Despite five of nine draft selections ending the 2018 season on injured reserve, the New England Patriots saw major contributions from their rookie class en route to winning the Super Bowl. While first-round pick Sony Michel served as the team’s lead running back in his first year in the NFL, cornerbacks Keion Crossen (seventh round) and J.C. Jackson (undrafted) became fixtures on special teams and defense, respectively.
Considering his draft status and quick rise to an impact-player on the Patriots defense, Jackson’s development in particular will be worth watching over the course of the offseason and into 2019. Apparently, Pro Football Focus’ Mark Chichester agrees: he lists the 23-year old among ten sophomore breakout candidates for next season. And for good reason, given that Jackson had a better statistical rookie year than Malcolm Butler had back in 2014.
Appearing in 16 games and playing 44.1% of New England’s defensive snaps, the Maryland product proved to be a steal as an undrafted free agent. Despite his lack of experience, Jackson was physical and competitive as a press-man corner and allowed just 28 completions on 63 pass targets. With fellow starting cornerback Jason McCourty headed towards unrestricted free agency, he might see an even bigger role next year as the potential number two cornerback alongside All-Pro Stephon Gilmore.
Jackson is not the only Patriot on PFF’s aforementioned list, though: linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is also viewed as a potential breakout candidate. A fifth-round draft selection, Bentley saw plenty of action in his first year in New England. Before a torn bicep forced the club to place him on injured reserve in late September, the Purdue product appeared in three regular season games with two starts, playing 63.3% of the team’s defensive snaps.
Bentley had an impact right away: primarily serving as an off-the-ball middle linebacker, the rookie registered 14 tackles and two quarterback disruptions. He also allowed just two of four passes thrown his way to be completed while also coming away with an interception. At one point, the 22-year old even wore the communication device in his helmet as the defensive on-field signal caller — an impressive start for a player primarily viewed as a rather one-dimensional run defender coming out of college.
Now, Bentley will enter the offseason as the Patriots’ fourth linebacker. With Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy the undisputed one-two punch at the position, and Elandon Roberts coming off the best season of his career, it will be interesting to see how New England opts to use the sophomore in 2019. But no matter what Bill Belichick and possible new defensive coordinator Greg Schiano opt to do, expect Bentley to see plenty of action yet again.
All in all, the Patriots’ youngsters will be interesting to watch next year beyond Jackson and Bentley. Will first-round pick Isaiah Wynn have an impact after spending virtually all of last year on injured reserve? Will Sony Michel’s development continue? Will Duke Dawson come back strong after a redshirt season? How will players like linebacker Christian Sam, tight end Ryan Izzo, and wide receiver Braxton Berrios perform? And will Danny Etling challenge Brian Hoyer for the backup quarterback role?
There are a lot of questions surrounding New England’s 2018 rookie class, but the group certainly has plenty of upside — proven and projected.