When it comes to the success of a football team, the stars and starters all have to play well for the team to win. However, that only accounts for 22 of 46 players who are active on a weekly basis. There are still 24 other players that will suit up on a given week and sometimes it’s the bottom-of-the-roster guys who make the plays that can separate a great team from the pack.
These upcoming five players are closer to the bottom than the top of the roster, though their contributions could very much help tell the story of the New England Patriots’ 2019 season.
WR/PR Gunner Olszewski: The Patriots likely have something planned for Olszewski, as they elected to keep the former corner-turned-receiver and returner on the roster on final cutdowns. Part of that comes on special teams not only as a potential return man but also part of the coverage units, as well. Speed and burst are two things that Olszewski has in spades, so it would not be too surprising if he ends up making a major impact returning punts this season. The Patriots value field position and special teams more than most teams in the NFL, so any situation that Olszewski can flip the field in the Patriots’ favor or just outright score is a boost to the team’s chances.
WR Demaryius Thomas: With Rob Gronkowski retired, teams will focus on stopping Julian Edelman in the middle of the field and make quarterback Tom Brady beat them throwing outside the numbers. That means Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas have to produce, as well, to keep defenses guessing. Thomas is not that far removed from an Achilles rupture, but in his first preseason action dominated bottom-of-the-roster cornerbacks. He’s not going to go against opposing No. 1 corners due to the presence of both Edelman and Gordon on the field, but he will see one-on-one matchups with No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks on the roster, more of the latter than the former. If Thomas is beating No. 3 corners and making the catches he’s supposed to, then the Patriots’ offense will be borderline impossible to stop with a reliable target from wide receiver No. 1 to wide receiver No. 3.
CB Jonathan Jones: Jones is a solid third-to-fourth cornerback who is also a core special-teamer thanks to explosive speed and excellent ball skills. Jones has the versatility to match up against smaller, faster receivers outside and in the slot which makes him a very good gameplan option against the likes of Tyreek Hill and Nelson Agholor. On top of that, Jones makes for a solid nickel or dime DB when the Patriots go to the amoeba defense as both a blitzer and cover guy. While Terrence Brooks has replaced Jones as the dime defender, Jones will be first man up in case of an injury to any of the cornerbacks without a massive dropoff in play.
RB Rex Burkhead: Burkhead is the often-forgotten member in the backfield, but he showed up in the Patriots’ playoff run last season despite missing half the year with head and neck injuries. Burkhead was on the field when the Patriots marched down the field to conclude the AFC Championship Game, on the go-ahead TD drive of Super Bowl LIII, and delivered the run that sealed the Rams’ fate in that game. Burkhead will be seeing some action on special teams and is a solid option for a running back who can both run and catch the ball at an adequate level when New England wants to go heavy, no-huddle personnel to wear out teams late. Burkhead is not the best Patriot at any particular facet of the game at RB, but his versatility to handle all roles and keep the offense moving is worth mentioning.
TE Ryan Izzo: Due to injuries and suspensions affecting the position, the Patriots will be asking Izzo to contribute a lot in the early portion of the season. Izzo is your classic inline tight end who is more noted for his ability to block than catch. Izzo is a No. 3 whose value will be blocking at the point of attack on power or sweep runs while being an occasional red-zone/short-yardage target. Izzo will need to prove he’s valuable in the first four weeks with Matt LaCosse playing the role of top receiving tight end on the team and Watson providing that veteran presence and leadership as the No. 2. If he does that, then the Patriots will be fine at the position.