Entering their 2017 training camp, the New England Patriots have arguably the deepest and most talented roster in the NFL; a team with an established core of veterans playing alongside high-upside yougsters and versatile depth options. But while New England does not lack star power at the top, it often is the less talked about players who ultimately have the biggest impact on the team.
In 2017, the following five players might do just that during training camp: surprise despite not having received a lot of (if any) headlines so far this offseason.
RB LeShun Daniels Jr.
The Patriots have invested in their running back depth chart this offseason. Restricted free agent Mike Gillislee was lured over from the Buffalo Bills while former Cincinnati Bengals runner Rex Burkhead was signed on the open market. Add returning veterans James White and Dion Lewis and New England’s running backs appear set. Therefore, there does not appear to be any space left for LeShun Daniels Jr., an undrafted rookie out of Iowa.
However, the 22-year old seems to be a prime practice squad candidate. After all, he is the biggest back currently under contract at 6’0, 225 lbs and offers a different set of skills than the players mentioned above: Daniels Jr. is a bruiser in the mold of LeGarrette Blount. Having a player like that available to a) call up in case of injury or b) help prepare for opposing backs like the Oakland Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch or the Carolina Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart is certainly valuable. Consequently, Daniels Jr. might see plenty of opportunities come training camp.
FB James Develin
James Develin has been with the Patriots since 2012 and has established himself as one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. So why exactly is he an under-the-radar player? Because of his versatility and what it entails. After all, Develin is more than just a fullback: Besides being a capable lead blocker, he has also proven himself capable of lining up on the perimeter and serving as an in-line tight end. As such, the 29-year old might have an impact that goes beyond the offensive backfield.
He might be the deciding factor when it comes to New England's tight end competition. Unless one of the depth palyers behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen establishes himself as the clear-cut number three, the team might opt to go with the experienced and versatile Develin as the de-facto third tight end. This, in turn, would create an opening somewhere else – on a team as deep as the 2017 Patriots, the coaches could decide this is the best way to go.
OT Cameron Fleming
During April’s NFL draft, New England selected two offensive tackles. However, it might be Fleming who steals the show during training camp and therefore returns as the Patriots’ primary backup swing tackle, a role he held during the 2016 season. It would be somewhat of a surprising development given the draft but not when considering that Fleming has something his primary competitor for a roster spot has not: experience.
Sixth round rookie Conor McDermott has more upside but Fleming’s experience and proven skill set might eventually help him prevail – especially when keeping in mind that one of the backup tackle spots is already in the safe hands of another rookie in third rounder Antonio Garcia. Therefore, it would not be a surprise to see Fleming get valuable snaps over the next few weeks and ultimately beat out one of the team’s four draft picks.
DT Lawrence Guy
In March, the Patriots acquired former Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Lawrence Guy via a four-year, $20.0 million free agency contract – a deal that makes him the second-highest paid defensive tackle on New England’s roster. But despite signing one of the biggest contracts on the team, the transaction and player have flown under the radar ever since.
Given his versatility and skill set, however, Guy might make a big impact in his first season in New England: No other player on the roster has the same proven abilities to line up as a rotational interior pass rusher in four-man fronts or an end in three-man fronts, as a run stopper and edge setter. Consequently, Guy might burst onto the scene over the next few weeks and show why the Patriots were willing to spend considerable resources on the 27year old.
CB Eric Rowe
Most of the offseason talk in New England centered around the team’s two star cornerbacks: Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore. One was reportedly unhappy with his contract situation and looking for a trade while the other was brought aboard via unrestricted free agency on a five-year, $65.0 million contract. In the meantime, the Patriots’ third cornerback was hardly talked about the last few months – despite coming off a very good season.
Still, it would not be a surprise to see Eric Rowe make his presence felt during training camp. After all, the former Philadelphia Eagles second round pick has had a positive impact in his first season in New England despite not taking part in the team’s summer practices. Entering training camp now with a season of experience under the belt, Rowe is a candidate to show that he is indeed an important piece of the cornerback rotation.