Brown was on the field for 47.9% of defensive snaps during his first year with the team.
The 23-year old started the 2016 season where he left off: He was his usual stout self in the running game and improved as an interior pass rusher, finishing the season with 4.0 sacks, tied for third-most on the team. Brown also saw an increase in playing time, being on the field for 57.7% of New England's snaps.
While he had a good second NFL season and did make strides compared to the 2015 season, Brown struggled with consistency at times – something head coach Bill Belichick pointed out during a conference call in December (after he was benched for being late to a meeting). If Brown can improve in this area, the Patriots' interior defensive line might become even more successful than it has been in 2016.
LS Joe Cardona
Last year, New England made Navy’s Joe Cardona one of the highest drafted long snappers in NFL history. Since then, the 24-year old has become a highly reliable part of the Patriots’ kicking game. He was last year and he once again was in 2016 - despite also working for the Navy Reserves during the season.
While kicker Stephen Gostkowski was shaky at times, Cardona’s snaps were not. The second-year player almost always delivered the football on point; whether on field goal attempts or punts. New England seems to have found a long-term solution at long snapper.
CB Justin Coleman
After going undrafted, Coleman spent his first NFL offseason with the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. He ultimately joined the Patriots’ active roster in September and became one of the most surprising stories of the 2015 season. He was able to establish himself as New England's number three cornerback, playing 32.8% the defense's snaps.
However, his 2016 campaign would be less productive. While Coleman started the year as a core member of the Patriots' cornerback rotation, his defensive contributions diminished after the team's week 10 loss against the Seattle Seahawks (his special teams snap number remained stable – but as low as always). Overall, he played a mere four snaps on defense and 24 on special teams after week 10.
Coleman was inactive for the majority of second-half games – including all three playoff games – and appears to be in a fight for his roster life this offseason. If his 2016 usage is an indication, chances are he will not survive it.
DE Trey Flowers
A fourth round selection in 2015, Flowers spent the majority of his rookie season – all but week one – on injured reserve due to a shoulder issue. This year, the 23-year old bounced back in a big way and by the end of the year was one of the most impactful players on the Patriots’ defense.
Overall, Flowers played 59.0% of New England’s defensive snaps this season, becoming the team’s number one edge defender during the playoffs. As a rusher from both the edge and the interior, the second-year pro finished the season as the Patriots’ team leader in sacks (9.5) and defensive fumble recoveries (2, tied with three others).
Arguably his best game came on the biggest stage, as Flowers finished Super Bowl LI with 2.5 sacks. If he can continue on his trajectory, the Arkansas product might become one of the steals of the 2015 draft.
DE Geneo Grissom
Grissom, who the Patriots drafted four picks prior to selecting Flowers, did not make the same impressive jump. Instead, the 24-year old saw his defensive playing time decrease: While he saw regular albeit limited snaps his rookie year, Grissom played a mere 12 snaps on defense this season.
However, this does not mean that his sophomore campaign was a disaster. After all, Grissom developed into one of the busiest special teamers on the 2016 Patriots. He played 313 of a possible 542 snaps (57.8%, sixth-most on the team) and registered four tackles. While his defensive contributions left a lot to be desired, Grissom has found a role on the team. It would be nice to see him expand it, though.
OG Tre’ Jackson
A fourth round draft choice in 2015, Jackson started by appearing in 13 games his rookie season, starting nine as the Patriots’ right guard. However, by the time the playoffs came around, he was relegated to a backup role because of a knee injury.
This same injury prevented the 24-year old from partaking in the offseason workouts and forced the team to place him on the physically unable to perform list. While he could have returned from the list, the team did not activate him and Jackson’s season ended as it began: On the sidelines, with no chance of showing any development compared to year one.
SS Brandon King
The Auburn product went unselected in 2015 but was signed by the Patriots shortly after the draft. After a stint on the practice squad, King joined the active roster and quickly became a core special teamer for New England. Despite appearing in only 13 games, he finished the season as the Patriots’ second-leading special teams tackler.
King resumed his role as a key member of all four special teams units in his second year in the NFL. The 23-year old was active for all 19 of New England’s games and finished as number four in special teams snaps (361; 66.6%) and number three in tackles (10).
In two seasons, King has been able to establish himself as one of the best gunners in the NFL. If his growth continues, and there have been no signs that it should not, he might be a part of the Patriots’ kicking game units for years to come.
OG Shaq Mason
After appearing in 14 games mostly at left guard his rookie regular season, Mason switched sides and became the starting right guard during the Patriots’ 2015 postseason run. And while the offensive line finished the playoffs on the lowest of notes, the Georgia Tech product actually played a solid two games at his most natural position.
Mason was able to build on his promising rookie campaign. Already a very good run and pull blocker, the 23-year old was able to improve his pass blocking as well. While he still has room to improve in this area, it allowed him to beat out the competition to earn a starting spot opposite of rookie left guard Joe Thuney.
Overall, Mason started 18 of New England’s 19 games this year and displayed substantial growth as an offensive lineman. According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, he was among the most improved second-year guards in the league. And if his past two seasons are any indication, Mason should be even better next year.
SS Jordan Richards
Selected with the final pick of 2015’s second round, Richards failed to make improve over his first two seasons in the NFL. Similar to Geneo Grissom, he saw regular playing time on defense his rookie season (237 snaps) but failed to do the same in 2016, when Richards played only 18 defensive snaps.
Unlike Grissom, though, who became a fixture on special teams, Richards was unable to do that. While he saw substantial playing time in the kicking game in 2015, he played only 151 of a possible 542 snaps (27.9%) in 2016. Furthermore, he was a healthy scratch for the entire postseason.
Now, with free safety Duron Harmon set to enter unrestricted free agency, the door for Richards to earn additional playing time might become open again. But he needs to take advantage of this possible opportunity and prove why the Patriots were comfortable investing a high draft choice in him.
New England was able to get solid contributions in 2016 out of the majority of its 2015 rookie class. Most of the players signed last year were able to make the famed second-year jump, with some being able to strengthen their hold on key positions (Andrews, Brown, King), while others have burst onto the scene (Flowers, Mason).
All in all, the Patriots are likely happy with the way their second-year players have progressed and how they helped bring another trophy to Foxboro.